Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Martha Stewart gets a second chance to be an icon

One theme of the upcoming Mistake Bank book is that we are offered second chances if we make a mistake. This is illustrated in a recent New York Times article portraying Martha Stewart as a newly-minted icon of craftspeople and artisans. Here's an excerpt:

In and around the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Martha Stewart has spawned meet-up groups for people who want to work on crafting, blog items about her sighting at the Brooklyn Bowl rock club, sales of her books at the Brooklyn Kitchen cook shop and decorative displays in the shop window of Urban Rustic, a market and cafe.

Beyond Williamsburg, Ms. Stewart has drawn crafting and baking fans from Saratoga Springs to San Francisco who have made MarthaStewart.com the most-shared site among its rivals on the social site Pinterest, according to Pinfluencer.

While some Martha Stewart fans abandoned their magazine subscriptions and Ms. Stewart’s high-thread-count sheets after she went to prison over her 2004 conviction for lying to federal investigators about a stock sale, this new generation of fans say her prison time only gives her more street credibility.

“She’s such a Suzy homemaker and also did some time in the joint,” said Luis Illades, an owner of Urban Rustic, where some of Ms. Stewart’s store-bought decorations appeared.

“That has helped cement her iconic image. Before, she was someone your mother would follow.”

Crystal Sloane, 29, who grew up on a dairy farm outside Saratoga Springs, N.Y., reading her mother’s issues of Martha Stewart Living, has begun her own business called Vintage by Crystal, designing miniature animals that Ms. Stewart eventually featured on “The Martha Stewart Show.”

“She’s like the Jesus of the craft world,” she said.

“Not that I like criminals, but I heard that she just took some bad advice. Anybody can make mistakes.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Excerpt from The Mistake Bank book

I've mentioned a Mistake Bank book which I'm currently working on. It's titled, "The Mistake Bank: How to Succeed by Forgiving Your Mistakes and Embracing Your Failures." I have sent a draft of the book to a friend who is editing it for me. Michael Morris is working on illustrations for the book and, most immediately, I will be running a Kickstarter campaign to underwrite the first print run of the book.

Please stay tuned for more information on the Kickstarter project. Please consider supporting the project and sharing the project with your friends and colleagues. Here's a taste of the book from the Introduction:

Many years ago I worked with some great people at GTE in Tampa, Florida. I was on a six-month assignment and, during my last week there, I had a ton of things to do to get ready for my next move to Boston.

That Thursday, I had agreed to meet my friend Phil for lunch, but before that, I rushed over to another part of town to return my cable box. I ran in, dropped the box off, and ran back to my car. There was no car in the space in front of me, so instead of backing out, I zipped forward.

When the tires hit the concrete curb at the front of the parking space, I knew I was in trouble. I took my foot off the gas, but the car didn't stop until the tires had run up and over and the underside of the car had fallen hard onto the curb.

I backed up over the curb again, then out of the parking space. There was a grinding noise from the bottom of the car and it wouldn't go faster than 20 miles per hour. I carefully creeped along the side roads for several miles till I reached the dealer. It took a while for them to look at the car and let me know what needed to be fixed (thankfully, it wasn't bad).

By now I was terribly late for lunch. I went to a pay phone (see how long ago it was?) and called Phil at the restaurant. "I am so sorry, but I won't make it for lunch. You see, my car..."

Phil interrupted. "You need to get to the restaurant now. There are 25 people here for your goodbye lunch."

I hung up, called a cab, and eventually made it to the restaurant. In the dining room, a long stretch of tables was full of empty drink glasses, plates, and about a dozen people who were still there after 90 minutes of waiting. It was a memorable good-bye lunch, for them as well as for me. 

* * *

There are a few lessons I took away from that experience. One is that, as stated by Wharton School researcher Paul Schoemaker, “mistakes make a deep imprint.” I can remember that story in vivid detail more than twenty-five years later. Even as I write this, I can hear the sound of the car’s undercarriage crunching against the curb.

Another is that rushing doesn’t necessarily get things done faster. In fact, it can slow you down significantly.

The final lesson is that friends are precious gifts. That my colleagues would go to the trouble of planning this elaborate surprise lunch, and then hang around long after they’d finished eating to wait for my arrival, is something I’ll never forget.

Three life lessons. All from just one mistake.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Successful businessman looks back on earlier failures

In 2010, abc.com'a Christine Brozyna wrote a piece about Bob's Red Mill, a seller of grain products, being sold to its employees via an ESOP program. In the article, company founder Bob Moore shared some lessons about business success, and failure:

Moore said there is no secret to building a successful business, just hard work and luck.

"You can sell your house, take your money, and test the waters by doing something you believe in," he said. "And maybe you'll be successful and maybe you won't, and that's what entrepreneuring has been for me, and I have failed."

Earlier in his life, Moore owned a gas station that he thought was a great success. It flourished for five years, but ultimately went under. And in 1988, his mill was burned down by an arsonist.

"I lost everything," he said. "I lost our entire investment. I know what it feels like in my stomach when you can't pay the bills."

But he learned from his mistakes and kept taking chances, eventually making his mark in American households.

Bob told a longer version of the gas station story to Inc. magazine:

To put a few extras on my family's table, I'd been working weekends at a Shell station. A sign went up on one corner saying a new Mobil station would be opening. I called, and pretty soon we had a deal. I sold our house and put the $4,500 down on the gas station. I quit my job and went into business.

In those days, you didn't just take care of cars; you took care of people. I would wipe windows, check the tires and underneath the hood. I cleared 4 and a half cents a gallon, 5 cents for high test. My bookkeeper would laugh at me. But I wore a freshly washed uniform every day, and the sun was always shining.

Then the smog started to get bad. Charlee, my wife, and I felt that getting out of L.A. would be good for the boys' health. I drove around the state looking at gas stations for sale and ended up buying one in Mammoth Lakes, California, in September 1959.

I had a pocketful of cash from selling our house and station in Los Angeles. We bought a big mobile home. We took trips with the boys. We bought a lot of things we didn't need. Mammoth Lakes was a ski town. But Thanksgiving and Christmas went by with no snow. Then we got 14 feet of snow in January! The roads were impassable. The snow was still deep in July, and that kept away the summer tourists. One year after leaving Los Angeles, I was broke.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Self-compassion is more important to success than self-esteem

Heidi Grant Halvorson, writing for the HBR Blog Network, asserts that self-esteem, rather than being a useful tool for enabling high performance, may instead be destructive.

Rather, the idea of self-compassion, forgiving yourself for mistakes and failures, is more beneficial, and may drive success. Writes Halvorson:

A growing body of research, including new studies by Berkeley's Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, suggest that self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, may be the key to unlocking your true potential for greatness.

Now, I know that some of you are already skeptical about a term like "self-compassion." But this is a scientific, data-driven argument — not feel-good pop psychology. So hang in there and keep an open mind.

Self-compassion is a willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding — it's embracing the fact that to err is indeed human. When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your awesome qualities to protect your ego. It's not surprising that self-compassion leads, as many studies show, to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism and happiness, and to less anxiety and depression.

Self-compassion is a core ingredient of grit, which you've read about here in the past. Self-compassion makes it safer to admit error and share stories of mistakes, which has the powerful benefit of raising the knowledge of an entire team or company.

Sharing stories about mistakes and failure is another way to enable self-compassion. It helps us understand we are not alone in stumbling from time to time. That's one of the purposes of this blog and of the Mistake Bank book, currently in process.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Paul Downs stops blaming the economy for his sales downturn

Paul Downs, writing in the New York Times You're The Boss blog, published a series of posts on dealing with a downturn in orders this year. The final post discussed Downs's coming to terms with his responsibility to solve the problem and not blame outside forces. This is the "sense of agency" and it comes up again and again in learning from mistakes (it's a key focus in Chapter 1 of the Mistake Bank book).

Over the last few years, I have made a conscious effort to find ways to get advice from other business owners. Writing this blog was the first thing I did, and I have found the feedback from commenters to be valuable. This year, in an effort to find a more focused set of advisers, I joined a Vistage business group. We meet once a month, and a portion of each meeting is devoted to analysis of business issues that each member presents. When a member of the group presents a problem, the other owners listen, ask questions and then suggest solutions.

Through the spring, I kept the group updated as my sales collapsed, and in May (as I explained in Thursday’s post), I told everyone that I felt like a victim of a bad economy. The thing was, nobody else in the business group was having such a hard time. Many of them felt the economy could be better but that conditions were still favorable. I seemed to be the only one who was suffering and the only one who thought that the problem was out of my control. One of the members told me bluntly: “I don’t want to hear any more about the Euro or health care or whatever excuses you come up with. This is YOUR problem, and YOU have to solve it.”

Excellent advice. Complaining hadn’t helped, upping my ad budget hadn’t worked, so I had to keep trying things until we either recovered or went under. But if it wasn’t an outside problem, then what could it be? It had to be something about my marketing, and that meant the problem was in AdWords. Once I decided the problem had to be there, I started looking at the data again to try to find a solution. But this time I approached my analysis with the conviction that the problem was something I had done — not something that was beyond my control.

Read Downs's post to learn what happened.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Trying to be all things to all people costs you money"

There is a very useful story in the You're the Boss blog in the NY Times today. In it, Josh Patrick explains a dilemma common to small consulting firms and other, as he calls them, "micro-businesses":

If your business doesn’t have enough cash, you will be under stress. That is something I can attest to from first-hand experience. When you don’t have enough cash, you feel pressure to take any client who walks in the door. But this is usually a mistake. Trying to be all things to all people will cost you money.

Most owners understand this. But when you are under pressure to pay your bills, it’s hard to say no — even if the customer is outside of your target market. You need money, you take the business, and you often end up spending an inordinate amount of time serving the customer. And if you stay in this cycle, you put your business at risk. When you own a microbusiness, burning time is just like burning money.

Several years ago, I did some work with a graphic design firm, Gray Cat Studio. Michelle Bisceglia, the owner, had built a knowledge base working with specialty food manufacturers. She knew a great deal about the businesses and what made them successful.

When I first started working with her, she would take work from anyone. She often lost money when she went outside her knowledge area, but like many microbusiness owners, she was often short on cash.

We worked on developing her niche and I coached her in using a new word: No. Over time, two things happened. She was able to charge higher fees because of her expertise, and it took her much less time to complete projects. This allowed her to create a cash cushion, which made it even easier to say no to customers who didn’t fit her profile.

So: mistake is taking any piece of business you can. Solution: create discipline to say "no" to inappropriate customers, raise price to high-value customers, build a cash cushion to deal with the inevitable peaks and valleys of selling. Degree of difficulty: high.

But even though it's difficult, it's vital. There is a similar story in the upcoming Mistake Bank book on this very topic. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Decathlon champion discusses failure in business

From the New York Times obituary of 1956 Olympic decathlon champion Milt Campbell, who died this past Friday. This quote establishes Campbell's sense of agency that likely fueled his athletic drive as well:

[Campbell] later became a motivational speaker, with failure in business as his own motivation. “When I lost all my money in the meat-trucking business in 1976,” he told The Times in 1980, “I realized that I understood about success and failure. I realized that it had nothing to do with anyone else, only me.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Timing is everything: inventors' product returns 10 years after initial failure

From the "Prototypes" column in the New York Times, a discussion with Vanessa Troyer and Chris Farentinos, inventors of the Elephant Trunk, a lockable home mailbox for parcels.

Back in 1999, when [Ms. Troyer] and Mr. Farentinos dreamed up the Elephant Trunk, it was designed to be large enough to hold the television-size computers that people were ordering as e-commerce began to take off. But while it was still in prototype, flat-screen computer monitors came along, defeating its purpose.

“It was deflating,” Ms. Troyer said. “All this time and money and energy had been wasted.”...

Even after shoving the Elephant Trunk into the proverbial drawer, the couple were convinced that it would eventually see the light of day; it was just a matter of when. Sure, computers had become skinnier, but more and more people were shopping online for a wide range of products, and they often were not home to accept the packages.

Beyond the annoyance of coming home and finding those packages “behind a planter,” Ms. Troyer said, or wet from the rain, there was the danger of parcel theft.

Still, when they floated the idea of a mailbox for packages, the response from retailers was, “I think it’s too soon for that,” Ms. Troyer said....

Last year, good timing was compounded by luck when Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos met with Theresa Graham, a merchant for the builders hardware category at Home Depot. As they chatted, Ms. Graham explained that she was a working mother who often came home to boxes strewed all over the porch. She said to Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos, “You know, what I’d really like to see is not a mailbox, but a parcel drop,” Ms. Troyer recalled.

“Chris and I looked at each other and our eyes lit up. It was like, O.K., it’s time.”

The Elephant Trunk is beginning a 3-month sales trial in selected Home Depot stores. Will it become a success the second time around? We'll have to wait and see.