“How" eats “what" for breakfast


It seems everyone is writing a book.  Please! Not another killer blueprint for success guaranteed to grow your business”.  The barrage of people telling us what to is so deafening it resembles the white noise used to soften up  victims before interrogation.  The thing is, 

reading about what has helped other people  just isn’t that helpful

even for seriously good tools and techniques.  Let me give you an example.  In one of my business model clinics last week, I asked if anyone had found any tools that helped them better engage with their ideal customers.  Now I am a big fan of the ‘Value Proposition Canvas’ - it focuses thinking on what customers really care about.  One of my participants had read up on it, but not actually used it.  I asked her why and she explained that it all seemed to make perfect sense, but when she tried to apply it - well there were just too many other things to-do.  Others nodded their assent - a common challenge for busy people   Of course they recognised the need to focus on what their customers really want, but finding the time or knowing where to start, that was the difficult bit.  

The “what” is easy, it is the “how" that trips people up.

So why is that?  It comes down to three things:

1.   Context is king.  If we cannot see instantly how to apply something to our situation, we move on.

2.  We need a jolt.  Our view of the world needs seriously challenging to propel action up the to-do list.

3.  Most of us understand by reading, but learn by doing.  Unless we do there is no point in understanding.

In our clinics, we spend much more time applying stuff to clients' businesses than telling them about it.  In the last one everyone had to come up with 3 things they did that made their customers happy and 3 things that solved a problem for them.  As usual, everyone found the second of these easier than the first.  So I asked them to name a few brands that they really admired.  The usual suspects…Apple, Nike and a few others like Innocent.  Do people buy their products to solve a problem?  No of course you don’t buy an iPhone because without it you cannot make calls or an Innocent Smoothy just because you are thirsty.  That gave them a jolt.  We are so conditioned to think about solving problems for customers that we fail to recognise the power of emotions; that making our customers feel great is so much more compelling than just solving their business problem.

So then to the acid test.  We started the session by asking people to say in one sentence what they did.  At least half gave the sort of reply that in a networking event woud have you starting to look for the next person to talk to.  By the end, everyone wanted to know more and in a straw poll every participant could think of at least one other person they knew that might be interested in the services of everyone in the room.

So the next time you pick up a business book or start reading another blog or resource guide telling you what you need to do to make your business better, ask yourself whether you are really going to apply any of it.  If not, you are probably wasting your time.  

Is your website just burning cash?

burning cashy24

It came as quite a shock to me when I realised about a year ago, that despite all of the effort and resources that had gone into it, my website had delivered zip  It was effectively just burning resources.   The business was developing despite it and new clients were coming through entirely different channels that were actually much cheaper..

Was it me?  Is this whole web marketing thing actually just hype? or do some busiesses simply not work on the web?  So I did what I should have done much earlier, some research.  I was surprised to discover quite how many other people were in the same boat,  keeping quiet about it because they were a bit ashamed.  In fact in the September 2015 Digital Capabilities in SMEs report 24% of those surveyed said their website generated no benefits.

Most had been seduced by the pervasive notion that these days you simply had to have your own website.

 Not true - even for a business that sells products online -  see case 2 in my free business model course.

As with so many other things in business - it is obvious when you think about it, but with enough people shouting out their agenda, it can be hard to ignore the noise.

Those ‘in the know' will ask you what you are trying to achieve with your website.  I now go one stage further, by asking…..

What journey do your customers make - is a website even the best route?

Row pebbles. Sea stones. It is isolated on a white background

Let me give you some examples.  

A few months back, I was reviewing the web analytics with a client and we were  surprised to discover how much  more business came via their free Google+ page than their £2500 website. Why?  Most were repeat customers searching for their phone number - typically 2-3 calls a day came in from Google+ mobile users clicking to call for bespoke quotes, something hard to deliver online.  The best route was the phone and the goal was to make it as easy as possible to call - beautiful pictures and carefully crafted text just got in the way.

Another client had a website that beautifully showcased their work.  Lots of people were looking, but none made enquiries.  Instead, we suspected, some copied the best design ideas to do it themselves. What journey would convert browsers to buyers?  We knew that DIYers often bodged the job or left bits undone for months afterwards, so appealing to the ladies of the house we contrasted DIY nightmares with a professional job that guaranteed quality completed in a week and more affordable than they thought.  Wouldn’t you get a quote just in case?

Now I am not a web designer.  I know people who do it much better than I ever could; people who really want their clients to succeed and are delighted to get a proper brief to work from.  It pains them when the website could deliver so much more.  That is why I have created an infographic that will help you think about how best to convert browsers to buyers.

You can get it here.

Armed with it you can ask the critical questions…

Think about the alternatives and other things you need to do

and work out who can best help you to implement your conversion goal. 

Download the infographic now.

4 ways to get stuff done


Are you full of great ideas and wish that you could somehow magic each of them into existence, but somehow the time passes and they never seem to get done?  Well you are not alone.  Many of my clients fall into that category; you see it is so much easier to think up stuff than to actually do it.  

Just today I was working with a client on a new value proposition.  We had worked through a strategy to move his product from commodity into a customer experience so that he could sell even to people who were not looking for his product.  We had worked up 2 new offers and a new route to market that we agreed could be implemented with no more than a few days work.  I was packing up ready to go and asked if there was anything else I could do for them, when I was asked by his business partner if I knew anybody that could help them plan.  She knew he was not great at getting things done – the day job kept getting in the way.  I came up with 4 techniques.

1.    Set aside a period in each day for implementing good ideas

Turn off the phone, log out of email and ban social media.  Takes a bit of discipline, but it actually works.  Excluding distractions helps concentration and turns time into quality time.

2.    Write it down - simply

Followers of Neuro Linguistic Programming will recognize that one of the key reasons for procrastination is not quite knowing where to start.  Write a really short and simple action plan covering each of the things that need to be done to turn the idea into reality and work through each item, not starting the next until the previous is complete.  Keep it simple as complexity is a HUGE distraction.

3.    Set a challenging deadline

Tell people that you are going to launch something or sign up for a time limited opportunity.  When you simply cannot put things off any longer, it really focuses the mind.  It is amazing how fast you can work when you have very little time.

4.    Nag or shame

Motivation by carrot is great, but often a gentle stick is more effective.  I always give my coaching clients some homework and they know that the first part of each session is to ask how they got on with it.  No need for shouting – gentle disappointment is far more effective for the few that do not do it under their own volition.

With this particular client, we agreed to use all 4.  I will be calling him on Monday afternoon to see how he got on!

Finding Leads is simple - if you know how to look

Sources of Leads

The curious thing about marketing is that it is not rocket science.  Sure there are plenty of marketeers that would like to make it so – that is how they make their money, but in reality finding the best source of leads is a simple 3 step process while “stalking” sniper like is a very effective alternative - but that is a story for another time.

Let us look at the simple but effective way of identifying sources of leads.

We can envision a very simple 3 step process that looks like this.

Sources of leads

Seems simple enough?

.. but where most people go wrong is that they confuse simple with superficial – they are not specific enough.  This process only works when its boundaries are well defined.  Interestingly, the first 2 boxes are linked – you can do them in either order.  Your ideal customer is somebody with a very particular need that you are well placed to help them with. You can often get real insights by thinking about your best engagements with previous customers.  

The key is to ask why – but don’t be satisfied with the first why it usually takes 4 or 5 whys to get to the root of the problem.  Let me give you an example.  I was working with a videographer to refine his proposition.  He wanted to help his clients make their adverts more effective by using compelling video.  The conversation went something like this:

Why do static adverts lack engagement?        Because we respond better to moving visual stimuli

Why does that matter?                                 Because video is increasingly common

Why is that important?                                 We need to do more to stand out from the crowd

Why can’t clients do their own video?            Because it takes too long and needs a proper story

So why not get help from professionals?        Traditional video is seen as too expensive

Who would that apply to?                             Market savvy, quality + value conscious, time poor

So the counter-intuitive insight was that we should not look at video interest groups where there is anyway lots of competition, but instead concentrate on educating customers in effective marketing interest groups on how video has become a lot quicker and more affordable medium than ever before, but is only really effective if it follows a proper story.  

Equally useful, marketing advisers that believe in the power of video, but do not offer it as a service themselves, can make really good referral sources.

It is not rocket science; but common sense needs to be precisely applied to yield the best results.

Taking Magic to Market – why amazing products are hardest to sell

The paradox for disruptive innovators is that although their fantastic creations deliver exactly the benefits their customers need, they do so in such an incredible way that customers struggle to understand them.  This makes it really hard to define a proposition that customers understand enough to want straightaway….

…and so it was with Tim.

Magic genie makes money

Tim is a bright young graduate who has turned the advanced materials science he learned at university into an amazing business.  Tim makes magic leggings.  Not my words, not his words, but the words of a customer.  But how on earth do you market them?  To look at they are nothing special – well designed and attractive to look at for sure, but the magic is invisible.  In a world conditioned to buy clothing based on image, subtleties of fabric properties are not easy to market through digital means – there is simply too much explaining to do.  So it was not so surprising that Tim was not having much joy selling with AdWords or his website.

So how do you sell magic leggings?

You are probably wondering what makes them magic.  It is a fair question.  Tim gave me a very comprehensive and scientifically evidenced answer, but it took 15 minutes.  In essence, KYMIRA products harness the wasted energy from the wearer and convert it to infrared. This causes a biological response at a cellular level resulting in enhanced performance and accelerated recovery. There are other benefits too but these are the biggest.   Sounds great to scientists, but not terribly engaging to potential customers.  We needed to talk to them.

We set up a series of video interviews with current customers, many of whom were great advocates of the product.  Videos are great because you can replay them to capture the detail, you can edit them into testimonial sound bites and we also cut them together to make a promotional video for investors.  But we had to be careful not to “lead the witness”; we wanted insight more than promotion because counter-intuitively insight is far more engaging than sales talk.  And we got it.  “Magic Leggings” was a phrase coined in one of the interviews, but the real gem came later.  “They make my legs feel as fresh in the third race as they did in the first”.  Now that was useful – that was insight.  Now we had a hook for competitive athletes anxious to wring every last bit of performance out of their tiring bodies; we had an emotional need that similar athletes would identify with.  Investors got it too and Tim over-achieved in his second Kickstarter giving him much needed funds to invest in more product.

Key takeaways

1.   We have to engage before we explain and to do that we needed to get into our customers’ heads.

2.   Customers care about their own outcomes.  If they believe they will achieve them then they do not much care how.  A hard lesson for a scientist.

Thinking outside the box hinders innovation


I had a client the other day asking about creativity training.  

"Why?" I asked - one of my favourite questions.

"Surely innovation is all about blue sky thinking - thinking outside the box?"  she suggested. 

"Is it?" I countered.

By chance we were sitting in the gardens of the London Business School, which provided an excellent context to explore this further.  Let us get creative I thought, and see where it gets us.
"Think of as many creative ways as you can to get around this garden" I prompted. Over time, this elicited an increasingly improbable list of transport options. 

Fine, I thought.  Now let us put this into context.  I pointed to a bench on the far side of the garden.  There was a gravel path leading to it, but it went a very long way around.  A straight line would have taken us through a shrubbery full of attractive, but thorny roses next to which was a shoulder high hedge being trimmed by some gardeners up a tall step ladder.  We rapidly eliminated the less likely options, pogo stick and jet pack were the first to go and focused on two broad options - the long but easy path or more directly, but with intervening obstacles.  The emerging favourites from the list were skate boarding around the path or pole vaulting over the hedge - I didn't ask where the equipment was coming from, but did volunteer that I hated it when transport planners made us poor pedestrians walk further than we wanted with annoying fences.  She didn't bite, but eventually asked what I would do.
I told her that I would borrow the gardener's step ladder and go over the hedge.  

I could see her grappling with why this could not possibly be the answer before frowning and asking rhetorically why she had not thought of that.
"too obvious? not creative enough? or simply the wrong context?"  She nodded.  She saw the step ladder as a maintenance tool; not as a means of getting from a to b.

Creativity is a dangerous road for innovation.  It leads us to over-think (too far outside the box) and lose sight of practical options.  Much better to think hard about your outcome, dismiss any constraints imposed purely by convention and then select the best way forward.  Often the most practical answer is to borrow a solution from a different context - at least it is likely to work.

Hocus Pocus (pt2) - where is your locus?


In the previous post we introduced focus and control as 2 key traits for success.  In this post we concentrate on control - locus of control is the term used by psychologists to describe the extent to which we feel in control of our lives.  It has a pivotal impact on our motivation as can be seen in this case study.

Back to my flying days, the only instructor that failed while I was Head of Training could not control the sessions.  It easy to under estimate how important control is in a learning environment where we are pushing our students well out of their comfort zones.  We have to provide both boundary and direction.

Your hand may be on the tiller, but are you in control?
I am Senior Instructor at my local sailing club and inevitably end up with those (mostly adults) who are struggling to master the basics of tacking, but it provides a really good metaphor for the world of work.  Tacking (turning the boat through the wind so you can sail off in the other direction) is the manoeuver that many novice sailors find hardest to master.  Not surprising as there is a lot happening at once - turning the boat and controlling the sail while moving your own weight to balance the winds changing influence needs to be tightly choreographed to avoid getting wet.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed and lose control, particularly when it is windy.  Fear creeps in and suddenly mental blocks spring up and confidence nose-dives.  One really simple realisation can change all this.  Rushing induces panic, so dont rush.  if you move the tiller only slightly, the turn slows down buying you much more time.  Furthermore if you stop your turn pointing into the wind, you can let go of everything and nothing bad will happen - you have removed all of the winds power.  The effect of this realisation is startling.  Suddenly my sailors realise that they can control the boat rather than letting it control them.  Their confidence rises and their mental blocks are swept away.  It is all about feeling that you have some control.

Most of us have more control than we realise
I was coaching a coach the other day.  She was well thought of by her clients while coaching for a highly respected retailer, but was now setting up her own practice.  She dreaded the prospect of having to “sell” her services and we had been doing some work on her proposition.  So I asked her one of my simple, but penetrating questions.
”If you don’t like selling then why on earth don’t you just find a job?”
I could tell I had disarmed her as she did not have an immediate answer to such a seemingly obvious question. I reminded her of our earlier convesation about her ideal client and asked how many of them she had coached in her previous firm.  Next I asked her how best to reach her ideal client and I could see that she was joining the dots.  So by focusing her marketing on her preferred client, she was controlling who walked in through her practice door.  A “eureka moment” as she subsequently described it that had significantly helped her overcome the selling mental block.

We all of us have a hand on the tiller, but we do not always realise quite how much control it gives us.

Hocus Pocus - the Magic of Focus

Pulled in Too Many Directions Signs Stress Anxiety

Back in the early part of my career I was a flying instructor with the Royal Navy.  As I progressed and became an advanced instructor, increasingly I worked with the borderline students.  Now flying an aircraft from a ship is a pretty demanding task.  The pace is fast and the amount of information to assimilate and act on in a short period of time can be overwhelming. (Does this sound familiar in today’s work place?)  What soon became clear to me was that successful aviators had 2 main traits – focus and control.

Can you focus on the highest priority tasks?
There is always too much to think about.  Success comes from filtering out the 80% of noise to focus on the 20% that is vital to the current context.

Are you in control?
Rarely is it possible to control our environment, but what we can control is how we react to it and avoid being panicked into actions that we later regret.  We will cover this topic in the next article.

As an Executive Coach in more recent times, I see how important these same 2 traits are in modern life.  As with my young aviators for some it comes naturally, but many are not so fortunate.  The good news is that learning to focus and to be in control is not that hard.

Yesterday I was working with a successful marketing executive who runs a small agency.  He was launching a new proposition, but somehow couldn’t quite articulate it in a really compelling way.  He had plenty of evidence to show benefit from his new service, but a succinct description was proving elusive.   I asked him to describe the benefits, which he did, but we both agreed that they were pretty generic and neither compelling nor differentiated.  We tried a different tack. 

“So imagine that I am your customer; what will I actually experience?”  I asked.  He described some of the features before I stopped him and got him to think about what I as his customer really care about.  Of course he knew the answer and I could see the penny drop, but sometimes we get so wrapped up in the detail that the blindingly obvious is obscured from view.  Thinking about the desired outcome (in this case describing benefits that our customers will relate to) is the easiest way to focus.  The challenge so many of us face is to stop, completely de-clutter our minds and then concentrate on what is really important, discarding all of the surrounding baggage. 

So too with my young aviators; when you have an emergency, forget the mission and completely ignore those compliance tasks that assume far more importance than they merit.  Two priorities – get the aircraft down in one piece and make sure somebody knows where to find you.  If it is hard to focus on our own survival then the rest of us can be forgiven when can’t always see the wood for the trees.

Is Lean Startup over-hyped?

It was a great party at the Cass Entrepreneurs Network in the heart of Tech City last week prompting a serious debate about Lean Startup.  "It is all obvious and we have been doing this for years" was one argument from a long standing biotech entrepreneur.  I could not but agree - the funny thing about all the best innovations is that they are obvious - once you see them in action - and yes Lean Startup does mirror the habits of successful entrepreneurs so again no surprises there.  So what is the excitement?  Actually having a set of processes to follow is an amazing help for young tech entrpreneurs who do not have the heritage of science with its hypotheses and trials.   Getting people out to talk to prospects before settling on their plan has been the making of a number of young start-ups that I have coached.  Obvious? maybe once you have experienced its power.  But counter-intuitive for many though because it is not how we learn product marketing and for some techies it is downright uncomfortable to talk to people as illogical, emotional and uneducated in the esoterica of technology as the majority of users and customers tend to be. 

Simple and obvious the process may be, but doing it well is not easy.  Some relish the idea of selling their idea at an early stage, but developing a real empathy with unmet customer needs is not as easy to do as it is to say.  The mistake that many make is to seek affirmation for their concept rather than probing for ways to make it better.  It is not what people like, but what they do not like that provides the greatest insight - comments like "it is kind of good, but if you could …. it would be brilliant"  Another common mistake is not getting deep enough into the need itself - why is the need there and why is it still unmet?  I take my clients down at least 5 levels of why and discard far more opportunities than we end up developing.  Only then do we get specific enough to really understand who the customer is and what they actually want.

But there is also an interesting side effect of Lean Startup.  There is no doubt that the process has empowered a lot of entrepreneurs to significantly raise their game. However competition for talent, finance and ears in the growing noise levels of a connected world means that just as fast as entrepreneurs get better, the bar goes up on "what good looks like".

Doing Lean Startup is no longer enough.  Precisely executing it is the bare minimum standard and real success depends upon a whole lot more.

You just can't get the staff

It was a lovely bank holiday weekend and after all of the rain from the previous week, the garden is starting to look a bit overgrown.  So while I attended to some of the weeds, I asked my 14-year-old son to cut the grass.  Looking up from a particularly troublesome patch of dandelions, I wondered why he had not been past to empty the clippings into the compost.

“Oh” he said, “none of the clippings went into the bag so it did not need emptying.”

Sure enough, you could see exactly where the mower had passed by the neat rows of clippings left on the lawn.  Well the grass was shorter, but it was not exactly tidier and before long the clippings would find their way into the house.

“Look” I said, “the shoot is blocked with clippings – no wonder none of it is getting into the bag – and if you drive it too fast when the grass is quite long it  gets blocked.  Didn’t you think to unblock it?”

Pulling out the compressed clippings and putting them into the collecting bag I sighed saying “Do I have to everything myself?  You just can’t get the staff”

He shrugged with the eloquence of the teenager that clearly said “I have cut the grass like you asked – what’s your problem?” and sauntered off.

Maybe this is a typical teenage interaction, but actually it is also a metaphor for the workplace.  How could we have done this differently to get a better result?

Think about the outcome.

I asked him to cut the grass, he cut the grass, but I did not sufficiently explain the outcome I wanted.  Had I said that I needed a tidy lawn and no clippings walked into the house then might he have done this?  The trap so many of us fall into is to assume that tasks are the same as outcomes.  We know from our own experience how to do things in a way that does not cause adverse consequences in other areas and it is natural to assume that other share the same experience, but why should they?  If we are clear about what we really want to achieve, then we are far more likely to get it.

Think about learning and motivation.  

We learn far more from what we experience than what we are told and often resent or feel patronized when we are told exactly how to do things.  Had I given him the choice – ‘sure you can mow faster, but you need to rake up the clippings if they do not go into the collector – it is up to you’.  Most of us are rational.  We will find the most effective way to do things if given the chance to experiment and when we discover for ourselves, we own the choice and make sure it works.  This can extend into other areas like emptying the bag in good time to prevent it blocking up or overflowing and dumping more clippings on the lawn or something really innovative.

So the next time you feel exasperated with team members or staff, think about the parable of the teenage mower.  Take the time to explain what you really want and give people the freedom to experiment with how they achieve it.  Sure, it may be harder the first few times, but before long you will have more effective staff who are a joy to work with.


My son mowed the lawn beautifully the other day.  He now appreciates that more haste = less speed, but because has worked it for himself he believes it.  After all what do grown-ups know?

Banner image © Mark Neild 2013  Dolphin in Bay of islands New Zealand taken shortly before we went swimming with them.