Monday, November 19, 2012

My Blue Sweater, Or The Fine Art of Ignoring Your Customers

This is my favorite blue sweater. It fulfills the three basic things I need when I venture out into the world this time of year: it's my color, it looks good with a sport coat, and it keeps me warm. And it's machine washable.

So you would think that every year or two I'd simply go down to my favorite department store - or online catalog - and buy a couple, right? Wrong. Most years I go shopping for sweaters, the stores have decided I really want green plaid ones. Or cable-knit ones with big fat ribs. Or ones with embroidered antelopes. Or the $150 rabbit-hair, dry-clean-only version of what I want.

And yet when I walk around on the streets, most fellow business people are wearing what I'm wearing. I never see them wearing embroidered antelopes. Which leads me to a simple question: How come so many businesses won't just sell us what we want?

Another example. This is an Open Oyster from Godiva Chocolates. My wife's favorite treat. Whenever I'm on a business trip to a major city like New York or Toronto, I stop by a Godiva store and get her a bunch of them.

So why don't I just go online to and get her more of these anytime? Because won't sell them to me. You can't purchase individual chocolate pieces in quantity. You can, however, buy their All-Sorts-Of-Crap-You-Don't-Want-Plus-An-Open-Oyster-Or-Two boxed assortment anytime you wish.

This reminds me of when I got my first iPod and discovered that I couldn't simply buy a set of replacement Apple earphones for it. Like Godiva, the geniuses at Apple (pun intended) apparently decided that I had to either buy them as part of a more expensive package, or get a more well-behaved cat next time. Or my favorite solution, get another brand of earphones.

No substitutions. Only sold as a set. Parts not available separately. Wholesale only. How often do we hear phrases like this, when we simply want to buy what people are selling. At many businesses, some genius keeps thinking up restrictions like these, for reasons that are usually completely beyond me.

So what is so hard about simply selling us what we want? Instead companies seem to behave in ways my Austrian grandmother would call "schtupid, schtupid, schtupid." I don't understand it. At all. If you could clue me in, please do so. Thanks!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do business success tips work?

When you run a small business, there is no lack of chirpy articles on how to succeed. But do they work? Just for fun, I decided to take one of them (from a recent Forbes Magazine series, linked here) and hold it up against my own 15 years of successful self-employment.

It's actually not a bad article, and the author has great credentials. But your mileage may vary. So let's compare its "seven habits of highly effective freelancers" with my reality:

1. Start early
I am a serious night owl, and always have been. Sure, I'll get up at 6 AM sometimes - in fact, regularly - to deliver a kick-butt keynote speech or workshop somewhere. But people should work at their peak times, and mine is decidedly late evening.

Besides, late hours have their advantages. Tomorrow I have a teleconference with a new client in Germany - at 2 AM. Next week I stay up late again to do a webinar for Australia during their daytime. Like a chain convenience store, I'm always open.

2. Always be pitching
I don't know about you, but people who are always pitching annoy the crap out of me. My own clients seem to like the fact that I never, ever try to snocker them into giving me more work, and I strongly suspect that "pitching" them would drive more than a few away.

So how do I get business? Above all, through word-of-mouth from other satisfied clients. And through marketing, which is not the same as pitching. I publish books, write articles, give talks and webinars, and generally pester no one.

3. Create your space
There is a perfectly good desk somewhere under my piles of paperwork. But I know exactly where everything is, and I can't see where this has hurt my income any.

4. Diversify yourself
OK, this one I do agree with. Most successful self-employed people I know do multiple things for a living. And I think it's cool being a writer/speaker/psychotherapist/whatever-else-I-feel-like-today. Being a "mutt" with diverse interests is one of the hidden keys to success.

5. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate
Better known as "talking yourself out of projects with fixed budgets." Google Phil Jackson this week - who reportedly lost the chance to coach the Lakers again after making a series of demands, despite being the best coach in recorded history - and see what being a tough negotiator gets you.

I'll give the author this much: gently exploring options or pricing is OK in my book, and I do it too. But quote-unquote negotiators are generally a pain in the ass. I've seen people lose jobs, consulting gigs, and friendships because they focus too much on negotiating and not enough on taking the gig.

6. Mingling, baby
Touching base with friends, colleagues, and clients sounds great. But this tip talks about how you should "wade into the  revenue stream every day." Does this mean you are pitching again? If so, go back and re-read my comments on tip #2.

7. Get a life
I didn't realize mine was missing in the first place. Enjoying what I do for a living is a big part of that.

So what is my formula for business success? Um, apparently stay up late, wait for customers to come to me, have a messy desk, and do very little negotiation. I can see why Forbes probably won't come calling on me for an article anytime soon. But seriously, here's my success tip: Do what you love. Be really good at it. And live a life that fits who you are. Then all the other stuff will fall into place.