Thursday, May 31, 2012

I ain't no template girl.

The other day, somebody asked me for a planning template, to which I replied, no thank you.

The truth is, planning templates are available literally at your finger tips.  So fill your boots, I say, because there are thousands of them at your disposal on the world wide web.

But here's what the template experience looks like, in case you are wondering.

You sit down to your computer, cat at your side and best intentions.  You download the template and you begin.

The introduction tells you all about the benefits of the business plan - creating a clear path for the future, mapping out goals, objectives and targets and a sprinkle of initiatives, topped off by a healthy and satisfying budget.

The first section asks for your vision.  You stare at it, your fingers grazing the keyboard, in search of a thought. Something grandiose.  A cause worth fighting for. Something that will get you out of bed in the morning. Something in the neighborhood of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.

You google "Vision", and lines and lines of vision references pop up about how to create visions and great visions of our time. You read about them and their dreams, and you think, what the heck is mine? What does this have to do with cupcakes or fixing cars? Who needs a vision anyway, you say to yourelf. I just want to sell cupcakes or build cars.

It wants to know your Mission now.  What the heck is the difference between a vision and mission, you ask yourself.  You google mission.  A myriad of references pop up on your screen. Wikipedia says it is a grape, a practice, a statement and a style of furniture. Sigh.

Values.  That's easy. The top three that you heard your former boss talk about fall from your mind to your finger tips - honesty, integrity, respect.  Eager to fill in blanks, you go on.

Goals. Objectives. Measures. Targets.  What is the difference? How do I know, you ask. You walk away, frustrated.

Later, someone asks you for a business plan, and you say, "Oh, yea, we are working on it". The fact is, "we" are stuck and in "our" own way.

Here's the problem and the solution.

First, we think creating a business plan is a one time event. Business planning is a process. Rarely do we sit down and bang it out. There is work involved.

While a template tells what the components of a plan are, it does nothing more than that. Creating a business plan is not facilitated by a template. You actually need a facilitator - someone to guide the process, challenge your thinking, and help you in the documentation process.

Business plans are technical documents that represent your business mind. To put the best foot forward, I would recommend using a business planning facilitator who actually knows how to get from A to Z, from Aspirations to the bottom line and who can bring in experts as needed, such as accountants, lawyers and other professionals.

Your business planning facilitator should have a resume of having created actual business plans for numerous organizations. If you need a business plan, and you and your template are not getting along, give me a call. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to be a Ninja Mouse.

With all the hoop-la these days about being an entrepreneur, we are glamorizing the concept to the point of not telling the truth. So here it is.

An entrepreneur is an owner or manager of a business who makes money through risk and / or initiative. Being an entrepreneur is frightening, lonely and risky. There are real life changing opportunities and risks at hand when one embarks on a new business venture.

But still we forge ahead, fueled by that feeling deep within our gut that calls out to us to be . . . . .  

The entrepreneur's quest is always inspiring. We aspire to be financially successful, unique, innovative, creative and doing work that is meaningful and worthwhile.  Magazines articles about real life entrepreneurs tell stories about people who followed their love and found success.  

Nobody aspires to be poor, mediocre, same old, same old, stuck in a run, trapped in a job you hate, and bored to death.  But somewhere along the way, that is exactly what can happen, and this once inspiring adventure becomes a ball and chain. Sometimes we exhaust our personal resources, burn out, or bail out.  

Statistics say that 80% of small business owners give up within 5 years.  I can see that. Even in a well established corporation, five years is a long time. For the entrepreneur, that can mean five years of dipping into family time and money, working long days and nights juggling managing, creating, delivering, marketing, and innovating.  

So how do the successful entrepreneurs do it?  How do they move from mice to elephants?  How did Bill Gates go from a computer lab being one of the richest people in the world? How did Mark Zuckerberg know that Facebook would revolutionize the way we interact?  

Both of these super ninja entrepreneurs were essentially at the right place at  the right time, with the right idea and the right support. 

Using the analogy of mice and elephants to compare small business to big business, mice are nimble and can move like ninjas, where as elephants are not. Mice can turn on a dime; elephants, not so much.  

But mice and elephants both require the same skill sets to be successful.  The difference is that elephants have the resources at hand, and mice tend not to.  

For example, every business needs expertise in accounting, technology, marketing, strategy, communications, human resources and operations. In a large corporation, this combination of skills comprises most executive teams. 

The challenge for mice is to be resourceful to take advantage of their ninja-like capabilities. There is no rest for us if we are carrying the weight and responsibility of a large organization without the resources. Eventually we become exhausted, frustrated and paralyzed. As one of my readers put it, "I feel like the elephant, and I can't move". 

We tell ourselves stories that keep us going and we read Inc. Magazine relentlessly studying great entrepreneurs and wonder what's wrong with us. When we feel like we are sinking, we quote what I call entrepreneur dogma: "I would rather work 20 hours a day for myself than 20 hours a day for someone else", and "I am investing in my future", and my favorite, "but I am free".  

We are the architects of our own misery when we do not tell the truth about what is keeping us up at night.   

The truth is, we are afraid because of what's at risk. There. I said it.  Fear of losing everything. Fear of failure. Fear of others perceiving us as failures.  The good news is, these fears are legitimate and possible for businesses of all sizes and types, so why not talk about it? What keeps us trapped in this spin cycle?

Brutal honesty is the only way.  Failure is imminent when we go into business with our eyes shut.  Anyone who says differently is not being honest.  Understanding risk is about seeing the road ahead in 2020. 

As an extrovert, it has been my experience that starting a business is L.O.N.E.L.Y.  I believe we spend too much time alone and in our own heads, so we are not in the practice of talking about these issues. We work out of home offices, telling ourselves we need to keep the overhead low.  As a result, we don't ask for help, nor do we have the network of helpers that those working in corporate settings do.  So we sit alone on our island and wait for our ship to come in. But that only happens in the movies. 

I believe that there are some things we, the mice, can do to overcome the perils and become the ninja mice that we are deep down inside:  
  • First, we need to create a community of our own, where people of common values and complimentary skill sets can work together  and help each other. 
  • Second, we need to get out of our home offices and share professional space and management services so that we can focus on the real work on creating something that adds value to the lives of people such that they will part with their time and /or money to have it. 
  • Third, we need to take time to incubate the idea instead of jumping to execution and working like a dog to keep up before we know where we are going. 
  • Fourth, we need to create a plan that will take us to that place and allow ourselves to explore that which does not yet exist. 
  • Fifth, we need to evolve our ideas and grow in a managed way as mice, not elephants.  

Heed the Free: A Philosophy for the Future that Leaves ROE in its Dust

On Thursday May 10, Heed the Free hit the runway as an emerging designer in Regina, Saskatchewan during the province's first ever Fashion Week.

Its creator, Sara Armstrong, is one of our own. Sara is twenty-three years old and currently working and living in Vancouver, Canada.

Born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, she is an installation artist and designer with a sustainable focus. She completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2010 from the University of Regina, with a major in sculpture and inter media. Sara has shown and sold work in galleries across Saskatchewan.

She moved to Vancouver in September of 2010 to begin a career in Fashion. In April of 2011, Sara partnered to launch an Eco-apparel knitwear brand called, Motel June.

In September of 2011, Sara graduated with a Fashion Design diploma from Blanche Macdonald. Her design was featured on the cover of the magazine and in billboards and posters.

Her new line, Heed The Free, is up-cycled and re-purposed. She describes it as an Eco-couture conundrum, with a goal to serve a new market in exploring Eco-fashion.

Her voyage thrives upon child-like curiosity, a love affair with the handcrafted, and the Emersonian spirit. Heed the Free is fiercely independent with a goal of inconsistency as opposed to the consistency of mass production. Heed the Free is about learning and celebrating change and transformation in discovering, composing, decomposing, and reconstructing the old into the new.

Heed the Free carries a message of Planetary sustainability, love, peace and knowledge. Armstrong is dedicating 50% of her profits to the Rainforest Conservation Foundation. 

Heed the Free, along with the collection of designers and models who walked the runway last week carry another message about the Saskatchewan's future that bears heeding.
Along with the pride that I felt watching my daughter's collection walk the runway, and hearing the cheers from the crowd, I couldn't help but be impressed and inspired by the organization, quality of the event and the talent that hails from our province under sun.

Saskatchewan Fashion Week is an example of how things get done here in Saskatchewan, and the power of a vision that is nurtured and brought to life.

Directors Chelsea O'Connell, Candyce Fiessel and Chris Pritchard created a business plan that inspired volunteers, designers and audiences to come together and share in the artistry of our province's people.

I was inspired and proud knowing that these artists with business savvy are people of Saskatchewan whose passion inspired thousands and brought Saskatchewan to a place we had never been before.

I couldn't help but think about how important it will be to sustain this momentum of the arts so that designers and artists like Sara can have a career and a future here, and be proud to talk about Saskatchewan as the place where it all began for them.

In these times of economic review, we need to continue to nurture the arts and the artists for it is they who possess a vision that others can see too. Artists have the power to tell a story that numbers and Return on Equity measures never will.

Decision makers need to remember that there is more to a future than what a balance sheet can communicate.  Without heart, soul and vision, there is no future and no way to inspire. If anything, we need to continue to promote the arts and support the industry with the business tools that it needs to be successful and viable into the future rather than eliminating them.

Visit to find out more about Heed the Free.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sex Sells for Plumbers, Planners and Communicators

Plumbing, planning and communications professionals have something in common.  Our job is to save potential embarrassment, clean up costs and help offset other forms of unfortunate nastiness. We manage that which flows downhill. It's not sexy but it's necessary.

There is one distinction between plumbers, planners and communicators. In the world of plumbing, it's pretty clear as to why you need a plumber.

It's not always clear as to why you need a planner and a communicator.

As a planner and communicator, my job is to create the elements that ensure a smooth operational flow of your business and help you get the message out.

Business plans describe why you exist in the first place, where you are going, who you are serving, your goals, and the strategies and tactics that will take you there. You say, "but I already know that, why do I need to write that down".

To that I answer, you and your business affect your family, your employees, your suppliers, your community, and your banker.  If you do not have a plan that considers the full implications of your life, then chances are something is out of balance, including your finances, your family life, your health and your future.

The business owner must think of her life's business in cycles. In the start up phase, there is investment of time and resources that is subtracted from time and resources from your family. The start up phase is tenuous and full of questions and risk. Most entrepreneurs are technicians.  They begin working at what they are good at without having business skills or the time to develop those skills. They need to be delivering the product, marketing, creating and visioning, and taking care of administrative demands. According to Industry Canada, 80% of start ups and small businesses fail because they are not good at business, and do not acquire the professional skills because they don't know what they don't know.

If the business does progress to the next phase, and employees are hired, the need for management expertise increases as complexity increases. Consider the following:

  • People and Culture. Job descriptions, performance plans, and benefits helps keep people on track, and engaged. 
  • Product Innovation.  Your product needs to be competitive and responsive. You need to keep your eye on what's next and make decisions as to how you respond.  
  • Effective Operations.  The way you get things done becomes your reputation. You need to manage suppliers, and ensure our business is being run responsibly. Policies, processes and procedures help keep things on track and moving in the right direction. 
  • Financial Security. As you move into the succession cycle, you need to think about the legacy of your life's investment, and who will take it over.

Business plans are used to create budgets, not the other way around. Putting a budget in front of a business plan is like starting a race at the end, rather than the beginning. It is putting the cart in front of the horse. Putting a budget in front of a business plan is the sure fire way to kill innovation, imagination, creativity and risk. It is short term thinking.

Yes, creating a business plan is time intensive, terrifying and not fun. It is hard work to define what it is you do and why others would be interested in your big idea.  It requires in depth market research and an in depth investigation of your competitors to the point of dreaming about them. I guarantee that if you are painstakingly investigating the thousands of companies that are out there doing exactly what you think you do, or want to do, you will become terrified as you come face to face with the reality that you can indeed fail.

At this point, you will probably need a break as your wounded ego will need to heal a bit. Plus, you need to go make some money to fuel your dream. In that healing time, if you are really passionate about what you want to do, you will come to the realization that competitors are only a risk if you are duplicating their offering. That's when the sun begins to shine again, because now you know that you can circumvent the flow of matter by virtue of differentiation.

Once you have a plan in place with clear measurable targets, you need to get creative, concise and brave in communicating it, because once you start getting the word out, your potential customers and your competitors will immediately form a reaction. You will need to be able to answer the question, "so what do you offer" eloquently and in 10 words of less, as if you were being grilled on the  Dragon's Den.

I would like to add a cautionary note: a tag line is not the answer, nor is a funky logo unless you can back it up with something insightful, unique and compelling that fills a gap your customer's mind.

I once attended a business meeting of entrepreneurs who introduced themselves around the table with the name of their company and their tag line. When it came to my turn, I told them I create business plans, and they said, for who? "For you", I said, "For anyone in business and wanting to be in business".  Most of them told me they did not have a business plan.

The bottom line is  plumbing is important, and so is planning your business and communicating it. Most of us need help with this. We need someone to facilitate the process, and keep it moving while we (the entrepreneur) needs time to heal our ego. We need someone to ask the tough questions and take us to those places that we are afraid to see and who can help us create that clear message.

I have never met a successful CEO who was not surrounded by professionals who facilitate the planning, communication and strategy development process.

Admittedly, business planning and purposeful communication are not sexy, nor is plumbing.  But as the CEO of your own making, you quite honestly need this support, whether you know it or not, just like you need a good plumber when the going gets tough.