Level of Debate

I’d recently interviewed a young man and wanted to add him to my team. Before doing so I had to get the CEO to agree to a salary and benefits package that would entice the candidate to leave his current job.

We bantered back and forth. I brought up the candidates experience and skills which would allow him to manage accounts from day one. The CEO did not have an issue with the salary I proposed, but he was concerned it might cause issues within the group.

Both of us held firm to our positions. We both raised our voices, but not in a pejorative manner. We were both passionate about the company. I wanted the best person for my team, while the CEO wanted what was best for not just my team but the entire company.

When I’d just started to wonder if I was pushing the issue too far, the CEO made a proposal we both could live with. I shook his hand and told him I’d rewrite the job offer and have it ready for him to sign by end of day.

As I turned around to leave, he said, “I just want you to know that I’m OK with this level of debate.”

“So am I”, I replied.

That was six years ago, and I still regularly reflect on that exchange. What the CEO told me by his last remark and actions was that he was open to new ideas. That he was confident enough to hear others out and respect their opinions. It also taught me that not all debates must end with one winner and one loser.

I came to appreciate that boss even more when my next manager was the polar opposite. He was closed to any idea that didn’t originate with him, and he didn’t want to hear when he was leading the company off a cliff.

My current business partner is similar to my former CEO. We can debate a technical issues for hours, even raising our voices to the point where we have to take a break and return to the issue. He’s helped me see a topic from angles I’d never considered. He’s also allowed me to back off a opinion I’d asserted before more information came to light.

The relationships I enjoy most are those where my own beliefs and assumptions are questioned. Where I’m pushed in uncomfortable directions, yet come away with a new idea. That’s when I recognize the most growth.

The Business Lesson I Learned At Super Cuts

I visited my neighborhood Super Cuts last week because Luca wanted her hair trimmed before the start of school. I decided to put my name in as well.

Within a few minutes, a young woman called my name. After asking how I’d like my hair cut, she began telling me about one of her employees who was giving her problems.

She explained that, as the manager, she was expected to train each of her stylists on the Super Cuts way of cutting hair. This employee, who has been cutting hair for many years, refused to practice the preferred methods and wasn’t likely to pass the annual exam given to all stylists. “She’s not expected to use them on each client, but she needs to use them most of the time.”

I asked why it was so important to follow the standards set by Super Cuts and was told that it helped bring continuity among stylists. Since most customers were walk-ins, it was important for them to expect a level of consistency regardless of the stylist. “It’s the most efficient way to cut most hair styles”, she explained.

And then she said something that struck a chord. “Customers don’t expect to wait more than 15 minutes. I can’t afford to have one stylist taking an hour to cut a child’s hair by not following the standards while the rest of crew is able to perform the same cut in 15. When that happens, nobody is happy.”

This makes sense, and I’ve been considering similar ideas since starting my business. Before we took on our first client, my partner and I decided what type of work we enjoyed the most. We both prefer to work on small projects that we can complete in no more than two weeks time. We’d also rather work with a one or two person shop instead of a waiting months for a large company to open a PO. As a small business, even taking on one client, whose needs do not match our talents, can set us back months. As my stylist said, when that happens, nobody is happy.

Large companies also love meetings. And meetings breed more meetings. No thank you.

But completing a website in less than two weeks means following a process a we know well and not veering off the path into extensive customization. Occasionally, clients request features that could double or triple the length of the project. It’s not easy to leave money on the table, but we’ve stuck to our guns and only taken on work we are good at and that we can turn quickly. My visit to Super Cuts reaffirmed my commitment to small and repeatable projects.

I suppose that makes us more Super Cuts than Le Salon Paul Morey.

Sometimes you learn a business lesson in the most unlikely of places.

Embracing Small

Why is it that many companies intentionally try to appear larger than they are? I’ve witnessed this at several companies, but one comes to mind because it was done in such a blatant manner.

I’m not talking about a small exaggeration now and then either. Our company website was an absolute work of fiction. We were a group of 35 working to support events around the globe. But after our manger got hold of the copy, that number nearly doubled. Suddenly, we were backed by a corporate behemoth with an unlimited army of skilled workers. The fabrications grew more outlandish as our workforce shrank in size to the point where the manager made “Baghdad Bob” appear credible.

It was a joke that undermined our credibility with our clients. Worse, it undermined what little trust the manager had earned with his employees. If he’d fabricate something so trivial, what else would he be willing to do?

Since starting Ox Consulting, I’ve wondered if our size would hinder our growth if potential clients pulled back the curtain only two find two people doing the work.

But over time, I’ve come to embrace our smallness. On a recent call, a new client was surprised to hear we would be the ones creating her website. At one point, she said, “I’m sure you’ll pass this on to your team who does the work.” I laughed and replied, “That would be us. We are team of two.”

She didn’t pack up and take her business elsewhere nor has anyone else.

I take my cars to a small repair shop to be serviced. The dealership is nearby, but I prefer the small shop because I can speak with the technician working on my car. When I recently had a set of brakes replaced the technician took the time to explain the difference in various brake pads and rotors. I’ve never experienced that level of engagement at the dealership.

Remaining small does have its drawbacks.

We must carefully select the clients we work with. That means occasionally turning down projects. We know what size projects we can knock out of the park, and those tend to be smaller ones we can complete in days instead of months. Clients who are thrilled with their new site tend to tell their friends which leads to more projects. If you’re merely satisfied with a product, do you tell anyone? I don’t.

A larger company can absorb the occasional high maintenance client. That’s not the case with us where one such client can bring all projects to a screeching halt.

I assumed we were in the business of creating customized websites for small businesses. That’s actually the easy part.

We are in the listening business.
We are in the bounce your crazy ideas off us business.
We are in the help me overcome my fear of writing business.

But more than anything, we are in the pat on the back, keep going, you can do it business.

Hanging Our Shingle

This past week, I did something I’ve wanted to do for years: I started a consulting business with a friend. Brandon and I have worked together since 2004 and have collaborated on a number of projects over the years.

When friends and family ask what it is we do, I’m not sure what I should tell them. But, in short, Brandon brings years of design experience to the partnership while I focus on WordPress training and consulting. We’ve combined our skills to help small businesses and individuals create a professional looking web presence minus the three-hour recurring meetings and complex project plans.

We’ve worked on large and complex projects that take months to complete. But projects that size are not our focus.  Instead, we are focused on small projects. Small businesses move quickly. They don’t have large budgets or months to spend creating new branding, logos and blogs. We’ve found that their needs match up well with our skills. So we decided to make it official and create a business.

In that regard, we started Ox Consulting with this in mind, and are tackling projects we can complete in a few days instead of a new months. Without having to sacrifice quality.

 Ox

We are nowhere near being able to quit our day jobs. Maybe down the road. But today I’m enjoying getting to meet people who are full of passion, energy and big ideas. Large companies have layers of bureaucracy. Making even small changes to a color scheme requires meetings, approvals and delays. Contrast that with working alongside the owner of a small business who likes the new logo we created, and in minutes, says, “Let’s go with it!”

There’s a raw excitement being around those who put everything on the line to chase their dreams. I love sitting across from someone listening to why they decided to drop off the corporate ladder, and try to make it on their own. Many are working more hours than ever before and loving it.

Brandon and I are taking things slow. That means turning down projects that aren’t in our wheel-house or would require we put other projects on hold for months on end.

We’ve also noticed that short timelines result in fewer meetings and status updates and a higher likelihood that both parties will satisfied with the work.

Of course, if your needs aren’t a good match for us, we’ll always try to recommend someone who is.

“The Modern Workplace is Optimized for Interruptions”

I found myself nodding in agreement with every one of Jason’s observations about today’s workplace. When I must finish writing a review or need an hour or two to concentrate without any interruptions, I have to remove myself from the office. Most of the actual work I do is done at the cafeteria or at home because I can put on headphones and block out the world.

http://video.bigthink.com/player.js?width=516&embedCode=03NG42MTqVnn6kOnuDv8k_iDC2HEGniT&height=290&deepLinkEmbedCode=03NG42MTqVnn6kOnuDv8k_iDC2HEGniT&autoplay=0

Signs of the Economy

When I moved to Auburn, WA just over three years ago, one of the main roads leading into town was filled with new and used car dealerships.  Today a few of the largest dealers along auto row remain such as Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen, but many of the smaller, independent ones are empty.

But today, I noticed one of the larger and newest dealers had stopped selling cars. The Nissan dealership couldn’t have been more than a couple years old. The building and sign look brand new. But not a sign of a single new or used car for sale. Not to mention the jobs that just disappeared.

According to the sign in the lower left corner, the service department is still open although I don’t know if that’s still the case. It wasn’t open when I took this picture this afternoon.

nissan

This next picture was taken across the street from the main Nissan building that sold new cars. This is the used car lot for the same dealer. All the cars had been removed, but they left the blue sign on the grass that says, “SALE”. 

No Nissans for sale here. But the yellow sign hanging off the adjacent car dealer said something about getting a Suzuki for $189/month. I’ll pass.

nissan2

I wonder what auto row will look like in 6 months or a year from now? Will the Honda, Toyota and VW dealerships survive? As I drove back home I noticed a couple browsing cars at the Honda dealer. I didn’t see a single person looking at cars at Toyota or VW. Many dealerships displayed banners touting low interest rates or large rebates. One said, “YES, we have money to lend!!”

Hoods were opened, parking lights were illuminated on and balloons flew from antennas attached to new cars.

It’s hard to imagine these tactics will attract many buyers in this economy.

The Carwash

We have two carwashes in Auburn. Both provide the same services. Both are well-kept. Both are about the same distance from my house. I don’t give much thought when deciding between the two. I usually end up at the one closest to where I am running errands which happens to be the newer carwash.

But last Saturday I was running errands closer to the older carwash. After I sprayed off my car I pulled over near the vacuums to dry it.

That’s when an older man dressed in cowboy boots and a western hat approached me. I assumed he was going to ask if I was interested in buying a set of speakers. At a fantastically low price, of course!

But he wasn’t selling anything.

He introduced himself and asked if I had everything I needed to clean my car. I asked if he was the owner and he nodded. He told me he recently bought the carwash because he liked being around people. He recently retired and this would give him somewhere to spend his days.

He told me he appreciated my business. He asked if I had any suggestions on how he could improve the carwash. I told him everything was fine except the soap came out too thick on the brush. He said he’d take a look. Maybe it needed to be thinned out.

He listened more than he talked. He seemed genuinely interested in my feedback. He shook my hand and thanked me again.

In all the years I’ve washed my cars, I’ve never once been thanked for my patronage.

In an era where so much customer interaction is being outsourced to everything except a human being, it’s refreshing doing business with a person rather than a computer or machine.

But today this new owner won me over. When I have a choice, I’ll always go where I feel appreciated.

And I’ll tell my friends.

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