lessons learned

Are you Thinking About Starting a Business?

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The last post on Starting a Business was popular so I thought that I would share a very key lesson learned and then provide links to previous posts that will provide insights as you move forward with launching your own business. If you have any questions just post them as comments and I would be happy to reply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty and opportunity. For many, now is the ideal time to explore their dream of starting a business and jumping into the waters of entrepreneurship. That can be exciting, fun, stressful, financially rewarding, and financially challenging, all within the same short period of time. 

Being prepared for that roller coaster ride and having the ability and strength to continue pushing forward is important. Something to understand is that “Things don’t happen to you. They are the Direct Result of your own Actions and Inactions.” That may sound harsh, but here is a prime example:

When I was closing my consulting business down I trusted my Accountant and Payroll company to handle all of the required filings for Federal, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Colorado – something they stated they would handle and I accepted at face value. Both companies had done a great job before so why would I expect any less this time?

About nine months later I started receiving letters from Ohio and Colorado about filings due, so I forwarded them along to the Accountant and Payroll company. In my mind, this was “old business” and was being handled, plus I had moved on. It was probably just a timing error, something easy enough to explain away.

Skipping forward nearly three years, I had been threatened by the IRS and the Revenue Departments from both Ohio and Colorado. I started with a combined total of nearly $500K in assessments. Slowly that dropped to $50K, and then to $10K. I spent countless hours on the phone and writing letters trying to explain the misunderstanding. It wasn’t until I finally found a helpful person in each department that was willing to listen and told me specifically what needed to be done to resolve that situation. My final cost was around $1,000. I was relieved that this fiasco was finally over.

For the longest time, I blamed both the Accountant and Payroll Service for these problems. Ultimately I realized that it was my business and therefore my responsibility to understand the shutdown process – regardless of who did the actual work. I would have saved hundreds of hours of my time and several hundred dollars by simply gaining that understanding in the beginning.

I was not a victim of anything – this situation was the direct result of my own inaction. At the time it just did not seem very important, but my understanding of the situation and its importance was incorrect and I paid the price. Lesson learned. It was my business so it was still my responsibility to the very end.

Below are the other links. You don’t have to read them all at once, but it would be worth bookmarking them and reading one per day. Every new perspective, idea, and lesson learned could be the thing that helps you achieve your goal a day, week, or month sooner than expected. Every day and every dollar matters, so make the most of both!

Presentation about Starting a Business and Entrepreneurship

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It is interesting how often you see ads for some franchise offering that touts, “Become your own boss.” While that may not be all bad it is just the tip of the iceberg. The presentation below is intended to provide insight to people who may be considering starting their first company. This was from a one-hour presentation and glosses over a lot of things, such as the need for registrations and insurance, but for a first-timer, it could be helpful.

One of my first and most important lessons learned when I started my consulting company long ago was that paying attention to cash flow was far more important than focusing on my balance sheet. Once you understand a problem it becomes easy to alter what you do to manage it. For example, using fixed pricing based on tasks where we received 50% up-front and the remaining 50% upon acceptance of the deliverable smoothed out cash flow and that was a big help.

So, take a look and post any questions that you may have. If one person has a question it is likely that many more do as well! Cheers.

The Value Created by a Strong Team

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One of the best team-building exercises that I have participated in was as a Board Member for the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Wisconsin. We were going down a path that led to a decision on whether or not to invest $150M in a new addition. The CEO at the time, Jon Vice, wisely determined that strong teams were needed for each committee in order to thoroughly vet the idea from every possible perspective.

Canada Geese flying in a V formation with a brightly colored but dark sky background
Purpose-driven teamwork. An amazing photo by Joe Daniel Price found on TheWallpaper.co

The process started by being given a book to read (“Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.), and then completing the “Strengthsfinder” assessment using a code provided in the book. The goal was to understand gaps in perception (how you view yourself vs. how others view you) so that you could truly understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, teams were created with people having complementary skills to help eliminate weaknesses from the overall team perspective. The results were impressive.

Over my career, I have been involved in many team-building exercises and events – some of which provide useful insights, but most failed to pull the findings together in a way that was concrete, had context, and offered actionable recommendations. Key areas that consistently omitted were around Organizational Culture, Organizational Politics, and Leadership. Those three areas have a significant impact on value creation vis-à-vis team effectiveness and commitment.

When I had my consulting company we had a small core team of business and technology consultants and would leverage subcontractors and an outsourcing company to allow us to take on more concurrent projects as well as larger, more complex projects. This approach worked for three reasons:

  1. We had developed a High-Performance Culture that was based on:
    • Purpose: A common vision of success, and understanding of why that mattered, and an understanding of specifically how that was defined and measured.
    • Ownership: Taking responsibility for something and being accountable for the outcome. This included responsibility for the extended team of contractors. Standardized procedures helped ensure consistency and make it easier for each person to accept responsibility for “their team.”
    • Trust: Everyone understood that they not only needed to trust and support each other but in order to be effective and responsive the others would need to trust their judgment. If there was a concern we would focus on the context and process improvements to understand what happened and implement changes based on lessons learned. Personal attacks were avoided for the good of the entire team.
  2. Empowerment: Everyone understood that there was risk associated with decision making, while at the same time realizing that delaying an important decision could be costly and create more risk. Therefore, it was incumbent upon each member to make good decisions as needed and then communicate changes to the rest of the team.
  3. Clear and Open Communication: People on the team were very transparent and honest. When there was an issue they would attempt to resolve it first with that person, and then escalating if the two people could not reach an agreement and decided to seek the consensus of the team. Everything was out in the open and done in the spirit of being constructive and collaborating. Divisiveness is the antithesis of this tenet.

People who were not a good fit would quickly wash out, so our core team consisted of trusted experts. There was a friendly competition that helped raise the bar for the entire team, but when needed the other team members became a safety net for each other.

We were all focused on the same goal, and everyone realized that the only way to be successful was to work together for the success of the team. Win or lose, we did it together. The strength of our team created tremendous value – internally and for our customers that we sustained for several years. That value included innovation, higher levels of productivity and profitability, and an extremely high success rate.

This approach can work at a Business Unit or Department level but is most effective when it starts at the top. When employees see the leaders of their company behaving in this manner it provides the model and sets expectations for everyone under them. If there is dysfunction within an organization it often starts at the top – by promoting or accepting behaviors that do not benefit the whole of the organization. But, with a strong and positive organizational culture, the value of strong teams is multiplied and becomes an incredible competitive advantage.

Occam’s razor, our Maxima, and the Sage Mechanic

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My wife has a Nissan Maxima and loves her car. Over the past 9 months there has been a persistent but seemingly random problem where the radio is used for a few minutes while the car is off and then the battery dies when she goes to start the car. This has happened more than a dozen times over the past 3 1/2 years, and it has been seen by two dealerships a for a total of three times recently with no success – the most recent visit being one day before this problem occurred.

Saturday morning I was running errands when my wife called and let me know that this problem happened again (second time this week and she was very frustrated). I was pretty excited because this time the problem occurred at home, not at some parking lot like usual, so I had the luxury of time to try to make a root cause determination. I’m somewhat mechanical but certainly no professional, so I followed my own consulting advice and contacted a professional.

Dave T. is a mechanical guru, and has an uncanny ability to offer sage advice with only a modicum of information. He is an incredibly busy guy, but is always willing to spend a few minutes and give helpful advice. It helps that he is a great guy, but it also helps him generate business (leads and referrals). It is an approach that helps create a constant backlog of work and very loyal clientele, which is good business.

I called Dave, described the problem, mentioned what I had read on various forums (i.e., similar electrical problems observed after some arbitrary mileage). Next, I mentioned that this had just been to the dealership and they did not find anything wrong. Dave laughed, stated that, “There is a 99%+ likelihood that alternator is bad, and possibly both the alternator and battery.” He sounded very confident.

There was a pause, and then he asked, “What’s more likely – that there is some completely random problem that only happens when your wife is out and your son stays in the car and listens to music for a few minutes, which by the way only happens to Maximas after X number of miles, or that there are issues with the alternators where they tend to fail after a certain amount of use, which causes them not to charge the battery properly and leads to a condition where there is not enough of a charge to start the car?”

battery-cell-testing

When Dave explained it like that I felt kind of stupid, consoled only by the fact that other professional mechanics had not resolved the problem before me. He then added, “Anything that would be able to drain a battery within a few minutes would be noticeable. It would start a fire or melt wires, and smoke or smell as a result. You haven’t seen or smelled anything like that, have you?”

I described my plan to troubleshoot the problem, and Dave suggested that in addition I test the alternator and the specific gravity of the individual battery cells. So, in less than five minutes into that call I had a plan and was off and running.

alternator-test-shot

Yesterday afternoon I spent several hours using a very methodical approach to troubleshooting, documenting everything with pictures and videos to help me recall both details and sequence if needed. Sure enough, Dave’s knowledge and intuition led to the correct conclusion.

I gave him a call to thank him, and while talking I wondered aloud why the dealership could not figure this out? Dave replied, “It’s not that they couldn’t have done what you did, but instead they focused on the symptoms you described. The mechanic probably sat there for 10-15 minutes with the lights and radio on while the car was off. After that the car started so they assumed that everything was fine. I listened to what you said, ignored the randomness and speculation, and honed-in on the problem. The fact that this happened again so soon also made sense because now your battery was run down from the testing performed by the dealership.” He added, “In my business I get paid for results, so I can’t get away with taking the easy way out.” 

I’m big on lessons learned, wanting to make the most of each and every experience because I have learned that skills and knowledge are often very transferrable. As I thought about this I realized that Dave’s analysis was the perfect practical application of Occam’s razor. It’s a skill that is very helpful as a Consultant, but more importantly, it is something that can help when problem solving in any line of work. 

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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Picture of a Suzuki motorcycle

As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10, I spent one winter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ. Beginners luck?

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote, and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

Picture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design!

A few fruitless Google searches later I was more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. Salespeople would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi Electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create validation processes and a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration.

Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. Despite that, they expected immediate rewards and having their submissions rejected apparently created more frustration than incentive.

So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system, as well as how you could identify patterns to more quickly identify that type of activity. By the third month the system was trouble free.

It was a great learning experience from beginning to end. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives). This reflection also made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template.

We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and maximize performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with the technology used out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy.

  • My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell.
  • Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two.
  • People are willing to try things that they may not have if getting started would not have been so easy.

But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continuous improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 25, 50, or 100 years and see the full impact of emerging technologies, but my guess is that I will see many of the effects in my own lifetime.