“I Failed Fast and Completely Re-invented My Company” is the BNET.com article title. Pixability.com of Cambridge, Mass. started out as a video conversion and editing business for families. Unfortunately, it cost more than most families could afford. Lacking revenue, the entrepreneurs thought up making highlight reals for youth athletes competing for college scholarships. Neat idea, but only 3 sales in 3 months was less than covering costs. Despite the original plan, and a desire to raise more money, it hit the founders that if they “stuck to their core” business plan they weren’t going to survive. More money or not. That’s when they realized that turning down corporate work might not be such a great idea – even though such work wasn’t in the plan. Turning to what the market wanted, editing corporate videos, the company is now growing fast and making a profit.
Same song, different verse, for Blue Buddha Boutiques of Chicago as reported in “Small Businesses Have Flexibility to Make Big Changes” at The Chicago Tribune. The company started out making chain mail jewelry sold on the internet. Not much sales. But when the entrepreneur listened to customers she heard there was more demand for jewelry supplies – so customers could make their own jewelry – than for the finished product. A quick shift in the business, aligning it to market needs, and the company shot up to a half million dollars revenue.
Far too often entrepreneurs hear “find your passion, and go with it.” “Write a business plan, stick with it, persevere, fight for success.” “Do what you’re good at.” Of course, most entrepreneurs fail. Why, because this is such lousy advice. Nobody cares about your passion, nor your plan, or your ability to persevere. Customers care about you selling them what they want. If your products or services don’t align with market needs, all the passion, business planning, fighting and perseverance isn’t worth spit.
Of course, this flies in the face of “Built to Last” author Jim Collins. To him, all winners are those who persevere. Looking backward, he can say entrepreneurs he studied were passionate and hard working. Maybe they wore white shirts, and enjoyed Juicy Fruit gum as well. The point is, that isn’t what made them successful – even if their personality traits were as he described. What’s important is that you find a market with growth, and more customers than suppliers, so you can readily sell something at a profit. Adaptability is the hallmark of great entrepreneurs. They have no product or service religion – no commitment to “excellence” – no predefined notions of how to succeed in business. Rather, they have a keen ear for the marketplace and the mental flexibility to rapidly shift into what customers want!
I beg you to be careful about listening to gurus – and especially Jim Collins. I was appalled by his column “Tuned in to four New Realities” published on Leadership Academy. Still unable to explain why companies he glorified in “Good to Great” such as Circuit City, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were such horrible failures – he tenaciously sticks to his guns. To him, all leaders must persevere. His new realities:
- “Define your business according to core values”. Values are great, but if they aren’t somehow intricately linked to delivering a product or service the market wants, and wants in enough demand to produce a profit, it doesn’t matter. Simple. I don’t say give up your soul. But values are not where you start. You must be flexible to align with the market. If your values won’t let you do that you need to do something else.
- “Organize by freedom of choice.” Honestly, how you organize should relate to meeting the market requirements. Whether its hierarchical or matrix or some other form – it must meet the critical market needs. Freedom is great – as long as it supports meeting the market need. You are free in America to do whatever you want, but if you don’t sell enough stuff at a high enough price you don’t eat. And for all its benefits, “freedom of choice” in the workplace is less important than positive cash flow.
- “Lead without using power.” Whether you use carrot or stick, people have to deliver what markets want. And companies have to adapt quickly to shifting wants. Sometimes it happens naturally, and leaders can just guide the process. Sometimes Lock-in to old assumptions get in the way, and then leaders have to get out a 2×4 and redirect attention to where the market wants it. It’s good to be kind and a servant-leader, but employees appreciate a good paying job with some clear guidance (at times dictatorial) to unemployment from “such a nice guy.”
- “Walls are dissolving.” I haven’t even figured out what this one means. But it’s clear that any walls which keep you from seeing the real market need is a bad thing. After that, aligning to market needs is “job #1″ as Ford ads once touted quality.
Are you flexible to go where the market leads you? Or are you adamant about doing what you want to do? Are values something you use to help align to market needs, or a crutch you use to defend doing what you’ve always done? Are you able to change your management style, and organizational design, to meet market needs – or do you prefer to remain Locked-in to old management ideas and business models? Whether your company is big or small, old or young, does not matter. Lock-in will kill you when markets shift. Whether it’s structural Lock-in to an existing business, or mental Lock-in to a business plan. Adaptability to meet shifting market needs separates the winners – like Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter – from the market losers – like Microsoft and Dell.
If you have any doubt, just ask the folks at Tasty Catering in Chicago. While others are still complaining about he recession, crying about lower sales, and food service businesses (including restaurants) are half full or closing shop — the folks at Tasty Catering are challenging the monthly revenues they set in peak years of 2007 and 2008. Instead of doing what they always did, the leaders – from the CEO to the 20-something managers talking to customers – are listening to the market and opening new businesses that meet market needs. While most employers are cutting staff, employees at Tasty Catering are working overtime – and in some businesses second shifts are being added. What was once a hot dog stand has been turned by the leaders into the winner of Best Caterer in the USA more than once – and a business that is thriving even in this “Great Recession.” Because they know how to adapt.
PS – Tasty Catering is one of the most value-responsible companies in America. Filled with employees that listen and care, and managers that want their employees to succeed. That’s because the leaders don’t see a trade-off between values and giving the market what it wants. If they keep the business moving forward, through keen connection to the marketplace, everyone wins – and values are not an issue. By being market-savvy, and flexible, Tasty Catering is considered one of the Top 10 employers in Chicago, and in its industry. And if you cater from anybody else in Chicago, or buy your delivered baskets or trays of cookies and muffins from anyone else, you simply don’t know what you’re missing!