Like Being in a Rut?

As a business owner, every day brings new challenges and issues that demand our attention. When 100% of our time is given to doing the business (marketing, selling, making, fixing, shipping, accounting, etc.), we’re stuck.  We’re in a rut that (often) leads to failure. Perhaps not failure in the sense of going out of business or having to take a day job, but a missed opportunity to see the business become what it could/should be.

It’s a common trap we can all fall into.  We have something the market wants.  Demand increases and the technical activity associated with getting and filling orders completely fills our schedules.  Forty hours per week becomes fifty and then sixty.  We start taking work home (it’s a sign when what we once enjoyed becomes work).  Everything becomes more mechanical.  We lose balance often at the same time our business is losing steam.

When we’re in the rut, the solution appears to be counter-intuitive and impossible to execute, but we must allocate a portion of our time to work on the business if we want our business to survive.  It’s not optional – it’s essential. You may have heard the admonition to not work in your business at the expense of working on it–the question, though, becomes “how?”

We need to continually infuse creativity into our business–if we want to stay out of the rut.  That won’t happen if we don’t:  1) purposefully allocate time for it and 2) utilize an agenda that maximizes the creative input in the time allocated. The best solution to infuse the most creativity in the shortest amount of time is setting aside 5 days per year with your executive leadership team and 90 minutes or less per week (5% to 6% of your total work hours), using specific agendas to extract creative input to prioritize, solve your issues, maintain focus and advance your company.

Applied faithfully, this regimen will move you and your company to a top performing level. Rather than rehashing worn out frustrations, being stymied in your rate of growth, or feeling like you have to come up with all the answers by yourself, you will find freedom, organization, and synergy flowing from your efforts. Dare to try it!

A special thanks to Don Tinney, who posted many of the concepts above in a blog entry this week at

A Very Nichey Girl

It’s an old adage, but a true one, that “you can’t be all things to all people” without losing a strong connection to someone specific. In the world of marketing professional services, those who choose not to build an intentional, focused relationship with clients in a niche market segment do so to their own detriment.

Responding to a Jolt

Sally was employed by an AmLaw Top 100 firm about 10-15 years ago when the large firms were targeting vertical markets.  Her firm had targeted the CPA industry and Sally, with prior stints inside CPA firms, was eager to help develop the market.  When her firm shifted priorities from the niche, she had a decision to make.

Instead of trying to take firm clients with her, Sally  opened her own firm, to focus on regional accounting firms in the area where she had attended law school.  This strategic choice was effective for two reasons:

  1. It avoided even the appearance of trying to compete with her former firm, and
  2. It gave her an entree’ to a target group of profitable prospects not being pursued by others

Learning Competitive Advantage

For several years she continued to develop and deliver specialized services offerings tailored to CPA firms, such as partner compensation consulting, strategic planning, partner retreats, organizational restructuring and profit enhancement.  By the 5 year anniversary of being in business for herself, Sally had identified the need to build a team around her with scalable infrastructure that would allow her to focus on client service rather than firm management. She joined a regional law firm with about $7 million in gross revenue and six partners that had begin to see the revenue and profit benefits of pursuing highly specialized niche practices.

For the past decade, Sally has led the firm’s niche practice for CPAs and seen the firm grow to over twice the size it was when she joined.  By getting to know finance executives, CPAs, firms and the industry, she has been able to create a value-added service that goes well beyond compliance into unique complementary offerings.  By choosing to specialize and establish herself as a subject matter expert, she has enjoyed great success.

Not content to only be a service provider, Sally has taken on the coveted roles of a.) trusted advisor and b.) referral source.  Some say she “knows every CPA in town.” Her strong relationships have been maximized to win considerable business for her firm.  While others attend chamber and other networking meetings, she introduces CPAs she knows to firm partners according to their industries and areas of specialty.  Her efforts have developed into a solid channel of business development and referrals for her partners and clients.

Value Proposition

The highly specific niche has permitted the firm to win against many of the area’s most respected law firms that offer the usual corporate business and estate services.  Certainly, the firm can–and does–provide these at the highest level.  But Sally and her colleagues have positioned themselves beautifully – a focused, reputable law firm that can provide the usual suite of legal services and, significantly, knows the industry and its unique challenges and nuances, offering the experience and expertise to help the client become more successful.

Ultimately, specialization is offering a value proposition rather than a reduced-price commodity.  Under Sally’s leadership, her firm has added a tremendous value to traditional legal services by customizing their offerings to keenly understood market segments.


5 Ways ‘treps Maximize Mentor Feedback


Asking a mentor for feedback is a critical step in turning an idea into a successful business. Noted members of the Young Entrepreneur Council share how they feel ‘treps should make the best use of mentors below–

Draft a Summary

Entrepreneurs’ ideas are often most easily “felt” through passion and an intuitive belief that great potential awaits. When expressed verbally, however, the vision can be easily misunderstood. Avoid this by taking some time to write a concise, one-page Executive Summary that you can share with mentors you respect. This will ensure they understand your idea and offer relevant and quality feedback.

Kent HealyThe Uncommon Life

Time Is Valuable

If you’re in a mentoring relationship with someone who is also an entrepreneur, there is one thing that you both know is ridiculously valuable: time. Regardless of whether your next business venture is the greatest or worst idea you’ve ever had, keep the call focused to keep mentors in your life. Have an agenda and stick to it. You can make small talk later. Time is money; spend it wisely.

Sydney Owen3Ring Media

No Hesitation

While preparation is important in pitching a business idea to anyone, the best tip for asking a mentor for feedback is not to hesitate about it. Your mentors are there for you to bounce ideas off. Most mentors are thrilled when you come to them with questions or feedback solicitations, so don’t pause in engaging them in your project. They — and you — will be glad if you don’t wait.

Doreen BlochPoshly Inc.

One Small Step

They’re busy and smart, so treat them as such. Don’t ask for a long term commitment up front and don’t waste their time. Start with a short email with options you’ve thought of to a problem you are facing. Ask them to simply reply with which option they think is the best. Implement, thank them, and show them how their advice got you results.

Josh ShippJSP, Inc.

Ask For Specific Feedback

If you’ve chosen the right mentor, they have a wide body of expertise and experiences to draw on. Too many entrepreneurs present a lot of information to mentors and then ask something akin to, “What do you think about all this?” That gets nowhere. Better to have structured information and ask for specific feedback: “Is this key assumption realistic?” or “Is this an appropriate place to start?”

Charlie GilkeyProductive Flourishing


Start-Up Savvy: Taught & Caught


In an article last month entitled, “Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?,” two sides of the argument were presented that, while equally valid, were at odds with one another. Noam Wasserman, Harvard Business School professor of Entrepreneurship and author of “The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup,” takes the position that too many founders have to climb the same steep learning curve as others before them, bereft of insights that could help great ideas become great businesses. Victor Hwang, co-author of “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley” and managing director of T2 Venture Capital in Silicon Valley, posits that only experience can teach an entrepreneur how to successfully launch a business.

Within the Wasserman camp are educators who believe that documented best practices and potential problem areas can be shared with the entrepreneurs. For instance, the idea that the founder must do the three following things has been challenged with research data to instruct otherwise:

  1. Following one’s gut
  2. Having a “glass half full” view about resources and time
  3. Stay in the top executive role as the company matures

Augmenting the classroom instruction with deliberate opportunities to “try out” a principle in a role play seem to yield good results. Additionally, self assessments are helpful in increasing one’s self awareness and ability to lead others. Notably mentoring is recognized as one of the best ways an entrepreneur can learn how to do the right thing in a myriad of scenarios.

What is also being learned is the need to not just offer principles of management (regardless the field of management–finance, operations, marketing, etc), but to also focus on the soft skills requisite to be an effective leader. Whether the entrepreneur is embracing better social skills, motivational techniques for self and others, or other facets of emotional intelligence, there are competencies to be gained that are simply not intuitive for most.

Hwang and the experiential learning community holds steadfastly to the conviction that entrepreneurship is taught rather than caught and is more of  an impartation than an education. Rather than the typical domain of business schools–resource allocation and risk management, it is argued that the necessary skills fall more into the following categories:

  • Comfort with a high degree of uncertainty
  • Willingness to become a generalist rather than a specialist
  • Abilities in inspiring others through storytelling and personal charisma

Since some programs are heading in the direction of trying to advise start-ups on what actions to avoid, Hwang is concerned that the willingness to try something unconventional may become minimalized. He and others believe that such a mindset is critical to entrepreneurial success. The main thesis behind Hwang’s proposed approach is that entrepreneurs would have the greatest chance of success if communities with resources, counsel and mentoring were available for their growth and development.

The common theme, then, is that mentoring and nurture is the best medicine for someone who “suffers” from entrepreneurial dreams. We wholeheartedly concur with this bottom line approach and advocate innovation centers (incubators with assigned mentors, education, and planned activities to build a sense of community) as a best practice!

Secret Entrepreneur Weapon

In a January 26, 2012 article for Entrepreneur magazine (Mentors: A Young Entrepreneur’s Secret Weapon) Adam Toren writes,

…to take advantage of the most powerful weapon an entrepreneur can have, find a mentor.

A good mentor helps you think through a business idea, suggests ways to generate that startup capital and provides the experience and savvy you’re missing. You’ll get praise when you deserve it and a heads-up when trouble comes — probably long before you would have noticed it yourself.

Instead of mentoring, many entrepreneurs “hang out” with peers, attend fun/trendy events for start-ups, and make presentations at conferences and forums. While there is a place for many–if not all–of these activities, they do not take the place of a relationship with someone who has knowledge or expertise in areas that are not your own strengths. Often, the mentors even know of others who can be helpful in additional disciplines so that you are able to become surrounded with wise counsel and advice. EntreDot is a mentoring organization that has seen the need for this type of service and is creating and implementing programs via innovation centers and in conjunction with strategic allies to foster entrepreneurship in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina.

Entrepreneurs — especially young ones — tend to tap their friends for business advice. But that can be a mistake. The reason is, friends tell you what you want to hear. For what you need to hear, rather, a mentor is often a better bet.

A mentor could be a professional who advises entrepreneurs for a living or someone working in a related industry who is willing to help you. And unlike your friends, mentors are typically more removed from you and your business. So they tend to be more comfortable delivering bad or critical news and advice. And since many of them have either started up businesses in the past or have worked in industries that you’re trying to shake up, mentors can also fill experience gaps, as well as impart their wisdom on how to handle specific business challenges.

The above quote was taken from another article in Entrepreneur magazine, this one by Martin Zwillig last week (A Good Mentor Will Tell it Like It Is). The gist of his insight is that mentors can come from a variety of backgrounds, but their key role is to warn you of missteps rather than cheer your every decision. The good mentors can help you identify steps to success and stand by you to follow them when challenges would distract you from executing your plan.

Zwillig concludes by suggesting 5 Qualities That Are a Must in an Ideal Mentor:

  • Pragmatism.
  • Fortitude. 
  • Stamina.
  • Connections.
  • Perspective. 

Hope you are successful in putting your own secret weapon to strategic advantage!