I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was watching a food show in which the producers went around the country and highlighted places that served “the best” of a particular item. In this episode, they were covering French dip sandwiches. I know the place they reviewed was founded a very long time ago, and from my research it looks like it has to be either Philippe’s or Cole’s.
What I took away from the show was that in order to be successful in business, all you had to do was create or develop something, make it the best of its kind, and then just produce it over and over again. Easy peasy.
Another source of learning that had a big impact on me was Michael Gerber’s book “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do,” in which he talked about why people who start their own business so often fail. For starters, it’s because, usually, folks who start a business don’t really want to run a business, per se, but do so because they want to keep doing what they’d been doing, only without an irritating boss making their lives hell. For example, Larry might love to make pies, but that doesn’t mean he’s got any understanding of, aptitude for, or interest in running a bakery. Another message of the book is that successful businesses must have systems — documented ways of doing things; proprietary recipes for the processes that make them special.
So with my French dip example and Gerber’s emphasis on formula, I was on my way. I leveraged these learnings to develop what I believe to be some pretty sharp offerings. I documented the heck out of them so that every hard-learned lesson was saved into a magical, beautiful and repeatable recipe that would last for ever and ever. Luckily, with a few tweaks, many of our products have stood the test of time and continue to flourish today.
But what I realized after being in business a few years was that operating from a static point of view — as if developing any additional products and services was anathema — wasn’t going to stand the test of time. I came to understand what got us to that point, in some ways, had a shelf life; that someday people were going to want something besides a French dip.
In response, I have worked to become more observant of what’s going on in the industry, where our customers are spending their money (and on what), and to, in turn, be more creative and experimental about what we offer. While focusing on our strengths, we have worked to become innovative and responsive.
Now, as with everything in life, there is a balance. Every business, every organization, must have an assortment of offerings that fit different categories. For example, one can think of those offerings as spanning a maturity continuum, at one end of which are “Concepts” and the other “Retired/Cancelled” lines of business. In the middle might be services which are “Developing” (in production but still being refined) and “Mature” (in production but largely stable). What’s important is to have something, a few things, in every category.
For example, working within a “fail fast” mentality encourages folks to fill both the Concepts and Retired/Cancelled slots. This environment makes people comfortable experimenting because there is no stigma associated with shutting projects down. And having a populated Concepts slot creates a robust pipeline to the Developing category, which will necessarily feed a small percentage of its contents into the Mature zone.
The key, again, is to be ok with experimentation and failure. Sometimes, Concepts items will never get past that phase but, more often, they will first get to meet the market (in fact, one almost never knows a product’s potential until the market weighs in with either purchases or silence) before either moving along the Development route or skipping straight to Retired/Cancelled.
I’ve found that calling the final category “Retired/Cancelled” is important because it should have items that qualify for each term. For example, Cancelled items will be those that never passed muster with the market, while having a Retired designation reminds us that Mature items must constantly be reviewed for relevancy. What was popular a while back may now be on life support, and will ultimately be ridiculous unless purged. All too recently, one of our competitors referred to sending out content on CD ROMs, far after referencing that medium had become comical.
The lesson here is that while some seem to have survived since 1908 without change, my suspicion is that looking closer will reveal such is probably not the case — innovation likely took place on a level the outsider cannot see. I am convinced that the only path to survival is constant reevaluation, evolution and innovation. Now, I think these dynamics must be built into the business and not just be relied on to occur if one has a flash of brilliance. Yes, we must have products in the Mature field and they are what sustains us, but realizing that which products those are at any given point in time will, and must, change, is the key to staying relevant.