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Maximum targets

I find myself increasingly thinking about maximum targets rather than minimum ones:

The maximum…

  • number of hours you want to work in a day…
  • …days in a year…
  • …years until you retire
  • amount you can earn while still enjoying life away from your desk
  • level of destruction & waste you are willing to inflict upon the world to run your business (we all have an impact of some kind, normally far higher than we realise)
  • number of hours in a week you allow staff to work so they can thrive (it’s probably lower than you want it to be)
  • number of clients you can happily support without compromising on quality;
  • price you can charge
  • miles you are willing to travel (or drive) to a meeting
  • number of meetings you’ll attend in a day / week / month

There are many, many more of course, depending on your business, your desires, the world you want to live in and the world you want to leave behind.

The desire for, or expectation of, unending growth is one of the most toxic elements of our economy: it takes us far from any notion of the circular economy which sees the natural world thrive and change slowly over time.

Endless growth requires unlimited resources, which we simply do not possess. By setting maximum targets and then working within them we can begin to live better, more harmonious lives which benefit ourselves, friends and family, community, and the wider world around us.

An ash tree, for example, left to grow unchecked, will probably have a maximum growth and life span of about 200 years. But set a maximum target for its life and you could coppice it every 10-20 years so it might survive for 1,000, benefitting a vast number of humans, fungi, flora, and fauna, in a small, repeated way throughout process.

Or, the way for a single human to make the most from a ash today is to simply find some fully-grown ones, chop the whole thing down and then dig out the stumps to grow a monoculture of crops.

Maximum targets, in other words, help us think about the future; minimum ones make us think only about today. That’s why so many businesses take the cheapest route, regardless of the consequences tomorrow. By doing this, businesses can also offset the true cost of production to other people and increase profits.

It’s easy to do anything if you don’t have to clear-up after yourself.

Each of the above has an impact beyond what you might first think: and by applying limits and edges to what we do we often find more creative approaches to achieve our targets.

What are your maximum targets?

Greater awareness

Most customers don’t know as much about your business as you might think, partly because they probably don’t care about your business as much as you might hope.

I used to offer website hosting services but, even with a few hundred customers signed up, I didn’t really push the website design service which was actually my bread and butter: as far as I was concerned they were almost two separate businesses.

The rash, and wrong, assumption was that anyone who was buying hosting probably had a website and was happy enough with it.

When I wrote about different levels of awareness in my last email I failed to mention a critically important point:

The same person can have different levels of awareness about your business.

I had people right there in front of me, who had gone through every level of awareness I needed: they had realised they had a problem, found a solution, found that I offered the solution and decided that my business was the right pick for them.

But I still missed out on work because they had a completely different level of awareness about another part of my business.

One of the first things I encourage new clients to do is take a look at who they’re already working with, and what they’re doing, or, rather, not doing for them. Where the gaps are. And there are always gaps: people you may have been working with for years who aren’t aware of a particular product or service you sell.

What’s often ridiculous is — as with my hosting/website mistake — how incredibly easy a problem it is to solve. Most businesses either have a small enough number of customers to make it simple to review the gaps, or a big enough number which means there’s some kind of half-decent database in place to put together some simple emails to bring everyone into the loop.

Awareness

There is (rightly) a lot of time and attention given to understanding who potential customers are: basic demographics such as age, location, interests and so on.

What’s often forgotten are the multiple, endless journeys those people are making through varying states of awareness: awareness about your product, your company, the market you’re in and, of course, the problems they have. Eugene Schwartz, a renowned copywriter, wrote a book in the 1960s called Breakthrough Advertising, where he identified five levels of awareness customer / market awareness.

Imagine someone arriving at Google (or, better, Ecosia). What are they searching for, and how will you help them?

Most Aware…
1. The customer knows of you, and your product/service, and how it can help them.

Then why haven’t they bought from you?

They’ll tap in your business’s name, if they haven’t just gone straight to your website. When did you last check what shows in the search engines when someone searches for your business? Are your opening hours correct, your business location and address and so on?

Once they’re at your website, what’s the single thing they are most likely to need or want to do next, and how do you help them do it?

  1. The customer knows of you & your product/service but isn’t sure whether it’s the right match for them.

What are people saying about you online? Reviews, social media chatter, local Facebook groups? Is there a useful mailing list option on your website, a way for people to find out more about you, what you do and what you stand for? Does your website explain how you can help?

  1. The customer knows the solution to their need or problem, but isn’t aware of your existence.

They’re certainly not going to search for you by name, because they don’t know it. So how else might they find you? Search engines; asking around for recommendations (either privately — friends, family, colleagues, connections, or publicly — social media for instance); spotting or remembering an advert; reading an article on a relevant website.

If they stumble across you, you’ll need to show them quickly that you can help. Do you?

  1. The customer knows they have a need, problem or desire, but isn’t quite sure what the solution is.

“How do I…” questions in search engines; asking for advice; research. What they do depends to a certain extent on the size of the problem, but if you can put yourself in a position to help and educate them you are well-placed to create a new customer in the future.

You could write articles, share knowledge, use social media or advertising. Make sure you’re solving the problem, selling the solution.

…Least Aware
5. The ‘customer’ isn’t even aware of the problem or need, let alone a product or service (or your company) which can help.

Urgh. You may need to create a new market, or at least a whole new area of interest, desire or fashion. You’ll probably need to spend a lot of money on advertising, PR and education. Perhaps what you’ve created will change the world, perhaps it’ll bankrupt you. Good luck!


Where you choose to pitch your marketing is up to you. As you get further down the list it gets harder, and more expensive, to find people who are interested, but the results can also be great.

What stage a person might be at in their level of awareness should influence how you communicate with them. Your website, for example, should probably be built to cater to several different levels: it should be easy for someone to become a customer of course, but you also need to consider that some people are not quite ready to buy, and need a little help to either understand their problem, or your service, better. You can then promote different parts of your website in different ways. In some situations, multiple websites might even be the answer, but perhaps be careful if that recommendation comes from someone with a vested interest in you paying them to build multiple websites.

One final thought about search engines: the more specific someone’s query, the closer they are to buying something. It’s worth keeping in mind when you’re writing articles, blogs, web pages, social media posts or whatever else you choose to do.

A post about an email about email

(This was sent to my email list, which you can join here)

I actually invented a system which could track emails being received and opened, letting me know who had read the email, and when.

Some time around the turn of the century—an almost absurdly archaic phrase; although as a child of the ’80s and a teen of the ’90s, the year 2000 still sounds impossibly futuristic—I was exclusively involved in building websites, registering domain names and setting up hosting for clients who I’d find by sitting down each week with my local Yellow Pages, and writing a letter to a few dozen businesses in a random category.

Posting things, or direct mail as I discovered it was called, was my first foray into marketing, but my switch to email started for practical reasons—I didn’t really want to have to pay money (buy a stamp) to send an invoice, which I still quaintly posted, so I started emailing them.

I was having problems with a client not paying, and they would deny ever receiving the emailed invoice. It occurred to me that I could write a short piece of code, put it on my website and embed that code into the email by pretending it was an image. Every time the code loaded, i.e. every time the email was opened, it recorded the date, time and IP address of the person who opened it.

Next time they claimed they hadn’t received an invoice I sent them a list of the dates and times they had opened it. They posted me a cheque (!) and once it had cleared I fired them.

But I was excited about my new system, and the uses it could have, only to be slightly dismayed to discover an entire world of email marketing—based entirely around my idea—already existed and was thriving.

Of course, I jumped right in and transferred the direct mail skills I’d learned into digital, putting it to use primarily for clients instead of myself. In the early 2010s I decided one day that I’d start emailing everyone on my contact list every single weekday morning, something I managed to do for a couple of years before changing circumstances got the better of me.

It’s still the single best business decision I’ve made, and whenever I now think about what I should be doing better, the first answer is almost always: write an email.

There is both a longevity and consistency to email which doesn’t exist in the ever-changing fashions of social media or the ever-changing algorithms of search engine optimisation for your website. There’s an efficiency which doesn’t exist in direct mail, an intimacy which doesn’t exist in advertising.

One of my favourite books, The Man who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, tells the allegory of a lone shepherd who reforested a barren valley in Provence by planting 100 acorns a day in his slow, steady way.

Over the years enough of the trees grew – although many were lost. But he kept planting, didn’t lose hope. The forest grew, streams returned as did the plants and animals which rely on them. People returned to abandoned villages and communities sprung up.

To me, that’s what email is about: not so much the big, exciting campaigns (although they have their place), but the steady, solid relationships you can build by just keeping in touch with people.

If it’s something you’d like to try, or have already tried but not really succeeded, drop me a line.

The Glorious Twelfth?

The obvious thing to write today is that isn’t it great the country is opening up which must be wonderful for everyone and here are five things you must do as we come out of unprecedented times I hope you and your family are well during these strange times but we’re all in it together and now more than ever we must think about the new normal.

And I think you’re on mute.

In reality I know of businesses which have thrived because of lockdown; of others which have have sadly gone to the wall, with help or change coming too little and too late; of some have just about clung on and of a number which have adjusted—positively and permanently—the work they do.

Some businesses are reopening today knowing they probably won’t make a profit, or break even, for a while because they can’t fill enough tables or seats, or get enough people in through the doors to balance staff and operating costs.

Others might even see their takings drop as people go back to old habits. People who sell DIY hairdressing kits online are already looking wistfully to the recent past, I’m sure. Hairdressers, must be optimistic, but frustrated they won’t be able to fit as many people in as they’d like due to space restrictions and cleaning requirements. I’m just glad they won’t be charging me by the weight of the hair I need shorn.

That it’s the twelfth is just a coincidence, probably: the so-called Glorious Twelfth is that day in August when grouse shooting begins. A glorious day if you’re a fan of such things, perhaps less so if you’re a grouse (or if you’re one of the many predators shot, poisoned or trapped to ensure a steady supply of birds, or if you’re someone who prefers a sport when everyone involved gets to enjoy it).

In other words, changes, new days, fresh starts, even when clearly planned and forecast, tend to be good for some and not for others. Some will thrive and others will fail or fall. Some will be able to blame others, some should accept responsibility for their own mistakes. Some, either through luck or judgement, will be running businesses unaffected, or simply paused, by Covid, others will need to take time to rebuild and perhaps even restructure. Or start again.

Step outside and the natural world carries on regardless. We’ve already had the first fledgling of the year in our garden: a young thrush just a few weeks old being fed by a parent. In the wood we bought last year the cherry blossom is out, the bluebells are just beginning to break up the now-green floor, delicate flowers fall from the towering larches and scatter at our feet (photo below), badgers are digging out their sett ready for the birth of cubs… spring is undoubtedly, and always, an optimistic time of year to be out and about.

The flora, fauna and fungi (collectively called ‘biota’, if you’re either interested or play Scrabble) simply get on with it. They adapt as needs arise, although failure tends to benefit future generations more than their own.

As humans we have the luxury of failing, learning and evolving within our own lifetimes, a privilege even if it doesn’t necessarily feel so in the moment. I’m teetering on the verge of cliché, but I’m sure we’ve all learned at least something about ourselves since last March, and most people I know expect to change at least some aspect of themselves as we emerge into our own springtime, if they haven’t already.

Personally, I’m as happy as I think I’ve ever been with my business, and have probably spent as much time over the last year helping people with themselves as with their marketing. I’m still standing by my fundamental principles, which haven’t needed updating—even if my website does. It’s on the list.

Nature’s lessons

Even for small businesses, nature already has most of the answers we need, if you know where to look. Millions—billions—of years of continuous improvement and survival of the fittest offer a pretty solid baseline.

In fact, the twelve fundamental principles which have been something of a cornerstone for me over the last seven or eight years are entirely based on aspects of the natural world.

This article covers some of the patterns we see in nature: waves, spirals, branches, cells and webs / nets, and how they apply to you and your business.

Wave

In nature: tides, seasons, moon phases, heartbeats, day & night.

Few businesses have consistent sales throughout the course of a year.

Some obviously so: campsites tend to do better in July than March. B2B markets often slow in August as people go on holiday (sometimes to campsites…) and December as the focus switches to Christmas. November and January are bad for bars and restaurants, as people save for December or suffer the post-festive hangover. And so on.

(November 2020 is of course catastrophic for bars and restaurants and many other businesses, but I’m trying to operate on a pretence of normality. I think we’re all becoming tired of banks and supermarkets running adverts to remind us it’s been an ‘unusual year’.)

There are other influences too, not always related to the calendar. Fashions change, as do governments, policies and laws; your personal enthusiasm and motivation for your business may wax and wane; even simple luck—good or bad—can play a part.

Many people find they work better in the early morning, afternoon or at night. Understanding the pattern of these waves is vital if you want to harness them.

Spiral

In nature: seed heads, pinecones, galaxies, tornados.

Spirals start small and grow outwards. Nothing happens overnight: if you want a thousand customers you still have to start with one, then two, five, ten and upwards.

Take the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

If you want to build something from scratch this is a reasonable growth strategy. Use each number as a milestone to fine-tune your technique, then plan a strategy to reach your next stage. Optimise and eventually automate to move through each level.

You can (and perhaps should) be relatively inefficient at first. You’ll learn faster doing thing manually instead of trying to second-guess everything from day one.

It’s fine to spend a whole day or week to get your first customer in, or your first genuinely useful subscriber to your mailing list, but by the time you add higher numbers you will need to be more efficient.

Positive growth spirals come in the form of retained (and repeat) customers. Monthly fees, annual subscriptions and repeat purchases all build over time. As well as income, word of mouth grows exponentially. 144 people telling 10 friends introduces your business to 1,440 new potential customers; higher income lets you invest in better systems; the more satisfied customers you have, the more positive online reviews you’re receive, and so it grows.

Branches

In nature: trees, rivers, evolution, even blood vessels.

One person running one business selling one product to one market in one way is a risky route to take. There are too many points of failure.

A literal example: if a tree loses a branch it survives; but a sapling has a single point of failure. Trees, businesses and even ideas are at their most vulnerable during their early stages, and if they fail to create branches as they grow.

A diverse, flexible business gives you more strength. There are many options, not all applicable to everyone:

  • Adapt what you sell to different markets or payment terms
  • Create multiple products or services which will sell to different people
  • Expand geographically: sell across your region, country or worldwide
  • Don’t rely entirely on a single supplier or member of staff
  • Gather contacts and generate customers from more than one source
  • Don’t be platform-dependent: if you’re not in control of the platform, you’re not in control of your business. For example, if you run your business through Facebook, or generate leads only from SEO, you are putting your entire business in the hands of someone else.

Branches like this allow you to sacrifice poor-performing areas, or to recover from unpredicted changes.

Cells

In nature: berries, scales, feathers, bees

There is strength in numbers: multiple small groups of contacts and customers will help you build a stronger business. And like with branches, if you lose one group it has a lower impact on the rest.

Technology makes customising experiences easy. A bookshop can send relevant suggestions to their customers, and even bring them together in reading / book groups.

Each cell in a honeycomb creates edges to connect it to multiple others: customers, businesses and suppliers. And don’t forget all those edges are where the exciting things happen. Think of the fragility of a single roof slate, but the strength and protection given by the entire roof. How can you apply that principle to your business?

Web / Net

In nature: Spiders’ webs, coral, birds’ nests, leaf veins

More connections help us increase our return, but also spread the load. People working well together can be stronger, and more flexible, than a straight hierarchy. The bigger and stronger the web, the more likely we are to catch what we need.

Webs and nets are also repairable: if something goes wrong in one part of your business it can be fixed before it damages the rest.

Perhaps the most obvious example is a network of connections you can turn to for help, even if you work alone. People to ask for advice, or support, or who might buy from you. Distribution networks also tend to be more efficient, and I suppose we shouldn’t forget the web/internet itself. Without that, you wouldn’t still be reading this.

Thanks for getting this far. Do let me know what you think, and if you want any help applying any of this to your business.

Primal thinking

I’ve worked with small businesses for over 20 years now, almost always directly with the owners. I’ve seen them—the owners and the businesses—thrive, struggle, fight and flail, and implement just about every combination of the idea and execution multiplier.

However perfect or flawed, I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who care deeply about their business, products, services, staff and customers. Even if they don’t realise it they are creating an ecosystem, a holon: a system in its own right, but part of a bigger system. Think ants in a nest in a wood in the countryside in the world. You might even employ, correctly for once, that overused word ‘synergy’. The business they’ve created provides more value than its parts would alone.

All of which makes me unsure how to describe exactly how I feel about today: Amazon Prime Day.  Despressed is maybe too strong a word. A sense of ennui, perhaps.

Sadness that, like Black Friday, there exists such a manufactured celebration of consumption (we already have Christmas for that!).

Perhaps even guilt that I’m part of an industry—however distantly—which has helped create this.

There are plenty of reasons to avoid Amazon generally. A company where employees of probably the richest man in history “resort to urinating in bottles and trash cans around the warehouse so that they won’t miss their strict time targets”; whose returns are thrown into landfill rather than redistributed.

(Incidentally, and perhaps appropriately with hindsight, Amazon’s initial name was ‘Relentless’. It was changed because it sounded too sinister, but the domain relentless.com still redirects to Amazon.)

Amazon isn’t the sole problem, of course, and it’s an easy target. But it’s not a bad place to start if you’re thinking about how your purchasing has an impact on the world.

“But it’s cheaper”… of course, but you already make plenty of decisions which aren’t based on getting the lowest cost. The car you drive, the house you live in, the clothes you wear.

Books are arguably a fungible good (the product is the same wherever you buy it), but the experience is not. The impact you have on society, and individuals, is not.

Every pound you spend is your personal vote for how you want the world to look.

I buy my books now from a man called Simon who runs the Big Green Bookshop in Brighton. It’s not big, and used to be a physical shop in London but he and his family moved to the coast and turned it ‘virtual’ for a better life and no crippling business rates.

They cost a pound or two more, and take a day or two longer to arrive, but that doesn’t really matter. I send him a message on Twitter with what I want, PayPal over the money and get the book. He even says “thank you”, and means it. A far more wholesome experience.

Ethics.

My wife and I recently bought a small woodland. Just under three acres of ancient arboreal bliss; a sanctuary for us of course, but primarily a place for the trees, flora, fauna and fungi to thrive.

It’s reminded me—this year of all years—what’s important. Strong and steady is better than fast and furious. It’s also helped both create and resolve some conflict I feel around my work, which I’ll come back to in a moment.

Some notes I made beside the campfire on our last visit:

The trees are calm and strong. They grow slowly but steadily. They bend and stretch to find a perfect path to light and sunshine, but their strong roots and trunk support them as they reach for astonishing heights.

They sway with the wind rather than fight against it, change as the seasons dictate, thrive during the good years, and survive during the bad. They stand proud, alone, but connect to all around them; they flourish as individuals, but prosper as a community.

And even if they don’t survive their legacy continues, in the seeds they’ve sown and the many shoots they put out. They think not in minutes, hours and days, but in years, decades and centuries.

It’s no coincidence I’ve been reading Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor in conjunction with this new adventure. I highly recommend it, and it’ll make you reflect on how you live, and what you are leaving behind.

The juxtaposition of the slow pace of nature and the world of commerce, marketing and advertising is something I’ve been fighting within myself for years. Companies expect growth, they expect fast—often instant—results.

A demand for speed and profit creates shortcuts, without thought for the consequences. The consequences are almost unlimited but might include pollution; lies and scamming; morale sucked from employees; price gouging; trickle-up economics. Shareholders prioritised over society.

The richest can get richer even during an international crisis, while those who provide the labour for that wealth grow ever poorer.

Consumption and waste, our throwaway society, are overwhelming the planet. The McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-through rubbish which litters our verges are the perfect example of wealth creation without responsibility. People save valuable minutes of their lives sitting in an idling car outside a restaurant, pumping out fumes, and casually discarding the packaging as they drive through the countryside at a speed which makes their actions inconsequential to themselves. The profits vanish from the local area, and nobody is healthier or significantly happier.

I’ll probably never work for either of the aforementioned companies, for a multitude of reasons. And there are a few other industries and businesses I avoid working with too. But is, say, an organic restaurant which flies ingredients from abroad and pays minimum wage a better company than a non-organic one which uses local produce and pays well?

The distinction is almost impossible, and will be different for different people. And probably unnecessary to document, because it’s just me, and I can make a decision every time I take on a new client.

And what about the services I provide? I’ve always refused requests to write dishonest copy, or to invent testimonials. When I was building websites I fought hard against overly-invasive advertising, tracking and manipulation. But my lines in the sand are invariably different to others’. Should I refuse a marketing project to send thousands of cheap, disposable plastic keyrings out as a promotional tool?

Every decision we make about our businesses and our lives will involve some form of compromise. Perhaps at best we can simply accept this and consider it.

Anyway, I’m off to make dinner using some non-organic spring onions, which were grown just a happy handful of miles from my home but packaged in non-recyclable plastic, bought from about as ethical a national chain as there is right now.

But I drove to the shop because it was raining.

Change it.

One thing a lot of business owners talk to me about is the desire for a clean sheet.

“If only I could start again without these particular clients / staff / problems / debts / unpaid invoices / services I shouldn’t have started selling / software I shouldn’t have started using…”

It’s like wanting to live in a computer game. Your character dies, so you start again with all your lives in tact, but you retain the knowledge from your previous mistakes. Conscious reincarnation, if you like.

And while there are always ways to start again in real-life, it’s never quite as clean and easy as a floating ghost of a cartoon character drifting off the screen to some descending music (I admit my computer game experience is not particularly current).

The obvious question is: if you regret a decision, what can you do about it? And perhaps more importantly, what’s holding you back from making a change?

Why won’t you change?
If you’ve introduced a new service or product to your business, a new member of staff or way of working and it’s not going so well, is there a genuine reason why you can’t change it?

Or do you just not want to admit that you got something wrong?

People will go to extraordinary lengths to justify a previous decision (or opinion) in spite of overwhelming contradictory evidence. You can choose between being miserable for months or years or being a bit embarrassed for probably a couple of days (don’t forget that nobody remembers your mistakes as clearly as you do).

Understanding sunk costs
Your decisions shouldn’t be based on unrecoverable money or time: you can’t change the past, you can only change how you react to your current situation.

If you’ve invested money in, say, a project to set-up a new project management system and it’s very clearly not going to work, the answer is not to throw more money at it, but to work out whether you can live with what you have, abandon it completely or start again.

Take the benefits
Every time something goes wrong you’ll learn from it. Use your experience from the last staff hire to get the next one right.

Whilst failure isn’t something to be celebrated, it can be turned into a positive experience. In life you do get to start over, much more than you think you do. And you’re always a more experienced, more knowledgeable person for it.

Act
If something isn’t right, change it. Why wouldn’t you?

Best wishes,

Tom

Circles of influence

I love the replies I get to these emails. Additional snippets of information, tales of success or failure, occasional confessions and new ideas.

One came through last week in the midst of a particularly hectic few days about ‘circles of influence’. An expansion on the wish for ‘serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference’ – but focused more on people.

In this case it was based on numbers of people at each ‘level’, and is a way of reminding yourself how many people fall into each group, and what attention you should pay them. For example:

  • Immediate family
  • Parents, siblings, near family
  • Employees
  • Clients
  • Close friends
  • Local community
  • Rest of the world

The difficulty perhaps comes where priorities collide. You might, for example, value time with your closest friend more than your most-difficult client…

But it helps to focus on what’s important to you. Where you should pay attention and – crucially – where you shouldn’t.

Interestingly, when you start to really narrow it down the numbers of people who are truly, genuinely important to you aren’t that high. Next time you hear something on the news that angers you (i.e. next time you listen to the news), consider what you’ll achieve by reacting to it.

Then consider what you’ll achieve by sending a quick message of hello how are you to that good friend you’ve been a bit too busy to contact this last few weeks.

Best wishes,

Tom