Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Being Expert: Bringing Personal Value to Those Around You

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

I’ve written recently about how our economy is fundamentally changing. Everything seems to be disrupted and in a state of chaos. Normally routine business and established practices no longer function as they used to. Entire industries are being transformed along with the people in them. This brings me to the subject of today’s post, being an expert in your space and how you bring value to those around you.

In the past, our value was defined by how much we knew combined with the experience we accumulated over time. If you are truly an expert, every hour of everyday brings new experience and personal growth.

Those that find themselves in trouble today are the ones who learned their primary skill set a long time ago and have resisted learning more. They simply took what they were trained in and used it over and over, in a static kind of way. They would become more proficient at their daily performance and execution, much in the same way a golfer gets better at their swing if they practice the same swing over and over a thousand times. This is call “grooving.” Once you’re in a groove it is very difficult to get out of it. Grooving works very well when the skill does not require change to remain valuable.

In the knowledge or professional arena, our value was defined by how much knowledge we had and how specialized that knowledge was. If it was difficult material that took a long time to master, all the better. This meant we could charge more for our understanding of this knowledge. Think doctors, lawyers, and CPA’s. You could also think of master craftsmen as well.

This is the way we used to position ourselves and bring value, have knowledge that is hard to find, access, duplicate, and master.

Things are different now. With the rate at which technology, markets, and economies are changing, simply having the knowledge or experience is no longer enough. To remain an “expert” you must remain relevant to those you serve. To maintain your position of authority and value requires another skill set few truly master. It begins with the ability to be observational and recognize which elements of change are at work.

Simply observing isn’t the answer. The true answer is the ability to draw upon your knowledge and experience to synthesize new opportunities and solutions. This is an amazing time to be alive. There is so much disruptive change and technology around us.

The current recession and underlying permanent unemployment are perfect examples. The economies that are recovering quickly are the ones with low cost labor that can do many of the things our own skilled blue collar labor used to do. Now even our white collar workers are being outsourced by low cost offshore labor.

With rapid, pervasive change everywhere, we all have the opportunity to re-invent and redefine our value and skills. Our individual expertise comes from the ability to respond to these disruptive changes with innovative solutions that bring value to our customers and clients. As uncomfortable as change is, this is an amazing time of opportunity for those that can recognized and innovate new solutions.

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Launching Your Clothing Line

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Lately we’ve been doing a lot of shirts for boutique clothing lines. These are usually designers who’ve come up with a few clever t-shirt designs and want to market them. The questions are almost all the same and I’m surprised no one has really set out to provide meaningful answers. So this month I thought I would share some observations and answers to a couple of the more common questions.

The most basic one is: Where should I market my shirts?

I don’t mean to be obvious here, but the root of the answer is, to outlets that are thinking like you. Where do you shop? Where would you go to buy the designs you’ve just done? Start locally and work your way up. This is important for two really good reasons.

The first is that almost all the businesses or individuals that come in wanting to get shirts printed lack seed capital. This is the money you need to actually print the shirts to fill orders. Start with a sample run first. Get something physical in your hands. Buyers want to see, touch, and feel the merchandise. Your first objective is to get some market reaction. If you can’t afford to get shirts screen printed, have the samples done digitally (direct to garment.) This is a good idea anyway so you can see what DTG looks like compared to screen print.

If you find there’s a positive reception to your work, expand within your region. This would be a 50 mile radius of where you’re located, or the nearest larger city. I’m always careful about recommending rapid expansion. With too little capital, I’ve seen too many promising companies literally burn up trying to fund their growth. Take it a step at a time. Make sure you get paid right away for your product. Running out of cash is the single biggest reason new companies don’t make it.

2. Should I exhibit in tradeshows to get bigger exposure?

Beware of large tradeshows. I’ve seen this happen over and over. Young, inexperienced, innovative companies bring fresh ideas to the market. They have no way to capitalize on potential success if it really hits. Calculate in advance how much business you can handle. It’s one thing to get orders for 1,000 shirts. What would happen if you got orders for 10,000? How much business can you afford to book? If you can’t answer that, you need accounting help to get the answer.

The most common situation I see at tradeshows is getting ripped off by much bigger companies that already have deep distribution and lots of financing. Make no mistake, you are being watched. If there’s lots of buzz about your graphics and you’re actually writing orders, you run the risk of a very quick knockoff of your concepts.

While they may not copy your work exactly, the imitations will capture the look and flavor of your offerings.

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Friday the 13th - Superstitions

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Today is Friday the 13th, the third time it’s happened in 2009. A few of us were talking about it this morning and the topic of superstitions came up. It’s amazing how many people believe in them. It got me thinking how many superstitions we follow in our business. Most of them for no real reason other than this is what we’ve been led to believe to be true.

A superstition is really nothing more than an unexplained belief. Why do people believe that walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror brings bad luck? I’m sure if we researched each one we’d find some interesting stories, but no hard truth. Where I see superstitions at work is in the technical side of the business.

Most of the experienced printers in this industry got their chops by working their way up through the ranks. They started at the bottom and got promoted along the way as others were fired or left. Many of them have no formal printing education other than what they read in the trade press or learn at trade shows and conventions or from traveling company reps.

A common situation is to take this knowledge at face value, never questioning or challenging it. I call this “Tribal Knowledge” as it is passed down by word-of-mouth over the years. Each time it’s passed, something is added, deleted, or communicated incorrectly. After two or three generations it’s often difficult to justify what is being passed on as truth.

In all the time I’ve been involved in the industry, it still amazes me how often something we’ve been hammered on as “the way to do it” actually turns out to be the exact opposite of what we really need to be doing. I think a there are a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is that the knowledge may have been knowingly passed off as wrong to begin with. This often happens when a rep visits a shop and watches something innovative being done. When asked about it, the business owner fabricates a response he knows isn’t correct because he wants to throw the competition off track. The rep takes this information and willingly scatters it along his way, where it gets changed and tweaked each time it’s passed on. The original source passes the bad technique because they want to preserve their “trade secrets.”

Secondly, we have basic ignorance of how things work. Many of our production workers are true blue collar employees. They may only have a high school education, and often times they don’t even have that. Screen printing is full of these kind of workers. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just the way it is. The problem comes when they don’t have enough education to think about what is being told to them. They can reason why something should or should not work. There have been many, many times where someone, trying to be helpful, has passed on a technique or method with authority (this is how it’s done.)

When challenged as to why this works, they buckle. They can’t explain it and they usually will revert to citing where they saw it being done or who told it to them. In either case, we’re not getting the whole story. It is this blind faith that whatever is passed on is right that gets me. Simply asking why it works or how it works is all that’s necessary. If you can’t get a good, believable answer, I’d immediately be suspect.

What does all this mean? Simply, question everything. Look at your own business and see if you can find things you’re doing because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Ask yourself if there’s a better way. There almost always is.

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The Value of Mastermind Groups

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

The first Thursday of every month is reserved for my Mastermind Group. This is a collective of 10 different CEOs from10 different industries. Each of us has a company ranging in size from about $3 Million USD to $50 Million USD in annual sales. None of us compete with each other and there are no conflicts of interest. We gather to discuss business in general and problems and challenges within our companies as a whole. I joined the group over 5 years ago and rarely miss a meeting.

What would cause a person to give up one business day a month to a group of guys that sit around and talk business? The answer to this question lies in the value each of us derives from the group.

Someone once told me your annual income can be loosely calculated to equal the average incomes of the five most influential people you associate with. If this is true, we can also look at the annual income of our companies in the same way. If you do business with a lot of small, local businesses, your business volume will reflect this. If you work with larger corporations, the size of your orders and your annual volume will reflect that as well.

The point here is, if you want to grow, you have to associate with those who are where you want to be. They’ve overcome the challenges you have and achieved a higher level. We can learn from their mistakes and experiences along the way. They can help us with insights on hiring, sales, production, administration, finance, and so forth.

Why would a bunch of larger companies want to hang out with a bunch of small guys? This is a very good question, and the answer lies in “agility.” Small companies tend to be very innovative and responsive. The larger a company gets, the more out of touch it becomes with its workers and the markets. This isn’t always the case, but for the most part the generalization holds true. These big companies are envious of the smaller companies innovative capabilities and their ability to capitalize and implement quickly. So their motivation is to see if they can gleen any wisdom or tricks that will speed up their own innovation cycle.

Napoleon Hill, in his landmark classic business book that everyone should be required to read Think and Grow Rich, proposed the concept of a Mastermind Group. He correctly theorized when you surround yourself with smart, successful, wealthy, experienced, knowledgeable individuals, their skills and influence would rub off on you. As a result, your overall skill set and capabilities rise as well.

It is a brilliant concept I fully endorse. Without outside perspective, we tend to become mired in our own thoughts and circumstances. We can’t seem to make out the difference of the forest for the trees. We become confused and lost in circular thinking. Solutions to problems evade us. What we need is fresh perspective. A Mastermind Group fulfills this purpose beautifully. Every business (or individual for that matter,) should be a part of such a group. The benefits are amazing as are the “AH HAH” moments or realization.

Finally, the Mastermind Group provides another valuable asset. It is accountabilitiy. This group of effective leaders holds each other accountable for things they’ve said and committed to. This need for accountability is crucial for entrepreneurs and business owners who do not report to anyone but themselves. They can’t run and hide behind anything to escape the scruntiny of the other group members. It can be uncomfortable at times, but it is a huge advantage to have this forced accountability. It speeds things up and makes it easier to get things done within the time frame you have budgeted.

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How Innovative Do You Want To Be?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Innovation. One of the key things that’s supposed to differentiate you from your competition. It’s one of the things we value the most about being in business for ourselves. We’ve been told “If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.”

I used to believe this. It’s been one of the things that’s driven me and my businesses over the last 35+ years. But when I sit down and really look at the history and experience of the innovations, and the resulting business that’s resulted from those innovations, I have to take pause.

Personally, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from innovation. I love solving problems and finding a better way of doing things. But there’s a problem with it. Often the problems we choose to solve are only problems for us, and not others. At least, it isn’t a problem for them yet. And there in lies the dilemma.

People and companies that make innovation a key part of their existence position themselves at the front of technology, the market, or whatever. They’re at the cutting or bleeding edge. We used to joke about it, but when times get tight, business is off, and cash needs to be conserved, being on the bleeding edge can be dangerous to your business health. I don’t think it’s any coincidence the companies that innovate the ideas and introduce them are rarely the companies that make money with them.

Here’s the problem. For those on the edge, the problem is apparent and this triggers the need to solve it. For those not on the edge, well, they many not even know a problem exists. When this is the case, the innovators have to take valuable time and spend a bunch of money to educate the market to the extent and need for the problem to be solved. This diverts resources away from the innovation. Since the problem isn’t compelling for them, it’s easy not to embrace or invest in the solution.

Over the years, on more than one occasion, people have approached me at seminars, workshops, tradeshows, and so on and said something to the effect: “Mark, most of the time I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I know I’m going to need to know about in the future.” I used to laugh at it, but it got me to thinking what they were really saying.

It comes down to this. New, innovative ideas, inventions, procedures and the like are of little or no value unless they are tried, implemented, and embraced by the market. We all want a competitive advantage, but it is a thin line we walk between being too far out and having an advantage.

One of the main reasons I write and speak is to expose ideas. I’ve been criticized for this in the past as giving away my “secrets.” I laugh at this because there really are no secrets. Secrets usually mean some shortcut or quick fix to a problem that doesn’t require much effort. Most secrets are just incremental efficiency improvements.

My response to this charge is that it’s dangerous to be too far ahead. It’s a lot like running a long distance race. If you’re a good runner, it’s easy to separate yourself from the pack and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be too far ahead before you realiz you’ve missed a marker and you’re off course. By the time you realize you’re out of the race, you may not be able to recover.

Such is the case with innovation. Especially when it comes to technology. All those new cool gadgets and gizmos, all the new software and operating systems do no good if they aren’t reliable (meaning they work when you need them to work,) or there are other alternative innovations competing with them.

I’m not saying to stop innovating. That would be fundamentally wrong. What I am saying is to make sure the innovation is just slightly ahead of where the market currently is. If it’s an incremental improvement, pretty much everyone will “get it” and it becomes a no brainer to adopt.

It’s the truly innovative, industry changing innovations that are dangerous. Keep an eye out for who is adopting. Open a dialog with them. As long as you aren’t competitive in the same market, they’ll welcome your inquiries. You’ll give them someone else to commiserate with when the dang things break down or don’t work the way they’re supposed to.

For those with true innovations, the path is the same. Create a breadcrumb trail of steps toward the new innovation. The breadcrumbs are the small, babystep innovations that are the no brainers. Introduce them fairly quickly over a few months and you’ll have a much better chance of acceptance.

Adopting new ideas is a dangerous proposition. The inherent nature of people is to be risk averse. Change scares them. Business owners are especially prone to this. They don’t want to mess with something unless it’s broken. Why move ahead when we’re making money doing what we’re doing? That’s the subject of a whole new post.

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