Correction Canary

About fifteen years ago now, I was reorganizing how search results are displayed in a popular travel site (one you’ve probably used). The goal of the project was to to increase readability and scannability. To do this, I needed to move a few bits of information around. In my rush to prepare the prototype for the initial usability tests, I neglected to move all the bits of information to their new home.

The majority of the evaluators caught the mistakes – unprompted.

Commenting on mistakes – below the fold – unprompted?
I’ll happily take that as proof the scannability & readability improvements were successful. For, if the problems weren’t obvious from even this smallest-level engagement – we still had work to do.

**

Fast forward a decade, I’m building a proof-of-concept for a startup client. We agreed upon the smallest, most unique functionality necessary to communicate the value of the product. I went off to build it and they went off to find a cohort of interested, beta users.

A couple weeks later, the prototype was ready to interact with and I mass-created a few dozen accounts for the initial users, including a one for my client

I waited. I waited for bug reports, questions, for server performance issues, for emails, for phone calls. For I knew there would be some. Some bringing up issues I hadn’t dealt with yet, some bringing up edge cases that are only exposed during actual use. Some wanting to do something we hadn’t even considered yet.

A week went by – and nothing. No bug reports, no emailed questions of ‘How do I?’. Complete radio silence. On my way out the door, to meet my client in-person, I quick checked the access log – not a single person had logged in since they received their credentials.

Not even my client.

“I haven’t received any bug reports from any of the initial users,” I started after the Arnie Palmers arrived.

“Good?”

“Not good. No one’s logged in since the site’s been up. I don’t think the idea is compelling for the initial users – or for you.

“What do you think we should do?”

“Shut it down and find something more compelling to you and your interested users.”

The next day, we did.

**

This morning I received an email from a different client. One of their news products was throwing a series of admin-only messages into a publicly-available view. The issue was easy enough to resolve, though in resolving it, it was clear the issue had existed for least two years. Which means, this part of the site has had zero human engagement for that entire time. For if there was any engagement, I would have received emails from concerned users notifying us of the bug. Doch.

**

If you’re looking for a cheap way to measure actual human engagement and attention – deliberately insert an obvious and miniscule mistake and wait.

If a flood of corrections don’t come in, you’ve got a much bigger problem – nobody actually cares.

Measuring Growth in Your ‘Return on Lifestyle’ Business

In almost all cases, growing a business means one of the following:
– ever-increasing revenues
– ever-increasing share price
– ever-increasing customer count
– ever-increasing headcount

These are the metrics reported in the business section. These are the numbers that get everyone – the leadership team, the shareholders, early investors, the office space owners, the entire supporting ecosystem of vendors – of a given organization excited. Both when these numbers are going up and when they’re going down. Though, it’s only defined as growth when they’re going up.

I say in almost all cases, because the vast majority of the companies you and I interact with everyday are the kind of organizations measured by this definition of growth – both internally and externally. Why? Because that was their strategy from early on. Whether because the founders originally intended the company to be huge or because that’s how the investors and shareholders see a path to an exponential monetary return. The intention was to create a company as an asset of ever increasing value, that could be – eventually – sold for a profit.

Just because this is the most obvious definition of growth, it doesn’t mean it’s the only definition of growth. Nor does it mean it’s the right definition for your organization. Especially if your entire full-time staff is you (you’re a freelancer, solo practitioner, independent consultant, etc). Maybe, you have one other partner with 50% ownership. Maybe you’re the sole owner of a 10 person firm. In all these cases, your company is one of the thousands of extremely small companies. In all these cases the above definition of growth is toxic and cancerous. Especially if you have kids. Doubly-so if you’re the primary bread-winner for your family. This definition of growth will destroy your business and your most-treasured relationships. Maybe even you.

Yes, growth is just as valuable as it is to companies 10x, 100x, and 1000x your size, but what that growth looks like, is very, very different.

Growth here is more like maturity;
– an ever-increasing clarity in identity
– an ever-increasing in focus on doing your one thing amazingly well
– an ever-increasing service to that one tight niche you’re expert in,
– ever-chipping away at the waste around it.

Growth as a ruthless elimination of the fat in your business, through both automation and saying “No” frequently.

Despite the hype and the catchy title, this is what Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week is actually about. A ruthless elimination of the low value effort so you can maximize your 164-Hour Life Week.

Low value work is all the stuff that doesn’t excite you about your work. It’s up for you to decide precisely – but it’s likely paperwork, administrative stuff, maintenance stuff. All of this stuff can be automated (via a technology wholly or some sort of Mechanical Turk) or simply ignored.

Don’t want to answer the phone? There are a number of services that will do that for you.
Same for your email inbox.
Same for most every aspect of your business.

You’re not trapped by the painful parts of your business. You’re not trapped by some definition of What a Business Is Supposed To Be. It’s your business. You own it. Take control of making it serve you.

For example, about five years ago, I stopped billing my services by the hour. Hourly billing is terribly common for even the smallest professional services firm. Some clients insist on it for low level positions. Even early in my career, I found it distracted me from better serving my clients. In short, it was waste in my business. Where as some people would find a better time-tracking system, I just said, “No, I don’t do business this way”. My annual revenues since making the change have been about the same as before, so from a big company ‘growth’ measure – it was a horrible move. Yet, it has freed up so much of my time, freed up so much of my headspace, dramatically improved my client relationships, and how I feel about my work. Positive growth.

Professional service firms with fewer than 10 full-time employees are – in the most positive and fulfilling definition of the word – lifestyle companies. Their primary function is to deliver, not an ROI, but a ROL – Return on Lifestyle.

Some Ways to Measure ROL Growth:
– The business fully covers your health, dental, and retirement accounts.
– Every quarter you’ve fulfilled some crazy life goal (run a marathon, vacation in an exotic location, write a book).
– The absence of drama in your daily life is palpable.
– Rush hour traffic is more curiosity than annoyance.
– Your weekly calendar is an even mix of work, family, community, and personal commitments.
– There’s not a single active, bullshit project taken “because we need the money.”
– You’re in the best mental & physical shape of your life.

Do these metrics mean your business is somehow less of a business than those traded on the stock markets?

Yes.

Because it is.

Across every GAAP measure. The amount of paperwork you’re compelled to file is a small fraction of what they have to file. The problems your business has are a small fraction of theirs.

Unlike these businesses, your business evaporates the moment you get hit by a bus.

So what? Embrace it. Commit to it.

It doesn’t mean your business can’t have a disproportionately positive impact on the world. It can – and that positive impact will drive your demand.

If your business is so in demand that you might need to hire help. First do these things:
1. Raise your fees. (See #4)
2. Declare when you’ll take on a new client project, just like an in-demand hotel (e.g. “We’re not booking for Feb 2017”). Hold firm.
3. Be exponentially more selective.
4. Work one less day a week.
5. Stop taking on new clients or projects.

I’ve seen too many very small businesses interpret a spike in short-term demand for a long-term trend (hiring spree, move to a huge new office) only to be in a position of unwinding all of that a few, short months later. These five strategies have a far higher ROL than presuming the demand is sustainable. In fact, they actually test resilience of the demand. That doesn’t mean they’re easy strategies to employ – they’re just far easier strategies than growing your overhead.

Make Mountains into Milestones

I recently returned from four refreshingly long days in Lutsen along the beaches of Lake Superior’s north shore. The weather was warm and calm enough to spend one of the mornings in a kayak. After scooting along the shoreline, our tour guide led us out in to the lake, far enough out that the shore was a distant sliver. We stayed out there a bit, appreciating the clear, fresh, water. We had gone far enough out that we could no longer see any man-made structures. No cabins. No lighthouses. Just trees, mountains, and the lake water.

Our tour guide, knowing he couldn’t point us in the direction of our resort (for we couldn’t see it) pointed out two peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains and directed us to point our kayaks between them. Ten minutes later, we were close enough to shore to see human scale again. Our guide then pointed out a distinctly colored cabin along the shore and had us turn slightly and paddle toward it. Then, ten minutes later, he pointed out a series of townhouses peaking out from the evergreens and we turned ever more parallel with the shore heading toward them. Five minutes later, our resort was within sight and he directed us in for a landing.

Big transformative projects are like this journey back to shore. None of the landmarks the guide used were our final destination, they were the landmarks we could see from where we were. We all knew that our destination was out there, was real, and was our final destination. These intermediate, temporary landmarks made the journey more comfortable and far less overwhelming than if we made a beeline for a pinpoint beyond our field of vision.

It’s June 2016. Week 23. The mid-point of the year is three short weeks away.

The milestone projects my clients and I initiated in December and January are now going live (you may see a few of these coming to your favorite websites). These foundational efforts, are all incremental steps toward a larger effort that will take us through the end of the calendar year. Like the guided kayak journey to shore, our final destination is still hidden behind the horizon. We’ll still need to adjust our heading against a couple more milestones. Against a couple more iterations.

These iterations allow us to capture greater fractions of larger project’s business value sooner than the projected 18-month timeframe. It also builds resiliency into the project and the teams. As we’re able to set the heading to the landmarks we can see more details reveal themselves with each adjustment.

There are two take-aways:

  1. If you haven’t yet scheduled a long weekend enveloped in nature, out of range of your mobile phone service, do so this week.
  2. If you’ve lost sight of your destination on a big project, identify intermediate destination you can see that’s in the same general direction, one that will help you make substantial progress – both directly & indirectly. Adjust and repeat. If you’d benefit from a guide to supporting you along the way, give me a call.

Is Competition Simply Lack of Articulation?

“The main idea is that whatever market you are in, whether it’s big or not you should be number one and should do whatever it takes to get there.” – Aneil Weber

I’ll extend this and say, the only way to guarantee success is to pursue an a single niche to its extreme – be the only one serving a specific market in a specific way. I touched on this notion my One as the Ideal Podcast Audience Size thinking a while back.

From that perspective, there really is very little competition.

Wal-Mart and Target are both big box retailers, but the chances of anyone shopping at both are pretty slim. Each has their own identity and brand – those brands are similar only at the most cursory level.

Competition makes for easy press, but I think it detracts from serving customers.