Category Archives: Advice

Business for Life not Life for Business

Office clutterWe talk about work-life balance, in general terms, but here’s one simple thought that should always be there in the background:

Your business exists to make your life better. Not vice-versa. Don’t sacrifice your life to make your business better.

I got a lot of play on Twitter recently with this simple idea. And this post is largely based on one I did two a few years ago. But this bears repeating. Of course it’s obvious, But people forget. We business owners forget way too often.

The “have-to-do” factor is infinite

Do you use what you “have to do” for your business as the constant recurring excuse for missing things that matter to people you love – soccer games, recitals, appointments, and so on? I’m sure you’ve heard the oft-repeated saying about people on their death beds not wishing they’d spent more time in the office.

I think the “have to do” factor for entrepreneurs, startups, and small business owners is essentially infinite. If you are one of us, then you can – if you want – always find a “good” business reason to not do anything but the business for the rest of your life, non stop, without anything else.

But real life is more important

Specifically, my advice (from a post I did here in 2012):

Don’t use business as an excuse for selfishness and obsession. I’ve lived through this. There is an overpowering temptation to push everything else aside and dive into the business. Everybody who wants you to do anything else is annoying, and “Don’t they realize you’re building a business?” You miss dinner, the kids’ games and teachers’ conferences, everything that matters to anybody else in your life.

So you have to draw lines and set priorities. As I was building my business my wife insisted I be home for family dinner every night I wasn’t traveling. I objected at times, but looking back, with the kids all grown up. I’m so glad. And she set vacations and paid deposits months in advance, so we had them. I’m glad for that too. I posted about that here on this blog, several years ago in True Story: Relationship vs. New Business.

You know this. But so did I, and I would have really screwed this up without reminders. So this is your reminder. Life is more important than business. And the right work-life balance isn’t 95% your business and 5% the rest of your life.


Future Shock Top 10 Backwards Look

Telephone Circa 1970Ah yes, the good old days. How quickly time passes. And I can’t help occasionally browsing through technology looking back. My youngest daughter is in her late twenties now. She can barely remember life before cellphones, and can’t remember life before personal computers or VCRs, because both of those were born before she was. I was talking a grandkid the other day, and she couldn’t conceive of a world before

Every so often I get reminded how far we’ve come. When I graduated from college in 1970:

  1. The university had a computer in a basement that took up the space of an SUV and had way less power than an iPhone does now. Computer science students programmed it with perforated cards.
  2. The dorms had one phone per floor. Long distance calling costs were significant. I was in the Midwest, so I’d call my parents in California once every couple of months.
  3. We wrote letters. We read letters.
  4. We used typewriters for every college essay, paper, and assignment. We’d often retype an entire page to correct an error. Sometimes we’d reword things to make the pages end or begin with the correct word so we could insert an additional page.
  5. Four-function calculators existed, but nobody we knew had one. You could have bought a new low-end car for the price of two four-function calculators.
  6. I did my sophomore year abroad, and the university sent us from New York to Europe on an ocean liner. That was cheaper than flying.
  7. We wrote checks when we had to, used cash most of the time, and we got the cash from the bank teller window, not an ATM.
  8. Credit cards were rare. Our parents had them.
  9. Television was broadcast over the air. We watched in real time or not at all. We had 5 or 10 channels to choose from.
  10. When we were driving we listened to the hits on AM radio mostly, or cassette tapes when we could.

And that’s just technology, or a smattering of technology.  When I think of social evolution, and environmental deterioration, the end of the cold war, the rise of terrorism, polar ice caps … like we used to say: “far out, man.”

Build Yourself a Compatible Goals Filter

Suggestion: on any kind of business relationship, take a step back, open your eyes, and look for compatible goals.

For example, one variety of hell is a startup with founders and investors having different goals. Differences on how to achieve goals are hard enough. You can talk out those differences. But when investors want one thing, and founders something else entirely, there’s trouble brewing. Companies can aim for growth, profits, or cash flow independence. Everybody involved should agree.

Use the framework of compatible goals to look at small business team members and compensation. That can be as simple as targets for gross margin (price less direct cost) instead of just sales. Years ago I hired an honest, ambitious, hard-working salesman with a compensation package tied to sales. He hit the sales targets by pricing deals so close to below cost that we didn’t have enough money to cover overhead. That was my fault, not his.

Use creative compensation schemes and bonuses. How can you make the goals of the customer service people compatible with the overall company goals? What do you do about targets, metrics, and bonuses? What about product development, as in programming? Editing? The more thought to compatible goals, the more likely to succeed.

You should also use the framework of compatible goals to look at business alliances. Do you want the same thing as those people from the other company? Can you both find a win? Are your goals for this deal compatible with theirs? Asking deeper questions about goals can lead to better, more useful negotiations.

Tools, Productivity, And Bright Shiny Distractions

Is this you?  Over and over again, you fall off on regular consistent organizational practices like to-do lists, emails, planning, backing up your computer … then you run across some cool new productivity tool. You jump on the bandwagon enthusiastically, promising yourself that you’re finally going to get organized and stay organized. You spend happy hours reorganizing everything to fit the new tool. Then, over time, as the novelty wears off, you end up right back where you started, with the same problems. Cool productivity tools, no productivity.

And then you find a new cool tool and run the same cycle over again.

This is me and productivity tools

I will tell you that this is definitely me. I’ve done this all my life. I veer off to a new organization system like a dumb fish following a shiny new lure in the water. And I see other people doing it too, all the time, all around me. You don’t need a new spreadsheet, or to-do list software, or project planning system; you need to use what you have regularly.

I end up wasting the time it takes to reorganize to the mindset of the cool new tool, repeatedly, instead of managing to follow up on any one thing consistently over a long time.

And what works in the real world is not the tool, not any of the damn tools, but rather the following up. It’s the human behavior that matters, the good habits, consistently applying methods, not getting bored with it, not rationalizing out of it.

I apologize for mixing metaphors with this, but I can’t resist referring to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” Given the world we live in, computers and the Web, it’s something like: “tools, tools everywhere, and not a drop of productivity.”

Or so it seems.

Now, the question: what are we going to do about it?

Why All Business Has to be More Social

Are trends favoring social businesses over classic “greed is good” businesses? Is all business social business? Or, every day, more business is social? I think so. I hope so.Define_Social_Entrepreneurship

I first heard the term “social venture” in the late 1990s. Back then, social ventures were the odd exception to the norm, making money while making things better for their employees, their community and rest of the world. They sold devices to sanitize drinking water in the developing world for small profits. They sold technology to develop clean energy. They sold goods that protected the health of the less privileged in the developing world.

It’s been about two years since Harvard Business Review published “Every Business Is (or Should be) Social,” an article by Deborah Mills-Scofield. She wrote:

All businesses are social. All companies have people as customers, employees and suppliers. At some point in deciding which supplier to use, in engaging your workforce, and in getting your product into users’ hands, relationships with people matter. Improving their experiences always improves the outcome for your company.

It’s not just random change. It’s progress.

It’s not that people running businesses are more ethical or moral than they used to be. It’s because of changes in rewards and penalties for good or bad behavior. Social and technological changes are real factors.
The big change started with the Internet in the 1990s. Websites gave businesses a new and different way to reach the world. Before the World Wide Web, businesses had essentially only two ways to reach out to get people to know, like and trust them. They could pay for advertising. Or they could go through the media with public relations, events, articles, speaking opportunities and the like.

The second option depended on getting through gatekeepers: editors, event managers, producers and so forth. By the middle-to-late 1990s, businesses could generate their own website and online options to attract people and help them get to know, like and trust them.

Then came blogging. Millions of people started their own blogs. Experts established their expertise by writing and publishing blog posts and articles. The gatekeepers ceded power to the general public, the readers, search engines and the quality of content. Authors, consultants and assorted business experts established themselves independently of gatekeepers.

The finishing touch was social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites offered publishing for the masses, billions of opinions expressed as likes, follows and comments.

The result of these trends is what we call transparency.

In his book “The Age of the Customer,” small business advocate Jim Blasingame suggests that we’ve passed a tipping point. “You don’t control your brand,” he says, “your customers do.” And that is a shift in centuries of business reality, he adds.

And it’s because of the accumulated power of the customer as publisher in millions of tweets and updates.

Transparency means bad business behavior is more likely to result in damage to the brand. Big corporations still want to spin information toward their favor, but it’s more difficult to do.

United Airlines took a huge hit in brand image when a customer posted a video on YouTube complaining about treatment of a guitar. Clothing brand Kenneth Cole took a huge hit when its founder tweeted that riots in Cairo were caused by his firm’s new spring fashion line. When Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests, the world knew. When General Motors misplayed product recalls, the world knew.

Transparency also means that good business behavior matters more, too.

Markets care about business stories. A new local business is more effectively able to compete against big national brands because buyers know the local firm’s story and care about it. Clean energy businesses are finding buyers willing to pay more for renewable energy than fossil fuel energy. People pay more for healthy food than mass-produced food. People care about genetically modified foods, and local foods. Some customers prefer local coffee shops to Starbucks. Chain restaurants are less attractive to some than local restaurants.

As we look at business today and trends, shouldn’t all businesses be conscious of their impact on employees, customers, the environment, the economy and the world?

Isn’t it a sign of progress that when so many businesses have a social conscience that we drop the distinction between social business and just plain business? Shouldn’t good behavior be a business advantage?

I’m happy to report that I think it’s happening. Slowly and in stops and starts, progress is being made. All business should be social business.

(Note: republished with permission from my monthly column in the Eugene Register Guard Blue Chip magazine.) 

What Business to Start? Look in the Mirror. Depends on You.

I’ve always said that what business is right for you depends not on the market, or what’s hot, but on who you are. So look in the mirror. I get a steady flow of questions about what business to start, and I see them almost every day on, my favorite question-answer platform. With this in mind, I always say…

look in the mirror. What business is best to start depends on who you are, where you are, what you do well, what you like to do, and what you can do that other people need, want, and will pay for.


I also refer to two now-classic posts by others that sum this up very well.

First, What Kind of Startup is Right for You, a post by Nellie Akalp on Mashable in 2012. Nellie goes right to the heart of an often misunderstood core concept of small business, which is that the best business for you depends almost entirely on who your are, what you want, and what you do.

The best business is always a matter of context. You look in the mirror and figure out who you are, then you apply that to business. Here’s just a quick piece, two paragraphs:

Create a list of skills that covers what you’re good at and areas where you’re a subject matter expert. Then list out the things you like to do. Compare these two lists and see if any patterns emerge, or point to any business type that aligns both your strengths and passions.

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party, Tweetup or other networking event, and you’re asked that inevitable question: “So, what do you do?” Think about how you’ll respond with each potential business option. Are you proud and excited to describe your new business? Or a little embarrassed and looking to steer the conversation elsewhere?

This is really good advice. She has five points in the post, all of them worth reading.

The second one is called How to Fit Freelancing Into the Rest of Your Life, on freelance folder, written by Laura Spencer. It’s another reminder that what’s best for each individual you depends on your specific needs and nature.

For example, one of her points is “Know Yourself:”

What enables you to do your best work? Do you need quiet, or do you thrive in the midst of chaos? Are you your most creative first thing in the morning, or are you best late at night? What inspires you? Some freelancers are inspired by music, others by art or nature. Does clutter bother you, or can you work just about anywhere? Once you understand what enables you to do your best work, you can make sure that your work environment fits the bill.

Two very good posts. Conclusion: generalizations are dangerous. Every startup entrepreneur, ever solopreneur and freelancer, is a different case.


Video: Don’t Just Ask for Feedback – Listen

My Friday video today, from Stanford ECorner, Mike Rothenberg talks about inviting honest feedback. How to ask for it, how to listen, and how people will go slowly at first. You have to reassure them that you really want the feedback.

I’ll add that in my decades in business, I’ve come to treasure the people who give me real feedback. And I’ve noticed that relatively few of us really ask for feedback and then listen to it, and use it. We all say we want it, but most of us want praise more than real opinions, much less constructive criticism. This is a short video, which I post as a reminder.

Or you can click here for the YouTube source video.

Productivity Tip: Walking Meetings. In the Park.

File this one under the general category of things business owners can do to preserve physical and mental health, despite the rigors of running a business. It goes along with getting regular exercise, and shutting down every so often out of range of devices. Do as many meetings as you can walking, instead of sitting. And when you can, walk in a park, with trees and bushes, noty on a sidewalk.

I know several CEOs and team leaders who conduct walking meetings. Steve Jobs, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. Consider that for your business.

Obviously we can’t all go take a walk during the day, and much less a walk in nature; or even a park. There’s the job thing, and working for a living. Still, last week I happened upon two different research studies related to walking. And one part of a normal work day that’s basically just talking is the meeting. Especially one on one meetings.

Where you walk matters

First, Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature. I summarized the findings in the image below.

Amazon Park Eugene Oregon

I realize not everybody has a park within striking distance; several of my loved ones live and/or work in Manhattan. Still, lots of us do, and even some Manhattan offices are close to Central Park, or a riverside park. The picture here is where I walk, in Eugene, Oregon. It’s two minutes from my office.

The study, by Gretchen Daily, Gregory Bratman, and two others, looked at comparing the value of a walk in nature vs. a walk on city streets. The brain reacts differently to each, and the study found advantages for walking in nature.

In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.
The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.

Walking and creative process

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”

A second, completely different research study (despite the similar them), Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity, looked for a connection between walking and creativity. Done by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, this one set up experiments comparing results from people walking vs. people sitting. This one found no significant difference between walking inside vs. walking outside, but noted a big advantage to walking vs. sitting.

Here are some interesting details

The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking, according to the study.

Think about it. Better yet, take a walk, and think about it while walking.

Wait, What? But I Don’t Have a Slide Deck. Speaking Off the Cuff

This is a very useful talk by Matt Abrahams of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, on how to optimize when you get to speak on the cuff, and don’t have time to prepare, organize, or create the slide deck. It’s almost an hour long, and a privilege to be able to watch. It was originally part of the MBA program. I chose it for my Friday video this week because it emphasizes the “think fast, talk smart” skills that you’ll need when you don’t have the deck to lean on, or time to prepare. That’s so valuable in real business.

For the original on Youtube, you can click here.

You might also look into his new book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, published earlier this year.

Disturbing Questions About Productivity and Technology

Have you heard the standard cliche: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention?” In business productivity and technology, in my experience at least,  the old standard is reversed: the new truth is that “Invention is the Mother of Necessity.”

Huge Changes in Productivity and Technology

For example:

  1. Spreadsheets and Budgeting: When I started in business analysis back in the middle 1970s we didn’t have spreadsheets, and a budget was rarely more than a list of numbers on a yellow pad processed with a calculator and a pen. Then came Visicalc, and shortly after that Lotus 1-2-3 and then Excel. Now, not at all by coincidence, everybody in business does a whole lot more budgeting and spreadsheets than we ever would have imagined back then.So what’s happened is that because spreadsheets made budgeting more accessible, the world started demanding more budgets. To me, this is a good thing. Budgeting is good for business. You could argue, however, that maybe the world of small and medium-sized business was better off when the world summarized budgets into a few key items.Ultimately, in this case, I think it’s obvious that we do more budgets because budgets are easier to do
  2. Desktop publishing and business documents: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same thing happen with desktop publishing. Before desktop publishing appeared with the Macintosh and the Apple Laserwriter in the middle 1980s, people put business correspondence onto simple pages printed onto letterhead paper. Nowadays we take desktop publishing techniques for granted. People routinely merge graphics and text onto simple memos and letters and standard business documents, without thinking twice about it.
  3. From paper to online: Speaking of documents, the idea of the paperless office was first popular in the 1980s but is still largely a dream. I checked for this post, and was surprised to discover that the use of printer and copy paper in the U.S. continues to grow. What? What about the cloud, accounting and bookkeeping online, electronic documents, and email, all of which is moving to mobile phones? It hasn’t cut into paper consumption. Yet. Well, to be fair, it has in my office … but not for the world, or the U.S., according to available statistics. Why is that?
  4. 24×7 connectivity and availability: How often do you get the delightful experience of somebody complaining that they had to wait an hour or two to hear from you, or get your answer, or your response to some question or business issue? It may seem odd now, but it wasn’t that long ago that people were disconnected for hours at a time because they were in a meeting, or driving, doing errands, or having a life. A two-hour drive was two hours alone, to collect ideas and review thoughts. There’s research indicating we’d all be better off with an hour or two a day of reflection, meaning silence, dealing with thoughts. But take a look at the line of people waiting for coffee. They are all connected.

Did This Improve Productivity?

That’s an interesting question. We can answer this for ourselves, anecdotally, and probably come up with a better answer than what the statistics give us. Is budgeting better now than in the days of yellow pads and calculators? Are we communicating better? Are we getting more done? There was a time when I would have been tempted to say no, that it hasn’t improved productivity.  More recently I’ve changed my mind.  Having built a business makes me sure that we benefit from the power of more detailed budgeting, and running through the daily process of management made me pretty sure that business documents are generally better communicators with desktop publishing than without.

Statistics are very hard to work with in this area. I’ve found that the average hours worked per week have declined significantly since the 1950s; but so has the work itself, right? We were an assembly line nation in 1955, and now we’re a keyboard and thumb nation. Who’s counting the constant availability by phone?

US Work Week

On the other hand, there’s this, from Why is Productivity so Weak, in the New York Times, just last month:

“Despite constant advances in software, equipment and management practices to try to make corporate America more efficient, actual economic output is merely moving in lock step with the number of hours people put in, rather than rising as it has throughout modern history.

“We could chalk that up to a statistical blip if it were a single year; productivity data are notoriously volatile. But this has been going on for some time. From 2011 through 2015, the government’s official labor productivity measure shows only 0.4 percent annual growth in output per hour of work. That’s the lowest for a five-year span since the 1977-to-1982 period, and far below the 2.3 percent average since the 1950s.”

US Productivity Trends

Here too, what is productivity? The labor department has a global measure of output per hour, but that’s not the way we work anymore.

I still worry that the increased productivity that technology offers us has just raised the bar of what’s acceptable. Now that we can do the numbers powerfully, we do more numbers, which drowns us in numbers. Now that we can do documents that look way better, without the hassle of publishing and layout, we demand better looking documents. And now that we can communicate from anywhere, at any time, we demand more communication.

What do you think? Are we better off?