#22: Identify & Fix Problems in Your Business with Michelle Diamond
Michelle Diamond is the CEO and Founder of Elevate Diamond Strategy, a California-based consulting and advisory firm.
For the last 17 years, she has helped over 50 companies across 25 industries scale, pivot/shift, restructure operations, identify and enter new markets/verticals, expand within existing markets/verticals, identify, and win against competitors, and remove roadblocks.
She has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, CEO Journal, CFO Magazine, the Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Interim Association.
Before founding the firm, she earned an MBA from Duke, became a Certified Public Accountant, and worked for Ernst and Young, Accenture, and Cigna Health.
What You Learn
- How to identify problems in your business
- How to align strategy with growth
- How to create a strong foundation to monitor internal/external changes in anticipation of problems arising
- How to escape the rat race of developing features/functions to stand out from your competition
- The most important thing you should do for yourself as a founder
- Why being authentic is the only way to succeed
Elevate Diamond Strategy: https://www.elevatediamondstrategy.com
Welcome back to another episode of the “We Live to Build Podcast.”
Our guest today is Michelle Diamond, the CEO and founder of Elevate Diamond Strategy, a California-based consulting and advisory firm. For the last 17 years, Michelle has helped over 50 companies across 25 industries scale, pivot, restructure operations, identify and enter new markets, and expand within existing markets, as well as identifying and winning against competitors and removing roadblocks to success.
She’s been featured in Entrepreneur magazine, CEO Journal, CFO Magazine, The Philadelphia Business Journal and the Interim Association. Before founding the firm, she earned an MBA from Duke, became a Certified Public Accountant and worked for Ernst & Young, Accenture and Cigna health.
In this episode, we talk about how to identify problems in your business, how to align strategy with growth, how to create a strong foundation to monitor internal and external changes in anticipation of problems arising, and how to escape the rat race of developing features and functions to stand out from your competition. The most important thing you should do for yourself as a founder, why being authentic is the only way to succeed, and much more. Let’s give a warm welcome to Michelle.
Welcome to the “We Live to Build.” My name is Sean Weisbrot and I’m an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor based in Asia for over twelve years. Join us every week to fast track your personal growth, so you can meet the ever-increasing demands of the company or companies you are passionately building.
Time waits for no one, so let’s get started now.
Michelle’s career (2:09)
Thank you for joining us today. I’m really excited to talk with you about how to identify problems in your company and how to fix them. So before we begin, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well. Hi, everyone. My name is Michelle Diamond. I am actually a growth strategist and execution expert, so, that’s just a fancy way of saying I help companies accelerate growth, and help them to grow faster, more profitably than they could on their own in a way from a strategic level as well as an operational and executional level.
I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been on my own now and in January will be 16 years with my own practice which is to Elevate Diamond Strategy. Before that, I worked for larger companies including Ernst & Young, Accenture, Colgate Palmolive, Citibank, Cigna and a host of others. I’ve been very fortunate, again, because I’ve worked with companies ranging from startups, early growth stage, small mid cap, private equity in venture capital, all the way up to Fortune 50. So, I have worked with companies literally at every single growth stage imaginable and helping them to get to different growth stages, the next levels as well.
I have worked with 64 companies in 34 industries to date, and of that percentage, I would say about a quarter, about roughly 25% have actually been startups. So, I’m very excited to be able to share some of the experiences that I’ve had and the best practices that I’ve had as well. Because, one thing, working with so many companies has given me a really great purview to understanding from a business standpoint, but honestly, also from an emotional and psychological standpoint which is a big factor with some of these things on how to actually make your company successful, and you, successful as a result.
Thank you for the fantastic intro. I don’t think I could have done it better myself. I’m curious to know. You’ve had experience working with companies, all of these different sizes. What size is your favorite to work with?
Honestly, I would say my size is between the kind of like, late early-early growth stage, when a company is really starting to scale. And I call it like they’re kind of growing up, they’re going from childhood to adolescence. I mean, I don’t think you really get to adulthood until you pass, you know, you’d rather become public, or you at least pass, like, 100 million dollar mark. And even then it’s still infancy, honestly.
But, you know, that kind of stage where the company gets out of bootstrapping mode, they’re like, “okay this is what we were able to do to get to this place, now, we really want to be serious about growing, you know.” They usually have some wins, they have some employees. They may have some investors, but it’s that mindset shift, and that they’re really ready to get to the next level, and that’s where I feel like I can help the most. Because, you know, while I help companies of all sizes, it’s usually good when they have some kind of traction, and they’ve already gotten to that place where, okay, they’re operating now, they realize they’re not just a product, they’re an actual business, and they’re actually running. And now, they want to do what it takes to really lay that foundation and fundamentals; and foundation is what I’m the greatest at.
Let’s take a step back from there, because I would say the average person listening is probably a lot earlier than that. So, hopefully, we can focus this episode on helping them understand how they can identify the problems that are preventing them from reaching that hundred million mark.
Crucial strategies in early stages (5:23)
Yeah, and let me just preface the size of companies I said, late early stage and early growth stage is not a hundred million dollars. That’s really more, like, they’re like a few million, sometimes, maybe up to about 20 million-ish or so. It’s always good to start earliest, like everything else, you don’t want to get to that place where you’ve already scaled up and your foundation isn’t right because usually you have to go backwards.
So, for this particular audience, you know, the best thing to do is first, always start to do with an assessment. Assessments are great because assessment is like, okay, let’s look at where we are now right and that’s like a holistic assessment, like you’re breaking down everything you know–your entire P&L, your balance sheet, organizational structure, and even looking at yourself, you know. And being able to say, okay, where we truly are now, and then, you want to take a look at a picture, and say, well, where do we want to go?
You know, sometimes you may have a goal. It might be 10 million or it might be 5 million or 2 million for some people. It might be 100 million like, you know, regardless of what your goal is; it could be a financial goal or you may have another metric in mind. But then, you have to say, all right, well, this is where I want to get to. So, if I have to get from here to there, you know, this is what I need to do. So the assessment will first, go ahead and take a look to say, all right, well, you know, let’s just start with one. Okay, let’s say we’re looking at our revenue, really simple, right?
Revenue is just basic stuff– price times quantity. Okay, right now, you guys should be generating some kind of revenue for your organizations. Now, some of you might be again still in bootstrapping mode where it’s a matter of, okay, I’m getting a sale here, I have gone through business development here, I got this cool contract here. And it’s great, because you’re getting wins and you’re getting some kind of traction.
But when you’re really trying to grow exponentially, bootstrapping really is not the best way to go about it. You really have to have a really more structured and detailed plan. And that first starts out with having a strategy. Now, you guys heard strategy. People use the word all the time but it’s true. I mean, strategy is really just speaking out to say, where do we play, where should we play, where should we not play? We have limited resources, where should we go after? If right now, you’re, let’s just say, having sales in a particular industry or market and you’re doing well which is not really getting you to that kind of accelerated growth level. Well, you may have to take a step back and say, wait, “did we actually ever do a strategy?”
Do we really have a look to say, “what are the sizes of the markets we have,” “what is the addressable market,” you know, “who are our competitors,” “what’s the landscape,” like you know, “is our product superior,” like, “are we capitalizing off of our products and services from a competitive advantage standpoint,” do we have a strong value proposition,” you know? “If we’re not in the right markets, how can we expand,” you know, and then, you kind of look at it from there. Those are some of the questions you’re going to ask.
Whereas, a lot of times with a lot of companies I start off with, those are not questions you really start off with. You say “okay who can I get?” “Maybe I can get somebody who can be an advisor. Maybe I know somebody who knows somebody who can get me a meeting with this person.” And those things are important, but you know, it’s not the same thing as when you’re really trying to, you know, get to that next level and grow exponentially.
You have to be a lot more structured, because sometimes you find that when you actually do the analysis and you do the research, sometimes, you are in the right market. It’s just that you may not be exploiting it as much as you could. And sometimes, you realize they’re actually more attractive ones for you to enter that might be easier than what you’re doing, where you can get a lot more bang for your buck, but you have to start off with the strategy. Like, that’s like number one. But again, even before the strategy, some kind of goal in mind, right? Because you want to make sure that what you’re setting is there and you can still do a strategy where you’re just looking to say, “okay, from a world of opportunities, how big is what we can actually address?” But even that, looking at that in and of itself is kind of one note, and quite frankly unrealistic.
A lot of business owners and startups always say, “oh yes this market is 10 billion dollars,” and “oh my gosh, there’s so much opportunity.” Well, just because the market size is that big, that doesn’t mean that that’s your addressable market. And even within the addressable market, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to capture a significant amount of that market, unless you can again have the value proposition and have the competitive advantage to be able to win in that marketplace. And then, the other piece which I may skip forward and go back, because when I work with companies too, I’m not just looking at just the top line, we have to make sure that you can operationally handle whatever it is that you want to achieve.
It’s really nice to say, “I want to grow from 2 million to 10 million in in two years,” and I’ve had companies– I’ve helped companies grow from 2 million to 20 million in two years, or 10 million to 100 million in two years. So it can be done, but you can’t just say, “okay, because of this opportunity.” Because what ends up happening is, you know, you don’t have the infrastructure in place, you can’t service this great goal you’re going after and then you end up blowing up. So you know, the first step is still to say, “where should we play, where should we not play and how do we win?” You know, that’s really kind of like the number one. And again, in a structured way that actually is research based as well as, you know, from a capability standpoint before you start going forward.
There’s a lot of really awesome points you’ve made there. I’ve actually just published an episode with a guy named Peter VanIperen whose focus is on minimalism with his clients. So, he’ll say, you know, “let’s look at your business, what are you doing and what percentage of that business is your core?” “What is profitable for you, and what are you doing that isn’t adding to your bottom line. If it’s not, you should cut it immediately so you can focus on this thing that makes you money, and then you can figure out how to make it more profitable so you can build your business sustainably and in a focused manner. Because you’re basically burning money on those things that aren’t helping you to become bigger, to become more profitable.”
So, what you’re saying about, you know, being able to have this strategy and understand how to utilize that opportunity to grow is really interesting. I’m also going to be interviewing someone soon named Ryll. She’s from Australia and her focus as a business coach is on setting strategies, and you know, figuring out how the strategy you want to have will reflect in your own lifestyle and your desired future lifestyle. And so, you say, this is what I want and then this is how I can make my business fit that need so that everything is balanced and in tune as I’m building them. So again, that was a really interesting comment from you as well.
Identifying and addressing problems (11:30)
How can a company align their strategy with their growth in order to focus on how to identify the problems that they’re facing, so that they can get rid of those problems?
First, again, like I said, assessing your companies. Okay, I talked about the growth goals but the other part is you have to do comparisons within your market and how you’re stacking up to everything that’s around. Now, there definitely are a lot of different metrics. Certain industries have metrics that, you know, are kind of like baseline stuff. Sometimes, you can have it where it’s just certain company sizes, things of that nature.
But if you’re, let’s just say making a profit margin of 20%, right, on whatever you’re proud of the services. And you say, “okay, great.” You now make money, well, but then you never looked outside of yourself. And you realize, wait, when you actually do a competitive analysis or some kind of market assessment you realize the average is 40% for what you’re doing. Then you don’t look so great, right? Or it could be the opposite, then, it could be the other way around too. Maybe let’s say the average is 10 percent, then you are doing great, right? But the point is, you need to know how you stack up.
You know, A lot of businesses, and it’s no fault, right, it’s very difficult to run a business and still strategize at the same time. That’s why a lot of times, companies bring on other people because it’s different. It’s difficult to do both of those things when you’re growing at the same time, but you have to have some kind of perspective as to how you’re doing in relation. Because then, that’s one of the flags that you can get to say, “okay, wait a second, maybe there’s certain things we have to fix within our organization.” You know when you look at your organizational structure then you can usually see the right people in the right place. “Do we have the right amount of people? Do we have too many people or do we have not enough people? “
Again, looking at profitability, what’s profitable, you mentioned about someone else that was there. I agree that you definitely want to go after the things that’s profitable, but profitability is something that still has to kind of be a slice and dice because you can be profitable if you happen to allocate resources to one area and not to another. I mean those things can be weighted depending on how your organization is. And so, you want to be able to balance that with the best opportunity, as well as the strongest capability that your company has, so you’ll know your company has something to fix. You know, to answer the question, like I said before it would be– for example, if your profit margin, say, is less than others. If you are going up against, you know, in the marketplace, you’re sending salespeople out. First you saw traction, and all of a sudden, you’re not anymore.
Okay, I mean there’s certain real simple indicators, you know? It’s easier to see if your business is going down, right? Or if certain things are shifting, and again, a lot of times companies and founders, and you know CEOs try to scramble. They’re like, “okay, wait what’s going on, maybe we need to put more people on this.” I mean, you need to do more marketing or more SEO or bring on some of your web design and all these other things that are tactical. And sometimes, that works in the short term. Sometimes it doesn’t work well, but sometimes it does work.
But what you want to do longer term is you want to get to the root cause of the problem you know? Do you have something that still fits the same customer need as you had when you first started, right? There’s certain, you know, products and services and industries. The world changes very quickly and if you’re not changing along with it, in a way, that still gives you the competitive advantage. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big company or a large company, you have to have a competitive advantage, like, whatever that is, to be successful.
So, you have to be able to say, “Alright, this is where we are. If we’re not lining up with where everyone else is and we’re not better than that then we have to fix something. We have to go back and adjust it.” Like so, some of those things are simple. If you’re not making money anymore, you’re not making as much money anymore, it’s the same thing, you have to go back. “Are we not making money because something’s going on with the industry or market outside of us, or are we not because there’s something internally that’s not going well in terms of.” Again, it could be structurally, it could be culturally it, could be just direction wise, leadership wise. I mean some things within companies are an actual business issue and other things can honestly be sometimes leadership. Sometimes, it’s just a simple communication issue. You know, people out on board and certain things need to be in alignment. So, it’s really important to be able to look at those things.
Conversely, if you are growing very rapidly and that’s obviously a good thing with a lot of companies. You do scale, and let’s say you do these things you say, “wow we’re killing it,” you know? “We’re increasing, we’re growing and everything,” like that, and that’s really great too. But if you get to a place where all of a sudden you’re growing, growing, growing, and then all the customer complaints increase, or you know people are getting sloppy with certain things or or you’re so busy. If you’re the CEO and your main job is business development, let’s just say you’re so busy doing that but you’re not really paying attention operationally, and you don’t have the right people to help you to run the day-to-day while you go out and do this stuff. Then, you can get to a point where unfortunately you can crash and burn, and that’s where companies have problems when they’re trying to scale as well. So, it’s an everlasting balance in terms of making sure the strategy, the plan, the execution and the monitoring of everything is in place.
And that is a lot, but that’s why it’s so important to have the right people and the right team on. But the only way that you can assess this problem is again you’re on both ends of the spectrum and it’s about understanding what pitfalls to look after. Because you don’t want to get to the point where you’re not growing or you’re losing money. I mean, that’s easy to say, “okay, wow, we need something to fix.” I mean that’s not a difficult thing because that’s where everything is glaring at you. But it’s during those times when it starts getting slowly, and you start seeing things trend, even little bits strips, and drips and drips; you want to make sure that that, again, gets taken care of.
Again, organization side, even if you’re doing well, if you start getting kind of disgruntling from your employees, or you know, things aren’t being done the way you want them to. Sometimes, it’s easy to let those things slip when you’re doing very well but those are the kind of things you need to kind of jump on right away and make sure you have it. Because the stronger your foundation is, the more you can grow exponentially and continue or even, of course, exceed any achievements you had at the beginning. But letting these things slide or not looking outside of yourself even periodically is where a lot of, you know, startups don’t make it, and they fail because they get blindsided, and that’s never a situation you want to be in.
Building strong system and foundation (17:21)
So, how can companies create a strong foundation that allows them from a very early stage to monitor these internal and external changes, so that a red flag comes up, before it becomes a problem?
Yeah, very simply. You have to start putting metrics in place and you have to make it a systematized way of checking on these things. So again, when it’s numbers, you should have metrics in place anyway. You should be knowing your numbers, you should be monitoring, in terms of, your sales, in terms of your quantity, in terms of, you know, regionally, or market wise. Initialize where they are coming from. Being able to see trend information, you know, you need to be able to communicate your financials, you need to know what your P&L looks like, you need to know what your balance sheet is like.
I mean, those are cash flow, especially as well. Those are some basics that most companies at least know they should do, but not all do a great job of really following it and monitoring it. You have to have those things.
In terms of the employees, you have to do customer satisfaction, the same way you should be, usually when you should be doing customer satisfaction for your customers. And again, people think that’s such an easy thing and it’s no big deal but most companies don’t do it. And if they do it, they don’t do it, again, periodically. Like, you know, so that you can again track your customer satisfaction metrics; have they improved. “How they remain the same?” “Are we seeing any pockets anywhere and then being actionable?”
So, if a customer says they want something, most companies just do what they say they do, they report the numbers, yeah, yeah, everybody’s all excited. Well, it’s not that great if you’re not doing anything about the feedback you receive. The same thing internally, you should be pulling your employees and getting engaged, you know, and doing surveys with them as well, you know? You can do things like, you know, anonymously, or sometimes, you can do like team building stuff. But the point is you have to have a gauge in terms of how satisfied they are, and whether or not they’re disgruntled. And there should be some kind of feedback mechanism within your organizations as well so that, you know, if they’re happy, you know, if they want something, you know, you can communicate what you can and cannot do, because you can’t always say yes to everyone. But, you have to make sure that your organization is strong, you know, in terms of that. If you have partners, you have to make sure that you’re communicating well; that you guys are in the same place.
Yeah, like I said if the CEO is the one who’s out there, and he’s you know doing the business development or he’s the face of the organization, he’s doing the marketing and everything like that, there should be somebody else who’s doing the day-to-day. You have to have open and constant communication with that person whether that’s a co-founder or a partner or just someone you hired, you know? If you don’t know what’s going on day-to-day, that’s not good for you, you know, and vice versa.
And the same thing if you have investors. Investors, you guys have been on the same page as well because they can’t be going one way, and then you going another, and then, you guys are butting heads. And then, for you personally, because you did mention someone talking about, you know, starting with your life and going backwards. And I said at the beginning, a lot of what makes the company successful as well is the emotional-psychological side.
You know, you as the head of the company you have to take care of yourself. I mean another gauge is if you’re just stressed out all the time, if you’re exhausted, if you’re irritated, if you’re forgetting things, you know, if you’re just not being yourself; and sometimes it’s about vacation, but most of the time it’s just about, again, constant balance. And everyone has something personally that they may do. Some people meditate. You know, you have to exercise, eat right, and all these other things, and those things are important too. But you personally, you have to make sure that you are taking the time to enjoy yourself, taking the time to, you know, be away from work for a little bit.
Making sure you have the right team and support system so that you have that level of trust to know if you do have to do those things; that people are in place. So, it’s literally a balance, it cuts off at the top it’s true, but literally every critical area of your organization. It’s really about, like said, getting those metrics implemented. First coming up with them, and then monitoring them, because that’s the only way. If you just come up with them once which a lot of companies do, large and small, and you say, “yeah, we have these metrics now, and we’ve done this,” and then you haven’t looked at it in a long time.
Then again, you know by the time you do look at it it may be too late, or might be this kind of reactionary– let’s put out a fire type of nonsense. And while those things happen, it shouldn’t be happening all the time in your organization. You feel like you’re always putting out fires or scrambling for something or you ask basic questions and no one seems to know the answer or it takes forever for them to come up with the answer, like, that there’s a problem.
I mean those are the things that you have to have fixed, because the more organized you are, the more organized you and your team are. The more you know what’s going on, the better decisions you can make, so that if you have to of course adjust, you can do it, or if you just have to go full steam ahead in what you’re doing, you can do that as well. But, you have to be able to do those types of things, and then, you can constantly assess what you need. And then, when you find that there are problems, figure out; if it’s something that you can do yourself; if you and your team can do internally to fix these things, then, by means do it. If not, then you should bring out outside advisors and outside people to help you in whatever the aspect is that you need. Hopefully, teach your team how to do it, and teach you and your team how to do it as well, so that you guys have it going forward, because as the same thing even though you have employees, as the head of a company you can’t do everything. And sometimes, you just don’t have all of those things together, so it’s important that you have the right internal team, but the external team as well when you need it.
In terms of the founder taking care of themselves, I totally agree with that. My fiance actually convinced me on Sunday to not work at all because I worked the last eight days. And I didn’t touch tech and it felt so weird, to just be sitting there on the beach drinking coffee looking at this, you know, the sand and the water all day just doing nothing. It was boring but necessary. And so, I feel much more energized today. In terms of taking care of your employees, I totally agree.
So many people ignore their employees or they treat their employees poorly, and then expect that the product is going to be good and that the people that are paying for their product are going to care or they’re going to be treated well. If you don’t take care of your employees, they’re not going to care enough to take care of the customers, and so, it’s a huge negative feedback loop. And so, I do my best to, you know, take care of the people that I’m working with and to encourage them and all that.
And we do have a plan to create not only employee reviews but peer reviews, self reviews, as well as like, we want the team to tell us anonymously what we can do to help them have a better experience working with us. So we, we have daily reports we use; right now is like a very basic version, so they’ll say, you know, “this was the hardest part of my week last week, “this is the thing that I’m most proud I accomplished,” you know, “this is somebody who like did an outstanding job, I want to praise them,” “this is somebody who I think could have done a better job because of whatever,” things like that. So we get a gauge of their weekly experience. On top of like, you know, they actually got things done that they were supposed to do, and so, that.
In our form now as a very small pre-launch company, it’s very important for me as a founder to just have a link to them because I’m not talking to them all day every day, you know? They may have a question for me and I may talk to them for, you know, 10 minutes a day, once every few days, but really, the reports are a great way for me to keep in touch with what they’re doing, and the call once a week helps me to stay connected with them and tell them what I’m doing so they know what’s happening outside of their own sphere. But as we grow, as we launch, and hire more people, it’ll be harder to maintain that connectivity and that relationship with the people, you know?
So, I totally understand. It’s important to develop a strategy to be able to manage the internal health of the company and the employees is the lifeline of the company. So, if you don’t take care of them, then you’re going to suffer. So I totally understand that from that point of view.
Creating the work metrics (25:06)
You’re talking about creating metrics and finding a way to measure them, analyze them and manage the company based on them. How does the average company you work with manage them? Are they on spreadsheets, do they have a Saas platform that they’re working with like, or have they built these dashboards themselves? How do you manage metrics?
Honestly, it’s a mix and quite frankly, some of them do it better than others. Like I said, the best practices, honestly, the mechanism they use really isn’t what makes them great or not great. What makes them great is the ones that actually take action based on the results versus the ones that just report them. It’s really that simple, you know? Once, you, whether you do it by a spreadsheet, whether you have a program, whether you build a dashboard and you customize it– those things aren’t important.
The important thing is to make sure it’s comprehensive, to make sure you get consensus on it,you know? If it’s, you know, you guys are just starting out and everyone’s, you know, still on board, get everyone’s opinion as you grow. Like you said, there’s levels. So it might just be with your managers at a certain point, your supervisors, or whatever it is, in yourself or, you know. I mean it may be different depending on how big you are or how big you get.
But the point is, put them down, make sure it’s credible, and like I said when you get the feedback and you see the trends do something about it. You’ll be surprised like people just don’t do stuff with their reports. And then, when you do something especially if it’s an employee or some kind of stakeholder, I mean, if they just ask you to do something, it could be the smallest thing. But they gave their feedback, and you say, “I heard you, I listened, we took it into consideration that saying, we can’t do everything but we’re going to do a b and c.” And you literally report out and say, “look, based on your feedback, we did a b and c,” and they can see that you did it. People get very excited. It’s almost like they just, they almost, I don’t say they don’t care about the other things they ask for, but they respect the fact that they feel heard and it wasn’t just lip service. And like I said, that goes for companies of all different sizes. I mean not just, you know, startup, and early, and growth stage, and things of that nature. But it’s more important I think for startup and growth stages.
Again, you know there’s a saying and I didn’t make this up, other people say it all the time, “culture trumps strategy.” Because you can have the greatest strategy in the world, you know, everything laid out, analyzed, researched, you know, positioned, everything, but you if you don’t have the right culture in the right organization to execute it and make it happen, all it is is just a pretty strategy and just a great deck. That’s not really a presentation, it’s not really going to go very far
So, those things really have to be. Like, when I break down growth strategy like I have in my book because, you know, one of my differentiators from consultants is that I try to make very complex problems very simple and easy to understand. Like, that’s like my biggest thing. Because even as a trained consultant, people come up with stuff that even I didn’t understand. I’m like, okay, I don’t even know what that is and I went to school and all this stuff, and I still don’t get it because I think that the simpler you can make stuff, the easier it is to communicate, the the easier it is to understand, and for everybody to get on board. So when I look at growth strategy, I just say strategy is opportunity plus capability. Like, it’s just that simple. And on the capability side, you have the culture, you have a company, and you have everything else. My capability can be improved, it can be increased, it can be decreased but it definitely is a part of making sure that we have, you know, what needs to actually make it done and actually make results happen.
Standing out (28:33)
I’ve heard many times over, people who have said if you want to become the market leader you have to differentiate yourself beyond features and functions. So how the hell does somebody do that? How do you as a company founder, or as a management team develop a strategy that allows you to get outside of that race to the number of functions and features that makes you have more than everybody else? How do you escape that in order to grow?
It’s interesting to ask that question, because especially with everything going on now that’s something that is critical.
You have to understand your customer in such a way that you’re connecting with them. Let’s make it simple. So there’s tons of paper towels out there, right, you have bounty, you have brawny, you have, you know what, it’s got you have name and brand, you have store brand, you know. At the end of the day it’s paper towels, right? It’s not like a big thing that’s all sexy or feels different. I mean they could come up with all these different things about, oh yes, we have the most innovative whatever to pick up your spills, but at the end of the day, it’s paper towels, right?
And people are going to buy these things based on brand recognition. They’re going to buy it based on an experience they had. They’re going to buy it based sometimes on price, you know, if the price is less; sometimes they may buy it even because the price is more, if they feel like it’s a premium product right? So even though the core product has your basic products and features, your functional, you know, things like, “okay, this is what we’re offering,” you know, the way that you can differentiate yourself has to be on other levels. So, if you are, sometimes it’s a matter of doing more. Let’s say, I’m a paper towel. We use the same analogy right.
So I’m selling paper towels so maybe in the market that I sell it to, you know, I’m the closest to the community than other people there. So maybe, I will sponsor something in the community, so people in the community, they all know me, and they all know, you know, who I am as a person that I give back. Well, because I give back or I say, “okay, every, you know, five cents from every paper’s household is going to some organization,” or something like that. And they see my face, and they know that I care. Well, they’re probably gonna buy more of my paper towels even though it’s not a product or feature, right?
They’re gonna because now there’s more of a connection and that may have to do with something charitable. But it doesn’t always have to be charitable. Sometimes, I may just speak to them and sometimes again, that’s about connecting with people. So if I’m going to connect with my customers, connecting with customers is about looking at their realized needs and their unrealized needs, right?
So, a realized need is okay, “we all realize it.” Again, I’m using the same paper towel example because it’s simple. Okay they have a need to clean up messes when they make a spill or when they’re cleaning at home. Okay, that’s a realized need. An unrealized need might be that, okay, well, maybe for some people they may not articulate it, but paper towels are important to them because if it’s in an area, let’s say, they can’t afford something more extravagant that’s actually what they use for things other than this the basic cleaning up, you know? If it’s not that way, maybe it’s something that ties into something else.
Maybe it’s something that can be bundled with something else that nobody ever thought about doing. I mean it’s just about again thinking outside of the box in a way that meets your customer, you know? Where they are, and then look for a way to enhance what they like. Another way to do it is the opposite way. Like, I remember when I was in business school at Duke, and one of my professors had something really profound. Like, you know, if you want to come up with a billion dollar idea, literally just go through the day and just make note of everything that gets on your nerves. When you get up, you just go a bunch a day, whatever it is, if it gets on your nerves, there’s probably a huge opportunity there, because it probably gets on somebody else’s nerves too.
Okay, so again, you know? So, it’s not just a functional product and feature. If I use the same example, the paper towel, maybe get some people’s nerves that, you know, when they rip it, they have to throw it away or maybe get to the nerves that, you know, nothing is really that great even though they say it is, you know? Maybe, guessing a nurse, that it’s always in white, and maybe some people like color. Like, you know, it’s like it can be so many different things, and I’m just throwing this stuff out there. But first, you have to get the function, right? Because people always do that, too. Sometimes, you can get all overly fancy and then you forget about the basic, you know, core functions. Like, if I’m selling paper towels, the thing still needs to clean up the mess right like. You can’t just go through something all excitable and it doesn’t do the basic stuff.
But after you do the basics, now let’s think about doing something different to make us stand out, but also that’s going to be important to our customer. It can’t just be important to the company, it has to be important to the customer and then they get all like, “ wow, this is a company that I would actually rather pay more for, or go out of my way for, or buy versus everything else,” or “ a service a company I’ll hire because they make me feel good, they meet my needs, and they thought of something that, I didn’t even think of myself.” And that’s the type of innovative thinking and the type of thinking that really helps companies grow and set them apart because it’s always something else. If it’s not something that’s new, that’s not out there right now.
That’s a really good insight. For what I’m doing with my company I feel like there’s a lot of things that separate me from the other founders of the competitors that you know we’re facing. Where it feels like they’re all focused on the functions and features, I’m focused on developing a podcast that shows what my personal brand is, you know? I’m not just a guy building a company, I also have an understanding of humans and their social needs, and their career needs, and you know, hopefully, I can help them think about how they can become better leaders and better founders. Because, my background is in education. I love to teach people what I know; I mentor a lot of people, don’t ask for anything back, just because I enjoy it. And so, part of my strategy with my company is the podcast building, this curated CEO community, so that they can learn from each other, and share their knowledge, so that they can help upskill each other. And I think that community will be really vital in making my company successful.
We’re also helping you to make your company better outside of the product. And I’m also very interested in mentorship or in terms of charity. I’ve been thinking about how we could use profit from the company to potentially fund college scholarships ,or you know, loans for small businesses that are minority owned, they have an idea but nobody will give them money. You know, maybe we can help them or maybe we can invest in them and give them mentorship and connect them with our networks, like things like that.
My goal for what I’m doing is much larger than just, I want to build a multi-billion dollar company. Like, for me, the company is a means to do the good that I want to do. The company is just the fun part that allows it to happen. And so, I think that strategy will help us to find that way out of the race for functions and features.
Caring for the consumers (35:24)
For you, personally, as the founder of your company that definitely will, because the thing is going to give you more fulfillment. Since that’s what where your heart is and that’s what your goals are, you know. Overall, right, to be able to have your company fund what you want to do in terms of giving back to the world and things of that nature. I think the differentiation though, in terms of helping that to grow your company is, one, the communication factor. Like, you would have to make sure that you communicate, that you know, to your customers, and your stakeholders, and for the ones who you know are also in alignment with those same values.
They’re gonna, you know, gravitate more towards you, you know, what you offer as long as your products and services are still rather on par or superior than your competitors. And then, on top of that, you have now this additional value-based offering that’s going to make them connect and want to go to you. Like, that’s the important thing. Because the truth of the matter is, and even, people may not want to hear this but it’s true. For some things, you know, if a customer, you may think something is really great but if a customer doesn’t care, right? Then it’s just something for you to do personally. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the good thing is that most, you know, a lot of people do care and especially with new generations coming up and everything like that.
They care about the world, they care about social movements, and they care about the environment and things like that. I mean every board now is ESG, it’s like, such a big deal even though it’s been around forever. But that’s really just from pushback from a lot of consumers and customers, employees. And other stakeholders are kind of pushing it through. So the fact that you have these things that are value based, I think that will be important to a lot of people. But I just want the CEOs and founders to listen to this. I want them to just think off the bat because we have this great other thing that we’re doing that’s necessarily going to be the catalyst. It only is a catalyst if customers and consumers are going to care enough to also look at that as a differentiation and go about getting behind them to support that.
Being authentic and giving back (37:19)
So, that’s why authenticity is important because I think if people try to just make it seem like , “oh yeah, we’re going to go ahead and just donate to this,” and they don’t really care. I think those things usually don’t last very long. It’s like people can kind of smell in inauthenticity after a while.
It’s part of who I am to spend a lot of my time learning things and then teach others what I’ve learned with no expectation other than I hope you gain value from what I’ve taught you, and I hope you teach other people too. So, one of the things that I do just personally is I’ll buy books for myself and when I’m done reading them, I’ll give them to other people and I’ll say, when you’re done with this book give it to someone who you think will find value in it. It’s a very small thing to do, not everybody has access to books.
So yeah, I totally agree, having a superior product with authenticity in the social good is also really important. I have a friend who’s in China. He’s Chinese and he’s built a very successful company around corporate social responsibility where large companies will give him money to make them look good in society. And it’s his passion to give back, and he gets to make a lot of money helping big companies do good for society. So, he lives in that authentic, you know, part of himself and is able to make a lot of money doing it.
Well, I think that’s the dream for everybody, right? I mean, to be able to do what you love to do and also do something that, you know, that fills your heart and your spirit, and again, you can give back and do good and be rewarded for it. So I mean, I think that’s awesome that you’re doing the things you’re doing, because we do understand there is such a thing as good karma. And you know, even though that’s not quote-unquote the business thing, I think it’s real. It’s important that you do that, and I think that’s great, that you, your friend, was able to have a profitable business because of it and that you are on your way to do so as well.
So, what’s a question I didn’t ask you that you think could add additional value to this episode for everybody.
Other important tips (39:18)
Have a really good network of people that are around you. Have them kind of give you the check-ins, too. Because sometimes, you can’t see when you need something. And that could be your spouse’s, significant other, that could be good friends, that could be, you know, whoever it is. It doesn’t have to be a lot of people but I think it’s really important to make sure that you have that, because the support system outside of just the core business and someone who can be honest with you I think is really important.
The other thing I did want to talk about is my book that I did just recently updated. I had actually written it um years ago in 2014. I actually read and it’s funny because a lot of things that we’re going through now are actually applicable. And I did want to at least mention that’s something that if people are interested they can look into. It’s called “How to Grow and Expand your Business in Times of Feast or Famine,” and pretty much it lays out a broken down growth strategy which is usually very complex into a very simple 10-step process that people can kind of go through. And I’ve had CEOs go through them and others go through them as well, and apply them to their business so that you have a roadmap that you can use to, that’s actually again written in a way that’s simple and easy to understand. Because I presented it at first; it was a presentation I made to a lot of business owners, and then, they can really afford my services, and so, the book was the next best thing. So, I just wanted to put it out there that that’s an option for anybody who’s interested.
Also, a book that is not mine but I did want to mention that people don’t always look at. And it is more on the I would say the kind of emotional people side, but i think it’s excellent for business owners, it’s called “How to Deal with People you Can’t Stand,”and it was actually written by two people who were, first, they went to school for medical school and they actually realize that the majority of physical ailments that people go through are based on emotional issues. And so, they switched over to become holistic doctors, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. The original book went through the top 10 behaviors people can’t stand, and then, they added like another three, but it’s really well laid out, because it gives you strategies and tools on how to, like, understand these behaviors, and how to like master them, and things like that. So, it’s one of my favorite books as well. So I wanted to plug my book, but I also want to plug in another one that I thought was pretty awesome.
Follow up with Michelle (41:37)
All right, great. So, I’ll have links for both of those books on our show notes at welivetobuild.com/listen. So, what is the most important lesson you’ve ever learned in your life?
In my life? That’s a big question, but honestly I’m going to say the first thing that comes to my mind because my instinct has gotten honed as I’ve gotten older. I would say it’s what we mentioned earlier, honestly, to be authentic and just be my genuine self and to just tell the truth. And, tell the truth to myself as well as tell the truth to others.
The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life and career is anytime I ever went against it but wasn’t peaceful for me and my spirit, and what I kind of knew wasn’t right, or didn’t feel 100% comfortable with, and that dealt with people, that dealt with situations, that dealt with decisions– personal and business life. And every time I did the opposite where I went with my instinct I went with what felt right as well as you know what my gut was leading me to, and my instinct led me to and I was just being my true self, that’s where, you know, all the wonderful opportunities came– the wonderful relationships, you know, the peaceful things are just kind of easily and effortless, business-wise and just personal life. And so, I think sometimes, life can put us in situations where we allow things to go on longer than they should, and you know, and then afterwards we have to kind of do the cleanup or we realize we’re not being as authentic as we should be. And then, you kind of get back to that.
But for me it has been the biggest revelation right now. Where it is like I am who I am, it is what it is like, there’s no like, I’ve already made enough great decisions and bad decisions to know that it’s the best route to go. And I found that with other people, a lot of people get sick often times because they’re pretending and, it’s like, it’s just not worth it. Like, just do you, be yourself, be authentic yourself, and you’ll find that somehow, the universe lines you up with who you need and what you need, and life is a lot better when you’re for it.
And so, that’s like probably the biggest lessons I’ve received. And the one, the biggest lessons I feel I can share for those who rather already know that or even for the need to be reminded or for those who may be struggling in whatever aspect of their life because you just become freed and you realize that the chains you had on never needed to be on you just go free.
Yeah, I find that one of the hardest things to get out of people in life is honesty. I am lucky that I can tell from a mile away when people are bullshitting me and I come to every relationship with trust. And the minute I smell BS, I’m done, I disengage. I usually don’t give people a second chance because you already showed to me I can’t trust you, but I go in with trust. I hope people are good. I assume they’re going to do it, but the second I feel like something’s not right, I pull out. It’s a shame, because if people were just raised by their parents to be honest, we would have a much better world and a much better society.
So, thank you for your time. It’s been a very lovely conversation learning more about growth strategy and authenticity and differentiation. And I hope everybody enjoys this conversation. “Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. So, take care of yourself every day.”
Great. Well, thank you for having me.