No one thinks running a small business is easy
But even so, there are forces that pull you in all directions.
These forces almost seem to tear at us as we go through our daily work. It's not just a question of coping with the forces. We have to somehow make them part of our lives. Let's find out how.
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In December 2015, I attended a workshop in Nashville, Tennessee.
The workshop itself was very tedious. There were endless slides, countless examples of TV commercials and no breaks. However, there were these long lunch breaks that spanned almost an hour and a half. With little else to do after lunch, I’d wander around the lobby looking at the signs posted on the walls. The signs were quotes from prominent American politicians.
One of them was attributed to US President, John F. Kennedy.
It simply said:“If not us, who. If not now, when?”
No one seems to know if John F. Kennedy said it or not. And yet, for me at that moment, the quote was relevant. I’d wanted to get certain things done. I’d wanted to write some specific books on talent; books on teaching etc. And this sign seemed to slap me in the face. If it wasn’t for me, who would do it? If not now, when would it get done?
And yet here we are all these months later, and the battle rages on
Many other projects got done, but some remain almost permanently on the to-do list. How could I, I wondered, make things happen? It was time to take stock. I soon realised that business—at least my business—had five permanently competing forces. To achieve what I wanted, I couldn’t only focus on one and leave the others sulking in the corner.
This wasn’t a question of focus, it was a question of management
For me to feel a profound sense of achievement with every passing year, I knew I had to deal not with just one or two, but with all five forces of business. So what are these five forces of business? The first two involve learning.
The third includes revenue and client retention. The fourth was critical, but often neglected “passion projects” and finally there was downtime. All five of these forces jostled for space, and every one of them was incredibly important.
Let’s take a look at three forces in this article:
1) Learning by doing
2) Learning by learning
3) Revenue generation/client retention
We will look at the remaining two forces in the next article:
4) Passion projects
The first force of business: Learning by doing
Stop for a moment and think of something that kills 842,000 people a year.
That’s a whopping 2,300 people per day. You didn’t think of water, did you?
Water isn’t supposed to kill. It’s meant to give life. And yet it runs around day after day, year after year like a mutant Jack the Ripper. No one, it seems, is interested enough to stop this killer. No one, except Dean Kamen.
“We could empty half of all the beds in all the hospitals in the world by just giving people clean water”, says Kamen.
And Kamen is the one person who’s uniquely placed to take up this challenge. In Manchester, New Hampshire, where he lives and works, he’s known for the invention of the Segway, Ibot Transporter – a six-wheeled robotic “mobility system” that can climb stairs, traverse sandy and rocky terrain, and raise its user to eye-level with a standing person. Kamen has over 440 patents to his name, but it’s clean water that got his attention.
Which is why he set about creating the “Stirling engine”.
The “Stirling Engine” is so amazing, it can generate clean, drinkable water even from water contaminated with mud, even bacteria-filled human faeces. For most people, creating products of such grand simplicity would be an insurmountable barrier, but Kamen’s team at his firm, DEKA, soon came up with a working machine. A machine that only needed the power of a hair dryer. And if necessary, it could even work on fuel sources such as cow dung.
The product was ready; the challenge was met. It was then that Kamen ran into his first major hurdle
For fifteen years Kamen struggled to get his “Stirling Machines” mass-produced and distributed around the world. And yet all he met with was polite smiles and closed doors. The World Bank, the UN, the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other governmental agencies, and NGO’s—they all realised the problem but couldn’t help.
Too many of these organisations were not set up to help mass manufacture or distribute Kamen’s machine to the poorest parts of the world, where they are most needed.
This is our first challenge in business: We need to learn by doing
At Psychotactics I’ve conducted the Article Writing Course since 2006. It’s called the toughest writing course in the world, and for a good reason. For three months clients have to slog to get to the finish line and be able to write an article in between 60-90 minutes. For me, the workload is magnified several times over.
Every day, I have to look at 25 assignments and lots of questions relating to the assignment. The course itself generates no fewer than 600 articles, all of which have to be read and evaluated. It’s not just the toughest course for the clients; it’s also a mind-bending course for me as the trainer.
So why do it?
The course isn’t cheap at $3000 or more, but it’s not the revenue that’s the biggest driver. It’s easy enough to create one, even two products that would generate a far greater profit, without all the associated hard work. The answer is in the “doing”.
By teaching that course time after time, for the past ten years, you learn things that you couldn’t know or experience by just writing a home study course. Every course brings up brand new challenges all of which have to be tackled.
It’s the problems that create enormous spikes in learning. The secrets of teaching and learning are revealed frustratingly slowly, as I push myself yet into another iteration of the course. Without doing, I’d have no learning, no way to overcome the barriers.
Kamen’s 15-year learning journey to deliver clean water ended in an interesting place too
While the UN or NGOs don’t head out into the tiny villages, there’s one organisation that has found penetration in the smallest pockets. No matter where you go on the planet, you can get yourself a bottle of Coca-Cola. In exchange for a redesign of their age-old dispensing machines, Kamen teamed up with Coke to take the Stirling machines to the far edges of the planet. That’s not as if to say there weren’t more challenges in getting the device to work. Nonetheless, all of these issues can only be overcome by doing.
It’s the reason why you need to blog.
It’s the reason why some of us create podcasts.
It’s the reason why we keep doing stuff even when at times it’s plainly disheartening to go on.
It’s in the doing that we learn the lessons
The reason why so many people fail is because you have to persist for a while before the oceans part and you can walk through to the other side. It’s not like Dean Kamen isn’t well-connected. He’s directly in touch with prominent organisations, US presidents and well-known figures. Even so, it’s taken him a solid 15 years to find any traction. Many of us, swayed by the “double your results tomorrow” bandwagon feel like we’re losers when things don’t happen overnight.
At Psychotactics we’ve had to learn by doing
We’ve held workshops in New Zealand, in the US, in Amsterdam, in the UK. Every workshop is a super-challenge. Why not sit back and just conduct an online course instead? Why not just do the simplest thing possible?
The answer is in doing. You learn most when you push your boundaries. All of this earth-shaking work takes energy and time. A single workshop takes a month of preparation, a month of travel and a month of re-entry time. It's all learning by doing. You can’t make big leaps in your work, and you can’t stand out in the way you’d want to, by taking tiny steps all the time.
It’s these big steps that also cause the greatest chaos
If you were on the Article Writing Course in 2016, it would have been just a course. But if you were part of the alumni doing the course, you might have been slightly horrified. The entire course had changed. Assignments that were usually in Week 11 showed up in Week 4. Whole systems that were used in earlier courses were just dropped and replaced by quite another system. Was the new system tested? Of course not.
It's what learning by doing is often about. When you make significant changes, there’s no way to know how something will work right away. You’re supposed to improvise, and it pushes you to the limit.
Learning by doing easily sucks up the most time in a business
Dean Kamen is a multimillionaire. He flies to work by helicopter every day and has earned enough fame and money never to have to work again. He took on the challenge of proving that clean water could indeed reach the poorest. The only way he could achieve all of this activity was by putting himself on the sword and keeping at it. It’s the core of what drives the business: doing stuff even when the odds are against you.
It’s where you learn the most.
But that’s only one form of learning. There’s also the relatively less strenuous form of learning that can suck up a lot of time. And that’s learning by learning.
Why is Australia hot?
Why is Antarctica cold?
The greatest change in my life in the past 3 ½ years has been my niece, Marsha’s, questions. Renuka and I mentor her, but once she’s done with Renuka’s part of the syllabus, I take over. We sit on the floor near the sofa, chomping cheese, carrots and almonds. And Marsha has questions, lots of questions. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about clouds, countries and their capitals, geology, biology and history.
I learned the Antarctica and Australia were once connected
That they had the same endless forests of Glossopteris. And that with the drifting of continents, Australia moved north. This created space for the Southern Ocean. As Australia floated away, the ocean currents had no landmass barriers. They started spinning around the continent of Australia at an increasingly rapid speed. So quickly did it spin, that the mild climate of Antarctica started to freeze over around 17 million years ago.
Second Force: This is learning by learning and is the second force of business
It’s the one thing that we don’t always have time for. It’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing instead of learning a new skill. Having to dig into the freezing over of Antarctica or how some software program works, can suck up a lot of time. Then there are all those books that we buy that need to be read; all those podcasts that have to be heard; all those courses that have to be looked into.
This year, in particular, I dropped the ball on reading
I benchmark my learning based on where I am with my New Yorker magazine and National Geographic reading. Usually, a New Yorker won’t last more than a few days, and the same goes for National Geographic.
It means I am reading at optimum pace and learning not only through magazines but also have time to read books—a lot of books. Instead, this year, I’ve been behind on New Yorker almost all year. I’ve still got to go through at least four months worth of National Geographic. Somehow it seems, I’ve not allocated enough time for this activity as I did in previous years. I got so tied up with the doing, with the courses, etc. that the learning dropped precipitously.
One of the core forces of business involves learning by learning
To be exceedingly smart at what you do, the learning needs to consist of reading, audio (even if you’re not a big fan), video and learning programs. All of this learning is mind boggling and can be exhausting at times. It's one of the most vital forces of business.
It’s what keeps you on top of things in a way that Facebook or listening to yet another debate about the political madness can never do for you. There is, of course, the downside for this type of learning. I see people who read book after book but never do anything. They always hope to do something, plan to do it, even, but never do. They spend a lot of time in learning from books, audio and video but never doing.
To progress, you need both forms of learning to move together in progression
No matter what the barriers, you need to keep doing. Failure will come, and failure will go, and you’ll learn from it and move ahead. It’s also important to keep your focus on the learning through books, audio and video. I know I slipped in the books department. I am aware that audio has never been a problem, but audio books are not the same as reading a book.
The forces of business pull in all directions. While we’re learning by doing and by learning, we still have to earn a living and keep clients coming back.
Third Force: Revenue generation/client retention
When I just started out Psychotactics, I first heard the definition of the word, “client”.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of client was: one who comes under your care, protection and guidance. For a lot of people this definition rings true. They want their customers to be like their child. They want to care, protect and guide. And yet, you can do too much.
Back in 2006, I started a year long training called the Protégé Course
It covered a lot of disciplines from copywriting, PR, information products etc. And that class alone was generating about $150,000 a year. But by 2008, I’d stopped that course. There were two reasons. The first reason was I felt I was covering too much material in a single year.
Going through the Protégé course was like having to learn five languages a year. But the secondary reason for stopping the course was simply that I wasn’t able to pay as much attention to the rest of the clients.
You’ve seen this in a classroom
A teacher has her favourite students and they get most of the attention and the others are left behind a bit. In a business, focusing a lot on some clients and not on the others is a bad idea. You have to work on the care, protect and guide as many clients as possible. And do it to the best of your ability. It’s only when we worked this out that we realised we could do just fine with a fewer number of clients.
Psychotactics gets about 90% of its revenue from about 500 clients
But it’s always a big balancing act. You have to have time to help clients through their issues, but no matter what you do, there’s always the brutal fact that some of them will leave. When I started 5000bc, I thought that clients would stay forever.
And many stayed for as long as 10 years, which is longer than forever on the Internet. But eventually clients will leave. You’re then faced with a nice big black hole if you haven’t been working on getting new clients.
And this bugged me a lot
Most people are happier getting new clients and then leaving them to their own devices. I’m happier not having to worry about new clients and would be exhilarated if everyone stuck around forever. However, that’s not how things work. Which is why your third big force in your business is dual-fold. It’s to keep clients and to get new clients at the same time.
We’ve tried a lot of stuff along the way
We gave YouTube a shot, started podcasts, then stopped it. And restarted again. We’ve never done much, if any, SEO. No advertising or publicity. But what’s worked for us has been a steady stream of clients from search engines, from a bit of guest blogging and finally, just creating products that no one else wants to create.
In the end, a few activities have made the biggest difference. I know the 80/20 group of people may pop up here, but it’s not been 80/20 at all. It’s just been that we’ve been more comfortable in some areas e.g. podcasting or e-mail, and persisted. Over the years, that persistence and subtle changes in strategy have worked for us.
But this third force of business takes a lot of time
To care, protect and guide your clients takes up a ton of time. And then, in your “free time” you’ve got to go out and get new clients. We’ve been in the business of marketing since 2000. I thought it would get easier over time. It doesn’t. You have to allocate a good amount of time to just keep client and get clients as well. Your strategy is going to depend on what you do.
I do have one quick tip about this point of getting new clients, though
Once you find what you do, do a lot of it. If you decide to write books on Amazon, write lots of books. If you decide to do guitar videos, do a ton of them. And this is because once clients find you and like you, they binge on your work. If they don’t find a lot of your work, they go elsewhere. Which is why you have to decide what you want to do and go for it. There’s no right or wrong strategy.
When we started our podcasts (or rather restarted it) back in 2014, we had no idea if it would work
But we got going all the same. For a good two years, the download figures stayed more or less the same. We got almost no e-mail from clients. Our reviews on iTunes barely made it past 100 reviews. Still, the sales of products kept going up steadily, month after month. And then for some unknown reason the downloads increased by 20%, then up to 25%. Having all these podcasts; all this information; it’s helped us do both things simultaneously. Get and keep the clients.
This getting and keeping—it’s a force of business. You have to allocate time for it as well. And it can distract you and me away from something we actually love. That something is our “passion projects”.
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