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“Impossible” Is Just An Opinion December 6, 2012

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, Solving Business Problems.
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David Dirks

David Dirks

Impossible.  The word that has closed more minds, doors and opportunities than any other I can think of.  “Impossible” is often a frame of mind and an easy, convenient door stop for shutting just about any challenge, idea, project or thought down.  Cold.

Of course, it was impossible for us to think of anything replacing the horse and buggy.  It was impossible that candles or whale oil could be replaced.  Impossible it was to think that man or woman could fly from one point to another.  Impossible that much medicine could actually fix a bad heart. Impossible that a man could compete in the Olympics with mechanical legs.  Just lot’s of impossibilities out there.

Did you know that Margaret Mitchell was turned down 38 times before a publisher said yes to her manuscript for Gone with the Wind? Or the more recent Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times before getting a publisher?  Steven King was turned down 30 times when he was trying to publish a manuscript titled as Carrie?  The great artist, Monet, had his artwork ridiculed in his day.

At what point do you think that any of these people thought it was going to be “impossible” to get that book published?  The first rejection or the 140th?  The answer is clear.  They didn’t see impossible at the first or last point of rejection.  What they saw in their minds was this:

What the mind can conceive, man can achieve.

Earl Nightingale

We can be thankful that there a few people in every organization that see beyond what many of us see as great, impenetrable walls of impossibility.  Next time you hear someone use the word “impossible”, just remember that what they really told you was that it is possible.

The Experience is the Marketing April 12, 2012

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, Marketing Buzz.
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You want a great marketing strategy?  Create an incredible customer experience and you’ll have the greatest contributor to new and recurring business you could have.  Think about it.  Most business owners and managers think of marketing and promoting their business in the context of spending money on advertising.  While certainly advertising and other forms of marketing your business are key, creating a superior customer experience is the first worthy marketing investment you can make.

This is often a mistake made by new business start-ups who in the heat of battle forget that the experience they create for their customers is the most impressionable and lasting investments they can make.

And it doesn’t much matter that whether you provide a product or service either.  We all know how much Apple pays attention to the user or customer experience.  Every detail of the path their customer takes has been designed and engineered to provide a great and positive experience for the Apple customer.  And yes, Apple spends plenty on traditional advertising and marketing. But I’m willing to bet that the experience of buying from Apple and then working with their products sells more product than the advertising does.

Do you know of a local business where they have created a customer experience that has the impact to keep you going back time and again?

So, for those businesses that compete on price as their primary “marketing” strategy, take note: price is your race to the bottom.

Here are a few things to consider in developing a “marketing experience” for your business:

  • The customer experience begins at the point your prospect or returning customer enters your business – whether through your store or via your website.
  • The first few moments of contact and connection to your business are the most critical.  First impressions are important and immediate impressions are critical.  If the initial impression is negative, you probably have less than a 50% chance of redeeming yourself in front of your customer or prospect.
  • Customer experience has to be designed from end-to-end in order to ensure that the experience is engineered from the time they enter your online or offline store/office to the time they leave.  End-to-end.
  • Layout your customer experience on paper.  You need to be able to describe what positive emotions & attributes you want the customer to get impacted by.  You have to design a flow of experience that incorporates an impression that can be implanted into the customers brain.
  • People within your business provide the most critical impact on a customer.  Make sure that everyone is trained to provide the kind of customer experience that will delight.  If you’ve been to a place like Disney World, you know what I mean.
  • Be flexible and able to adjust your customer experience as you see/hear the reactions from customers. Be willing to test new ways to improve the customer experience.  Look for examples of excellent customer experiences outside of your industry.

Creating an exceptional customer experience is not easy.  If it was, everyone would be doing it and it’s pretty clear most businesses don’t.  A positive customer experience can create customers that stick with you and competitors who can’t follow you.

On Being “Creative” October 27, 2011

Posted by David Dirks in Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz.
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“People who earn the label ‘creative’ are really just people who come up with more combination of ideas, finding interesting ones faster, and are willing to try them out.  The problem is that most schools and organizations train us out of these habits.”  (Scott Berkun as interviewed by Guy Kawasaki in his excellent book, Reality Check).

For as much time as we all seem to spend trying to get to the essence of innovation in ideas, products, services, or whatever, it really does come down to being willing to mix and match different ideas, concepts, thoughts, and experiences and culling out of that process the best creative ideas.  The reality though is that not everyone has that ‘mix & match’ mentality built into their thinking processes.  I also think there are a couple of important components to what Berkum noted.

We can fall victim to our own experiences…good, bad or indifferent.  Being able to step out of your own viewpoint is not easy to do but vital if you want to get beyond the concreteness of your own perceptions on any subject.  By training, we try to put every idea and thought into a category box that we think it fits in.

There is creativity in numbers (but not too many).   The power of one is never better than the power of many but you can over do that like anything else.  Over the years, I’ve found that a rule of thumb for creative problem solving is at least 5 but no more than 10.  And when you can pick a team, pick from a variety of backgrounds and areas of knowledge.  Variety is the spice of creative and innovative thinking.

Defining the problem or challenge clearly and concisely a must.  We’ve all been in those meetings where we are trying to tackle a problem but keep going in circles, never quite getting at the kernel of an idea that could potentially lead to a workable solution.  In most cases, the cause for this cluster is a lack of problem definition.

Capture every kernel of an idea or thought.  I’m a big flip-chart guy.  Put me in a room with people and flip chart and I’m capturing thoughts, ideas, and anything else that moves in that room.  It doesn’t’ have to be neat.  You can always go and sort things out later.  But capture as much input as develops during the course of the discussion….AND DON’T EDIT.  Make sure you are capturing the thoughts and ideas of others in the context they mean it in…instead of slanting it in the context you want.  After a problem solving type meeting, I like nothing better than going back to my office and paper my walls with the charts and just stare at them for a while over a few days.  That’s when ideas start to form and gel.

Prototype and test.  Fast.  Berkun notes, “The best bet is to be an experimenter, a tinkerer — to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers.”

Look, there’s no ‘secret sauce’ to creativity and innovation…just plenty of hard work & trial and error.  That’s why we love to solve problems, isn’t it?

About Business Incubators… November 29, 2010

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, Solving Business Problems.
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Do business incubators really create jobs in a substantive way?  According to the National Business Incubation Association, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.  According to the NBIA, nearly 87% of small businesses using a business incubator survive to their fifth year in business versus only 44% of small businesses who didn’t use an incubator.  Business incubators are once again a hot topic in economic development circles around the country. According to the NBIA, there are about 1,200 active business incubators in the U.S. today.  Conceptually, small business incubators make all the sense in the world.  By providing low operational costs during the early stages of business development, incubators are placing a bet that by subsidizing some of the operational costs of doing business, these start-ups will have a better chance for survival.

Recently, Syracuse University published an extensive research project that focused on the performance of incubators.  Their research tells a different story.

“The findings reveal that the effects of incubation are potentially deleterious to the long-term survival and performance of new ventures. Incubated firms outperform their peers in terms of employment and sales growth but fail sooner…claims that incubators are highly successful and serve a significant number of businesses are overstated.  The comprehensive process used in this study to identify the largest possible sample of incubated firms uncovered a fraction of the number of incubated ventures that supporters of incubation claim exist.  While improvements are likely possible to the methods used in this study, this study roundly refutes the poorly documented and unpublished studies that cite much larger numbers of incubated firms and much higher levels of performance.  The methods and findings of this study showcase that more research is necessary to fully understand the effectiveness of incubation programs. Until then, these findings are instructive in helping and motivating business incubators to improve their past performance.”

The truth is, there isn’t a lot of substantive and unbiased research on the long term results of small business incubators.  If you don’t believe me, just look for yourself.  Lots of claims of success from the likes of the NBIA, which has an obviously biased interested in promoting the concept of incubation and others.

Are incubators important to economic development (since it’s reported that nearly 94% of them are non-profit and sponsored for local economic development)?  The short answer is yes.  There are certainly success stories of small businesses who have survived the early years and have grown out of incubation.  And we know that small business is the engine of job creation in the U.S.

Is public/private subsidized incubation an good long term investment?  Here are my thoughts on this based on my own research so far.

1.  Tighter vetting of potential applicants for an incubation program is a must. There is no amount of incubation that can fix a badly designed business model.  The failure rate of small business is high mostly because people start a business that has an inherent flaw.  Like starting a cash-intensive business without proper funding for the first 3-5 years or starting a business because it sounds like a neat idea until we found out that few people are willing to purchase the goods or services.  Having a business plan in hand means little if it isn’t vetted against the same kind of tough questioning and criteria a venture capitalist would use.  You don’t just let any business who can show you that they can pay for the incubation services in unless their business plan and model have been deeply vetted.  Many incubators are funded with public money and what I’m proposing helps insure that taxpayer dollars are invested in only the best of the start-ups.

2. Even after vetting the best small business opportunities, failure is part of the process. You have to expect to fail to some degree in order to succeed in the long run.  If you study the vetting process used by venture capitalists, you find that despite their best efforts, a percentage of their investments will fail.  That doesn’t mean you should run from the idea of either using or creating a incubator.  This just means that failure is an expectation in the early start-up phase.

The key question is: what have we learned from the failures that we can successfully transfer to new participants?

3.  Targeted versus generic incubator? Most incubators are general purpose in focus, which means they will entertain any type of start-up for admission into their programs after meeting their criteria.  My business sense is that a focused, industry-specific incubator program has the best chance of impacting economic development.  For example, if an area was focusing on solar power panels, then creating an incubator program to attract and retain those kinds of firms would be inherently a powerful way to have real impact in business attraction.  A industry-focused incubator program would operate on a triad of providing 1) specifically designed space suited to that industry, 2) Access to research & development available in that industry, and 3) access to investment capital be it private angel networks or other investment programs.

For an area that wants to put a stake in the ground that targets a specific industry, having an incubator program that has industry-specific expertise is a winning differentiator.

4. Intellectual capital is just as important as investment capital. The incubator subsidy is surely helpful to a start-up but I believe the quality of the intellectual capital that is made available to these incubator start-ups is even more vital.  There is no substitute, especially in the early stages, for providing seasoned and unbiased business professionals who can ask the right questions in their field of expertise.  Asking the right questions leads to helping the business owner/manager in their own learning process and education.  I believe an incubator has to have only the best available expert talent available to its participants.  Those that serve as the intellectual base for an incubator need to be vetted as well. 

5.  Regular and intensive business reviews of all participants is required. Incubation participants should be prepared to go through an intensive business review process based on performance benchmarks that have been set up as a part of the business plan/model.  If a business wants to participate and receive subsidized business services (especially from public money), it should be prepared to undergo a rigorous business review process that does a deep dive on current business performance.  This process allows the incubator leadership to assess and help identify resources for areas that need immediate attention…and before they become a real threat to long term success.

6.  An incubation program takes long-term vision. Community leadership, both public and private have to have a clear vision for the long-term effort required to create enough success stories to offset the public and/or private investment required for organic business growth. 

7.  Equity in participating start-ups should be explored. Today, most incubators look to break-even on the services they subsidize to start-up companies in return for the potential for new job creation and tax base expansion.  However, I would argue that to qualify for access to a powerful incubator program, start-ups would be required to give a percentage of equity to the incubator.  It might be a small percentage (perhaps between 5-10%) but it would at least provide an additional possibility of the incubator program generating more capital to invest back into the program when their equity position was sold.  The incubator equity would be in exchange for the subsidy received by the business.  In this scenario, incubators would not have to provide any additional funding other than their current program offerings to receive an equity slice.  I think that’s a fair proposition, especially for incubators that receive funding from public tax dollars.

8.  Organic business growth is a key differentiator for economic development. Traditional economic development relies primarily on new business acquisition and current business expansion as a measurement of performance.  Developing the infrastructure for becoming a magnet for new start-up business is a way for regions or counties to differentiate themselves from their competitors.  A high-performing, fully funded, and well-equipped start-up program tells other potential businesses looking to relocate that the area is truly committed to business expansion and job growth.

Business incubators I believe can play a critical role in long-term organic business growth.  The key to incubator success starts with engineering the program to run itself like a for-profit business.  An incubator with a strong, well vetted intake process along with a substantive and ongoing business performance/review process, and the best business support resources stands the best chance of creating lasting jobs for any region.

Retail Mega Giant without Brick & Mortar? September 23, 2010

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, Solving Business Problems, Strategy.
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The era of brick & mortar is being tested by some of the biggest players in brick & mortar stores.  Now Wal-Mart, in its drive to capture more urban market share, is experimenting with shipping online purchases for free from its website.  Working with Fedex, Wal-Mart is offering free delivery of online purchased products directly to a Fedex location.

So, without having to invest in urban brick & mortar locations, Wal-Mart gets a chance to sell product to those mostly younger buyers who are not inhibited to make online purchases.  This is also a smart move for Fedex who gets to develop the same distribution service for other large retailers as well.

I like this on several levels.  First, it proves that you can weld an idea from common elements.  Merging online selling with the distribution power of your delivery service is great example of this.  Secondly, it proves that even big dogs like Wal-Mart can think out of the box to solve key challenges.  Third, It once again proves that there are other ways to conduct business than by investing in retail structure.

Wal-Mart and Fedex are thinking beyond the usual in looking for ways to grow their businesses.  So should we.

CNNMoney on Innovation: Too Simplistic February 27, 2009

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz, Retailer Store Strategies.
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David DirksThe headline on this CNNMoney posting dated February 26th, 2009 read, “On sale: Your brillant invention”.  The gist of this article is that some businesses, particularly retailers and some manufacturers, are scrambling to find the next ‘great product’ or invention that will help them manage their way through slow retail sales and worsening economy.  It suggests that businesses should be ‘mining the masses for fresh ideas’.  It also suggests  that you ask you customers for their ideas, which is always a good start.

But do you know what I call this?  I call it ‘drive-by-innovation’ as in ‘drive-by-shooting’.  While I applaud the note that businesses should be creating ways to innovate on services and products they provide their customers, it leaves the reader thinking it’s easy.  It isn’t easy.  And asking your customers might make sense on one level, you miss another level entirely.

I’ve been studying innovation and the Big Dogz who do it well, both large and small, for many years now.  I can assure you that truly innovative businesses have something the others don’t: a deep and binding organizational comittment to innovation.  From top to bottom and bottom to top, innovative companies have integrated the basis for innovation deep into the culture and roots of their organization.

To think that you can haul in some customers, get some ‘ideas’, and create something someone will want to pay for is woefully too simplistic!  Yes, talking to your customers is a good place to start but only a small piece of a larger innovation pie.

The long shot here is that you’ll actually find an idea that makes sense to develop.  The next long shot is figuring out how to go from idea to actual product or service.  If innovation was as easy as asking your customers for ideas, everyone would do it, right?  Please, my head hurts from thinking about this simplistic mindset.

Surely we encourage businesses of all sizes to innovate.  A truly innovative business has the capability of generating a consistent stream of product and service innovations on a regular basis.  It has the ability to bring them to market and make a profit.

Doing anything less will leave your business and your customers wondering what went wrong.

Innovation in the Newspaper Business – 1 February 7, 2009

Posted by David Dirks in Increasing Your Profitability, Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz, Recession: How to Beat It!, Sales Strategy/Tactics.
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David DirksFor quite some time now, I’ve been watching and musing over the struggle that the newspaper publishing business is going through.  Craigslist has usurped the leading role  of providing classified advertising that the newspaper once held.  They’ve done that by providing free classified ads that actually work.  They are geographically specific and apparently people read them…online that is.

Is online the answer?  Well, I’m not so sure about that in the sense that newsprint websites haven’t solved the revenue and profitability issues…at least not yet.  I was talking to a friend of mine recently who was on the mark when he said: newspapers had a huge window of opportunity to get into the web business years ago but they by and large left it behind.  It was a big window of opportunity that has since been taken over by blogs and other free portals to news like CNN, CNBC, and the like with their online websites.

What’s left?  Well, I think the win in publishing is this: don’t look for a big hit to bring revenues and profitability home.  Everybody seems bent in the industry to find the holy grail that will revitalize the publishing business model.  I have news for you: there is no such thing as a ‘big hit’ here.  The victory in the newspaper business I believe will come from incremental successes.  The victory will be many pieces of the revenue puzzle all coming together to create a healthier publishing model for the newspaper business.

What incremental pieces?  Already in play is the newspaper website that is tightly integrated with the print version and produces some level of revenues.  The cost to publish online should in fact be quite minimal compared to the infrastructure necessary to print a paper.  Selling advertising on both platforms has been well underway for a while now.  Not enough to rebuild the business model but important nonetheless.

What else can you sell if you’re in the newspaper business?  Try this one on for size: CONTENT.  Newspapers produce a ton of content daily, weekly, etc.  The current business model is publish today and forget tomorrow. 

There is always some excellent journalism that gets forgotten and never reused in any purposeful way as soon as the next edition hits the newstands.

Purposefully repackaging selected content is another way to create increment revenues and profits.  You already paid for journalists to create the copy that drives the content.  Why not get additional mileage from it?

How?  How about creating and selling special hard and softcover editions of specialized topics?  What editions?  How about “The HS Sports Year in Review 2008”?  Or “The Year in Review 2009 for (name your town/city here)”?  You could probably find many other specialized areas of interest that could be repackaged and sold in another format.  People like to see and hear about themselves, their local sports team,  in the newspaper?  What kid or parent wouldn’t want to buy the the “The Hudson Valley Sports Review 2008?” as a momento or gift?  With print-on-demand technology today, you don’t even need to keep a large inventory of these specialized editions.

I like the local sports repackaging.  You have basically 365 days of sports content and surely you can find enough great stories to fill a book.

You could also produce other digital products.  Many newspapers today use video to record special events and newsworthy items.  That content is repurposed mostly for the newspaper website.  But who says you can’t produce a ‘year in review’ dvd?  Same concept as the book only this time your adding live footage of sports and news events of the year…couple with some great photography.  What a great way to repackage video footage and digital photographs?  I’ll bet you could create a great ‘year in review’ just based on photography alone!

Yes, it’s the ‘Time-Life” version of repackaging great content to sell another day!

Repurpose your content.  Newspapers are great researching and writing it.  Let’s not waste the work of the excellent journalists who toil to create it.  Repackage and repurpose everything!

What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Let me know your thoughts!

Finding Innovations for Your Business: Podcast 3 June 14, 2008

Posted by David Dirks in Big Dogz Podcasts, Creativity, Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz.
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So…you understand just how innovation can help to differentiate your business from your competition. You also understand how the right innovations can lead to producing high value products or services that customers want and pay for. Now the question is, where are the sources of innovation? In this podcast, we explore a few obvious and not so obvious sources for the creative ideas you need to fuel innovation in your business. Not every great idea is a practical innovation, but you need to find the many in order to implement the few.

Listen in as Dave discusses his thoughts on resources for creating potential innovations.

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Small Business Innovation: Podcast June 6, 2008

Posted by David Dirks in Big Dogz Podcasts, Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz.
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Today I started a series on innovation and it’s implications on helping you grow & sustain a healthy business over the longrun in my The Big Dogz on Business” column in the Times Herald-Record (www.recordonline.com and go to the Business section).

This is the first in a series of podcasts designed to compliment the column series on innovation.  This series will cover types of innovation available to you, how to draw on the resources already at your disposal to create innovations in your business, and most importantly, how to bring those innovations to market and insure your customers and potential customers know about it.

Innovating in your business is critical, regardless of your size or the type of industry you’re in, and is here to stay.  Here’s how you can run with the big dogz and create a lasting and profitable business.

Have questions about innovation or have a success story of your own regarding innovation?  We’d like to hear about it and share it with the world!  Email me at: dirksmarketing@gmail.com

bigdogzpodcast-innovation060608

Outsourcing Product Innovation February 28, 2008

Posted by David Dirks in Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz, Solving Business Problems.
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dirksphoto.jpgProcter & Gamble is clearly in the Big Dogz league and always has been. Recently, I was reading the March issue of Fast Company (www.fastcompany.com) and found an interesting article on P&G. It seems that P&G couldn’t create new products fast enough, so it decides to jump-start its product innovation process. What it ended up doing is launching its ‘Connect + Develop’ program. This program allows outside product developers to get their product innovations and designs into their pipeline. They have created a process for externally outsourcing some of their some product innovation and development.

With P&G sharing development costs and profits with outside innovators, it has gained a huge market advantage in being able to bring more products into the market than ever before.

Hmmm. How about you? Have you thought about inviting outside vendors/innovators to be part of your outsourced product/service development pipeline? How can you apply what P&G has done to reduce product development cycle times, reducing development costs, and increasing revenues and profits?

Anything is possible.