Agility Training for Entrepreneurs

Today’s business section of the local Suburb paper I have delivered daily had me shaking my head.

The two main articles on the front of the Business Section spouted that Motorola executives think the “Worst (of the recession) is over”. The article under that was titled,
“Wall Street basks in glow of good reports”… But the “Biz beyond” column which saddled both articles to their left read like an obituary of big business.

The retailer Officemax reports a drop in sales, Brunswick (world’s largest recreational boat maker known for its bowling, billiard and fitness products) reported a 52% decrease in sales, Aon, (touted as the world’s largest insurance brokerage) saw an 11% profit decline, Tenneco (auto parts maker) reported a $33 million dollar loss (attributable to reduced vehicle production) and Caterpillar, who has laid off more than 30,000 workers during the recession laid off another 75 in it’s central Illinois foundry and is considering a two month shutdown.

If things are really looking up, why are so many huge companies finding it hard to stay in the positive column? All of you who jumped ship on a big corporate job to go out and become the master of your own domain know why…and the recession is only one part of the reason.

I just finished a book called Battling Big Box: How Nimble Niche Companies Can Outmaneuver Giant Competitors which succinctly explained the woe of the huge company- the behemoths that seem to loom large on streets globally and in the WSJ daily.

As small to mid size companies become “at one (ommmmm) ” with their agility and ability to be change agents, adaptability, customer service, and credibility without the trailer hitch loaded with executives and board members behind them, they can definitely win the battle against Big Box.

Whether the arena is business-to-business or business-to-consumer, retailing, manufacturing, or services, it's a battle of David vs. Goliath on steroids. The mega-sized competition has deep pockets, massive advertising budgets, and suppliers that court them every step of the way, while small companies operate on shoestrings and have to struggle every day just to survive. These same competitors are headlining in papers across the globe with reports of their losses, their cuts, their downsizing, their every attempt at being a shade of “agile” in response to the current downturned economy.

By empowering your people, building a powerful brand, managing your cash flow, innovating relentlessly with a vision for your business’s future in mind, and listening to the pulse of your strategic marketing and business plans, I dare say your agile small to mid-size business will not be another victim of the downturn obits. Be cautiously optimistic when you read the paper but rest in knowing if you employ these four key tactics to building and sustaining a successful niche company, you will be nimble enough to avoid the pitfalls of your largest (and I do mean largest) competitors.

Check out the Competition

How does your company’s customer service stack up to your competition’s? You’d better have a handle on it, then you better one-up it by a yardstick!

How do you find out how you stack up against them? Call your own customer service department with an issue and find out how they treat you. Call your competitors with a similar issue and see how they treat you and whether you are satisfied with the resolution. If you don’t yet have a serious point of differentiation, make the way you will now reflect resolution in YOUR customer service department the top differentiating benefit when you position yourself and your “brand” to potential customers who are “shopping around”.

You Are What You Eat!

The interesting thing about food is that we all eat it.

I’ve had cause recently to assess the grocery store aisles and the brands that line them a little more closely. My daughter has some special needs and so I have been trying a wheat and dairy free diet for her with impressive results. The challenge of course, is in finding convenient and comparable food items that will replace her previous noshing on all things dairy and wheat. Think Pizza replacements, cereal replacements, milk, cheese, cream cheese, butter…and you see the challenge.

Though the major grocery chains often carry many organic and restrictive diet foods, I have spent much of my “free” time over the last few weeks ducking in and out of smaller specialty stores. Dominicks, for example, used to have a special Organic/Natural Foods area which enabled a shopper to find all things natural and organic in one area of the store. In recent months, however, they have incorporated this specialty foods area into the general aisles which has increased a shopper’s time in the aisles three fold.

The No Bull Docs, a client of Freakin’ Genius Marketing, say, “shop the outer perimeter of the store, ignoring all processed foods entirely. Keeping heart healthy means staying off the foods that offer no nutritional value.” But there I stand in the cereal aisle looking for the one or two simple wheat-free cereals I can choose from among hundreds of wheat and sugar laden boxes.

As I look now, more closely than ever, I see 4-6 different incarnations of Corn Flakes by the same manufacturer. I see 4-5 different brands of Corn Flakes side by side, and that doesn’t include the bulk brand sold sans the box. That means, and I actually counted one day, in a revelation of sorts, nearly 20 varieties of Corn Flakes to choose from. Add to the variety the variance in pricing which is sometimes as much as 30% different among different incarnations of the same brand. Talk about complicated! I see repetition of the same marketing strategy by the makers of Mini Wheats, Cheerios, and even the store brands have knock-offs. The cereal aisle in most grocery chains is on average 25 feet long and 8 feet tall. This is no aberration to the cereal aisle either. History repeats itself throughout the store as I learned passing the yogurt section of the dairy case. There, I see fat free, sugar free, organic, and regular versions of the same brand, with another 8-10 brands in direct competition.

So, my question is, isn’t a recession a time of simplicity? Isn’t the strategy failing these manufacturers in that all they are doing is eroding their own marketshare. I know, I know, they are trying to keep their once regular corn flake eating customer now that they are a little older and perhaps looking for a calcium enriched corn flake, or a sugar free frosted flake – but really, are they accomplishing anything but increasing the shopper's time in the aisle and sending them and their cart out the front door of the store exasperated at both the time and the money blown in the store?

I say, simpler is better. While my grocery bills are no smaller, my frustration level is lessened by shopping smaller stores with fewer but basic varieties of choices. Fresh, organic foods, corn fed free range chicken, and grass fed beef help to keep heart disease away in more ways than one. I know that the less stress I have staring at an 8 foot tall, 25 foot wide cereal aisle for 8 minutes trying to find the one item I am looking for, the healthier I will be for it!

How I spent my June evenings or what I’ve been reading while you have been sleeping?

Being the forward thinker I like to consider myself, my bedside night table is littered with a number of books, written by academics abound, about 2012 as it relates to the future for all of us. I found The Mystery of 2012 the most captivating.

For those of you who are less in the know, 2012 marks the end of the Mayan Calendar, and some say that it could also mark the end of the world as we know it. Now before all of you go clicking to get off this page, let me tell you, this is not an Armageddon rant, though many academics go on and on about those possibilities and in fact, probabilities if things don’t change between now and 2012.

What was of most interest to me was the stance of a total shift in the general consciousness of all of the earth’s inhabitants. Now, this book was 450+ pages and this article is only bound to be 750 words, but so much of what I read led me to think about core values, core consciousness and core ideology…as it relates to self, business, community, politics, government and global issues. It got me thinking about Freakin’ Genius Marketing and our ideology and it should get you thinking about your company’s ideology too!

Does your business have a core ideology that you were instrumental in developing?

A core ideology is a shared understanding of an organization's “reason for being.” Why was it created in the first place? Of course, organizations are started to make a profit and provide a living for its founders and employees. But, there is so much more… there is something that each company does to contribute meaningful value to its customers, community, employees and, even society as a whole.

How is the world better because your business exists?

Clarifying a core ideology gets at your greater contribution to the world. Whose lives will be enriched because of your products and services? What global resources might be saved or worse, tapped? What are you adding to the eco-concern? Have you increased your personal carbon footprint at work today? Have you asked everyone on your staff to do the same without realizing it?

How would the world be worse if your business didn’t exist?

How does your very existence make a difference to the communities or society of which you’re a part and what if, in like the Scrooge film of yesteryear, you could envision a world without your business in it. What would be missed?

What are the driving principles on which you make day to day decisions?

A core ideology also has to do with the “character” of your organization. What are the most important guiding principles or values by which you want people to conduct themselves? In this sense, your core ideology is like a founding document, your “constitution” that teaches people what you believe and how you want to behave.

Do you have people working with you who align and think this way?

Your ideology is the foundation that helps you build your culture. A good ideology, well-executed, should shape attitudes, habits and behaviors of everyone within your company. Culture check on register 5? When was the last time you thought to consider the corporate culture as the essence of how the community sees you from the outside looking in?

Awareness: Once you have worked on documenting your core ideology, make the statement known to all employees and clients. Publish it on your website, in your newsletters, and communicate it multiple ways to your staff. Become more aware of your business' core ideology yourself. Make a commitment, take a stand, keep your word.

Discovering the core ideology of your business if you haven’t already done it

It's not novel and there is no rocket science here. There is no right or wrong way to discover your business' vision - it's a unique journey. You discover core ideology by looking inside. You can't fake it - it has to be authentic. It's not an intellectual exercise.

It is in discovering the core values we hold as individuals that provides unwavering guidance in our lives. It's equally as meaningful to your business and the people inside your business. The quest for the answer and what it stands for in your business is like the yellow brick road to greatness.

I am personally going to devote quite a bit of time to the effort of documenting the Freakin’ Genius Marketing core ideology over the next few months. I think it will help both me, my staff, and my business stand the test of time, most especially if that time involves a shift in consciousness to the greater global good on December 21, 2012.