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We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
-- Henry James



Blog Posts for March 2008

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Tape and Glue

 

I'll make a really forceful statement, and then backpedal from it - I do this for emphasis.

Business plans are an enormous waste of time. Utter crap.

There. That said, here's the backpedaling...

Everyone has to have some sense of where they're going and how they plan to get there. That's healthy. It's normal. Even prudent.

But people get stuck in the plan and become incapable of thinking outside the plan. Especially when starting a business. So I'll make another forceful statement (no backpedal this time):

There isn't a person on the planet who is so smart and full of foresight that they can write an accurate business plan for the startup business.

That's not to say that they won't be successful. It is to say that the market is smarter than they are, and while they might find some measure of success adhering to their plan, having a long-term conversation with the market will prove itself far more profitable and sustainable for the business.

The truly successful startup isn't managed; the truly successful startup emerges. It evolves, and usually in some ways that no one could have predicted. Its reach into the market is like a glue that finds its way into the pockets and texture of the materials to be joined. So, in analogy, a business plan is like tape - generic and easy to implement, occasionally enough to bring it all together, but generally not long-lasting. A successful startup seeks to fill in gaps and fingers its way into life. A glued, dovetail joint bonds for decades, and that's the weave with the market that the startup must seek.

To hell with tape.

The great problem is that tape is predictable. It's accessible and user-friendly. It's quick and easy. It doesn't require change.

So, who gets stereotyped for their fascination with duct tape? Smart folk? People who love interactive conversation? Not so much...

Who do you know in your life who lives and dies by The Plan? Your manager? Your spouse? You?

Another forceful statement, but this time it's not mine:

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. - Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke
Moltke, a smart guy, regarded strategy as a practical art of adapting means to ends.

Art, not science.

Practical, not idealistic. An emphasis on what works, not what we want to work.

Adaptative, not willful.

Goal-oriented and mindful of the destination, not rigid to the plan.

I had a wonderful meeting two nights ago with Sherry Borzo and Ginger "Snap!" Johnson. I'm working with them to adapt my 247Toolset technology toward helping local non-profits integrate better with local businesses. (See the beta site here.) The beauty of working with them is their willingness to allow this to evolve. Sherry is very conversational and Ginger conducts conversation better than just about anyone I know.

We met with local small business leaders and with some key non-profits to learn more about how they might cooperatively assist each other in helping people through a hub that streamlines donations.

Glue, I think.

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/6/2008 9:35:54 AM
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A Modicum of Sense

 

It's amazing, the political news these days. Adultery, racism, résumé-padding...

The Spitzer saga is a wonderful reminder that power corrupts. Those of the law can easily try to be above the law. Trust them? Not me.

Obama's major gaffe in choosing a pastor who spouted racist crap is transparent of him to allow a peek like this into his judgment. It's telling also that few major media outlets are really grilling him for this. Can you imagine what would happen if President Bush had attended a church which sported a white supremicist pastor? His shelf life would have been no longer than 92 seconds after the news hit the wire. But Sunshine Boy gets a pass, largely, and is very much still in play.

And Hillary tries to take credit for her "role" in brokering peace in Ireland.

As a regular part of her stump speech, Clinton cites what she says is her role in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland as evidence of the foreign policy experience she says she has and Barack Obama doesn't.
The problem is that she had no role. I don't know that she will ever escape the Liar's Club that is her family unit.

I tell my kids to live their lives in such a way that no one can accuse them of cheating. Promoting the appearance of fairness is just as important as actually playing fair. Once someone thinks the game is not fair, it's hard to shake the bad feelings.

All of these are simply dumb moves - unforced errors. These politicians have no decency or sense, and didn't think ahead at all.

Bewilderingly, John McCain looks refreshingly boring. He's shenanigan-free. He's not eager to get a lot of press at the moment, which is good and smart. Why compete with the bad press of the stupid?

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/17/2008 9:25:57 AM
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Audacious

 

As I sit here tonight tweaking and working the data model for 247Toolset, I wonder... what is it that drives a person to think that they can do something truly unique? Isn't that the true test for the entrepreneur - to offer a unique value proposition to the market?

Earlier this evening, I was working through the feedback that I've received from Paragon and from LocalsGive and from two other prospects. 247Toolset offers a pretty unique way of searching for information. But today, it only offers one kind of search. As I wrote it out, I realized that I've been asked to provide no less than seven types of search. Double that, if you count hierarchical searches. I've never seen a tool that offers this many layers of search. Unique? Maybe. But even if it's not, can I arrive at a business model that penetrates the market more deeply than others might? Maybe.

Audacity, eh?

What I'm doing would have a ton of benefit to my day job. The trouble is that my day job would have never blessed my foray into this depth of research and experimentation. So it becomes my own playground at night. And I can't offer it to my day job, lest they think it's actually theirs now after around 1,000 hours of my personal time invested into this. Pity. That's the trouble with all big companies though. They're too trapped in a vision of what they currently do to see a reason to go exploring. "That's not what we do." But you know, big companies need scouts - explorers who fearlessly run around looking for cool shit and how it could apply to what the big companies do. But that'll never happen in most companies. And it won't happen in SMEs. Which is how disruptive innovation happens. Enter the ignorant swordsman...

The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.
- Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Chapter XXXIV
If I'm successful in my implementation of these layers of search (tall order) and in the promotion of my business model (taller order), I'll do well enough to leave my day job.

So the rest of my night looks like testing data scenarios against the data model and scribbling out how the interface, across multiple layers of search, might keep its current facility.

More audacity...

Some people bowl. Some people watch TV. Some people train for marathons. My hobby is exploration. It's probably what I do best. Thankfully I have a wife who deeply believes in me and thoroughly supports my chase. (I love you, baby...)

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/18/2008 12:32:58 AM
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New and Improved?

 

A while back when I was in college, my TA in English taught me that the secret to great writing is rewriting. Tough lesson, but oh so true.

I've spent the past two weeks remodeling 247Toolset's data model. That's complete and ready for a shakedown. My new tech partner and I are taking a two-pronged approach, and where his is to find the right platform for future development, mine is to prove out the new data model. LocalsGive will receive a bottom-up rewrite this weekend on the new data model.

I've always believed that if you get the design right, the work goes logically and quickly. We'll see if I got the design right.

And here's a crop of one of my paintings - just because it's got color I love.

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/21/2008 11:17:14 PM
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I Need a Bigger Home Office

 

I don't have nearly enough room for the design work I'm doing.

What would your perfect home office be?

Mine: about 30' by 30'. Big windows. Two walls with floor-to-ceiling white board. A huge table in the middle. A flip easel. Plot printer. Hardwood floors. A long couch. Plants. Vaulted ceiling with fans. And if I'm really dreamy about it, a tub.

More color I like...

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/22/2008 11:53:50 AM
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Today's Color

 

Hope you had a great Easter weekend :)

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/23/2008 8:13:45 PM
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Forgiveness

 

Here's the section of the actual picture from which it was painted.

It's funny how as we see things we change them. We don't expect paintings to be "picture-perfect," but it surprises me how sometimes we expect people in our life to remember conversations and events and dates and such "perfectly." We can enjoy the creative rendition of the artist in the conversion of reality to canvas, but we can't work to see the point of view of someone else. Why is that?

An artist is given a license - even encouragement - to give it their voice. Tamara and I hear that encouragement every week on Idol. "Don't just give me karaoke - make it your own!" the judges urge the contestants. But people in our life don't get the same encouragement.

What would it be like if we gave artistic license to everyone around us?

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/24/2008 1:07:22 PM
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Jack Be Quick

 

(An argument for your company's sustained growth...)

Most large-scale enterprises aren't known for their ability to pursue profitable innovations in a nimble way. In fact, of the 18 companies listed in the 1994 bestselling business book, Built to Last, which documented companies that weathered the decades to emerge stronger, "the fact remains that at least 7 of [the book's] original 18 companies have stumbled - scarcely better than the results you'd get by flipping a coin."

No company can afford those odds. While a company may cite tremendous talent in management, or robust systems, or an aggressive and dedicated sales force as reasons why it won't get the "tails" side of that flip, there remains at least one universal vulnerability: it's extremely difficult for most companies to trial new innovations successfully. If the market turns in a direction the company is not prepared to pursue, it might become a follower and not a leader in the short time of ten years that it took 7 other rock-solid, legendary companies to stumble.

You might argue that the pursuit of an exciting new product can lead to danger, such as the mortgage industry saw recently in the dramatic decline of the adjustable-rate mortgage. It would be great to assert that your company didn't go down a bad avenue of business because you saw potential hurt to your investors, your customers, and your reputation. But the truth is that we often don't capitalize on opportunities not because of sage conservative wisdom but because our in-house systems and culture can't turn around quickly enough.

Not all innovations should be implemented. The adjustable-rate mortgage, for example, forgot to consider the customers' long-term affordability of the product. To successfully platform innovation, first ask critically: is it good for all involved in the long-term? After unconditionally answering that question in the affirmative, a second question must be asked: what's the right and the least expensive way to prove this innovation?

Innovations are risky, by nature. If an innovation is the right direction, rapidly prototyping a platform for the innovation to prove the concept is the next best step. Here, some companies have been hurt by investing too deeply in an unproven technology before proving incontrovertibly the value to the company. Whenever this happens, unfortunately, executives become increasingly gun-shy to green light another pursuit of innovation. The irony here is that the sustained growth of every business lies in the ready pursuit of the right innovations. Businesses need an innovation engine to adapt to changes in the market, and most don't have one.

Clayton Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His is a fancy title, but Christensen's specialty is laying out the principles for smart innovation within established companies. He's written three well-regarded books about this topic. In part of a recorded series, Christensen talks about corporate awkwardness.

Every company needs to grow, and innovation is the ticket to sustainable and profitable growth. What decisions can managers take to increase their probability of successfully building innovation-driven growth businesses?

Many are convinced that it is impossible to predict with confidence whether an innovation will succeed, so they feel they need to place a number of bets with the hope that some will be winners.

Others believe that the best way to create new growth businesses is to meticulously search for detailed quantitative data to identify opportunities and develop a rigorous plan to attack those opportunities. But many times conclusive data is only available after the game has already been won.

In a paper recently written about how to achieve this, Institutionalizing Innovation , Christensen's consultancy, Innosight, gave this successful example of how to achieve this.
Dedicated incubator groups can take rough ideas and relatively quickly turn them into something bigger, better, cheaper, and faster. Once ideas have received a focused push, they can be reabsorbed into the core organization.

Shell Oil Co. created a program called "Game Changer" to help it proactively foster or prioritize novel ideas. Launching the program, Shell said it "recognizes the rich vein of innovative ideas runs through Shell Chemicals, but that new ways are needed to surface these ideas, take account of external influences, and provide appropriate, staged funding for their development." This unit strives to develop real businesses that are "outside and between" the company's existing lines of enterprise by following a process "outside the constraints and priorities of Shell's day-to-day business."

Can your company say the same? That it has a "rich vein of innovative ideas" that runs through its company? I'd assert very much so, yes. Many people inside companies propose efficiencies, improvements, new products, and attractive sidesteps to help the company grow. The challenge though is that we often wait for entities outside of our control to give us permission for any attempt we make to innovate. What would our investors say? What would our sales partners say? Those are valid questions, but should they inhibit the ability to innovate? Another challenge: how many companies can't implement innovation because of difficulty in adapting log-jammed systems? Should a company let a systemic impasse prevent our ability to move forward innovatively?

Every business' first priority, above all else, is to build and implement a sustainable growth model. Your company has successfully built a corporate architecture that supports the way in which you do business today, but the market tomorrow requires nimble adaptations and any lag in your response time can prove a threat to future growth. The right innovations done the right way will help you position your company for tremendous growth, proving that you are, truly, "built to last."

Are businesses up to that challenge? How can a business establish a model inside to foster, incubate, and prove innovative concepts? Perhaps this is the first area in which every company needs to show ability to adapt and be creative.

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/27/2008 2:28:06 PM
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Four Traits

 

Ever thought of starting your own business? Here's a really good recipe for success:

  1. Persistence
    Reynolds emphasises that successful people don't take failure personally - and they fail many times. But they just learn from the experience and get on with trying an alternative path to success. Reynolds says: "When you take it personally, you tend to give up. Successful people don't have failures, only results."

    Of course it's hard not to get down by the challenges business can throw your way, but remember that there's always another route to get to where you want to go.

  2. Belief
    You need a single-minded belief that you are going to succeed. If you don't, you'll only make a half-hearted effort anyway. Reynolds points out: "We are what we constantly visualise about ourselves." In other words, your beliefs determine your reality. If you think business if going to be tough, then business is going to be tough.
  3. Vision
    Reynolds says that all successful people have vision. They have a clear idea of where they want to go. They might now know every single step on how to get there just yet but they have the big picture firmly in mind.
  4. Action
    It goes without saying that you can't succeed unless you are prepared to take action. However, the bizarre thing is that most people don't. Most people sit on the sofa and wonder why they aren't successful. Reynolds adds that is not just about taking action. He says: "To be great, your actions must be great." I guess that was the message that stuck out most for me (and I've heard this exact talk before at another networking event!) I realised it's not just about crossing off items on my "to do" list.

    My (slightly work-obsessed) friend once heard her husband telling her: "I think you confuse activity with achievement." He was right. And so is Siimon. It's not about how many things you get done. It's about how impactful they are.

Ideas are cheap. Implementation is hard. Nothing happens if you don't get started and persist.

 

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by Brett Rogers, 3/27/2008 3:34:26 PM
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