Be a Farmer. Not a Builder.

For fifteen years or so I’ve thought ‘building’ a business and ‘growing’ a business were the same thing.Until about a year ago.Then I learned from Sir Ken Robinson that there is a difference. A critical difference. In my view, it’s the kind of difference that determines whether your business succeeds or fails.People and organizations are not mechanisms. And yet we treat them as such. Our education system takes raw material and feeds it down a conveyor belt, shaping and adding until it conforms to a pre-determined set of standards. At the end of the process the product is tested for quality assurance. Individuality is not required.It’s a model built for the Industrial Age, and increasingly it’s producing Industrial Age results.

Guest Blog - Jon Collins

Over the last couple of years I've been fortunate to work with a number of people who have a unique point of view about business ownership.

From time to time I'm going to ask some of them to contribute to this blog.

The first of those is Jon Collins - President of Framestore, New York, one of the world's leading film and commercial special effects companies. Click their link. Their work is astounding.

Jon has worked for Framestore since 1996, starting in their London office before moving to New York in January 2004 to launch Framestore in the US.

The company has gone from strength to strength in the US under his leadership, and Jon's down to earth and sensitive approach has allowed this powerful UK brand to establish itself in its own right in the American market. Cultural transitions are the hardest for an established company to navigate. Jon has made Framestore's look effortless. I hope you enjoy his post.


I know that I may not be entirely the same as many of Charles' readers: for a start, there are times when even I am amazed that I am running VFX/CGi company in NYC. And then there are other times when I think that - after being Everton's centre forward or one of the Beatles - this is what I was born to do. I have times of great clarity and times of navel gazing.

I never intended being a 'businessman' - I was always more interested in creating something. I think what I have now created is a team. And running the business then makes sense if I apply it to what I know about football (English football, but I guess most if not all team sports work for this metaphor). I have built a team of people looking for certain skills in certain areas and selecting them so that they will work well together. I motivate them and train them and finally I create an environment in which they can perform to their best ability.

You get the picture.

All this was making sense to me until quite recently. As a team we have been used to competing with the very best both nationally and internationally. We may not win everything but we are focussed and we don't dwell on victories or defeat but we assess what can be improved and we look to the next 'match'.

The only problem is that instead of competing in the Premier League, we now have combined all the leagues into one. One week we may be competing against Real Madrid but the next we are playing against Doncaster. Okay...we should be able to adapt to that. It's not always easy to play attractive football on a muddy pitch but, like I say, we have some very talented people and we should be able to adapt.

Yes, but what do you do when you are not getting the money from huge crowds every week and the gate receipts are non-existent every few weeks? Well, you can send out a few less players and get them to work a lot harder covering the vacant positions. They should be fit enough...we've trained them well.

But what happens when they take away the ball?

Well I guess it stops being football and we have to invent our own new sport. I have a sentimentality borne out of nostalgia for the old game….but the old game doesn’t work without the ball. What I am trying to focus on as the coach is coming up with new rules so that my team can play a new, exciting game competing against the best. A game full of challenges and clear goals.

I haven’t worked out the rules yet but when I do I hope that we meet on the new playing field.

Less is More

A great article in this week’s New Yorker passed on by my good friend Jerry Solomon, talks about an issue that business advisors and consultants the world over (this one included) have been preaching for months.

The importance of using the recession as an opportunity to grow your business - not as a reason to freeze it in place.

The article highlights several powerful examples of brands and products that leap-frogged the competition because their owners were prepared to invest, when all around them were cutting back and hanging on.

But, as the writer points out, it’s easy to “miss the boat” when you’re worried that you might “sink the boat” in the process. And when push comes to shove, that fear outweighs the potential upside for most business owners.

So business owners talk about innovation but end up in fact doing less of the same thing. One of the reasons is because it’s much easier to do less of something than to do more of something.

Cut back. Reduce. Consolidate. When you start with 100 and go down, you have a built in scale by which to measure your progress. Going the other way is much less certain.

The answer? Make doing less of something a positive.

So today, worry less. About money, for instance.

No matter how much time you spend worrying about money, there are only so many things you can do every day to improve your company’s financial prospects. And worrying all day long clouds your judgement and restricts your ability for original thinking.

So schedule two dedicated times each day to focus all of your attention, energy and anxiety on finances. Then put the issue away in between. The freedom will liberate you and you’ll see more clearly which ideas are worth developing on their own merits, confident you’ll worry about their financial impact later.

Addition through subtraction indeed.

Credit Where Credit Is Due: I was taught this technique by Jennifer Hamady who understands why people do what they do better than anyone I know.

Change Your Business? Listen To The Birds.

I was with a group of clients last week who have fully embraced the fact that their business will never be the same. Change is in the air, like never before.

It’s been a long time coming. And there have, so far, been many more words than deeds. As a species we try very hard to intellectualize our environment. Fight or flight? Neither, actually. Can we talk about it instead?

Our ability to analyze complex scenarios and evaluate possibilities is one of the attributes that separates us from other species. The other is imagination. The fuel on which the future is formed.

Where are we going? And how are we going to get there? If you’re not asking those questions it’s probably time to think about doing something else.

But analysis and imagination are not enough. The ability to act is the crucial link between the two. And in this regard, other species leave us in the proverbial dust.

Birds fly south for the winter. There is no meeting to debate the pros and cons. No assumption that they should go north again because that’s what they did last time. It is enough that they know they must go and that south is where they want to end up.

As a business owner you need to know where you are going. And you need to know why. And if the best answers you come up with are ‘south’ and to ‘survive’, then that’s good enough to start moving.

The alternative is to talk about it some more or continue in the same direction.

And when an economic winter like this one arrives, all that will be left are a few frozen feathers.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Imitation

Change is tough for a lot of people. And when you’ve built an entire company around one way of doing things, it’s hard to find another way - even if suddenly you really want to.

When someone has the insight, the clarity and the courage to invoke fundamental change into an industry or a company it’s amazing how quickly the initial nay-sayers jump on board once the results come rolling in.

I’ve blogged about Hyundai’s innovation of protecting car buyers from losing their jobs by offering a guarantee that they can return any new Hyundai they buy this year.

While the Big Three were pre-occupied by heading to Congress with hands outstretched, Hyundai got about the business of change. And it worked.

Now that the evidence is in, both Ford and Saturn have offered similar approaches. Typically, they are trying to hedge their bets by limiting the amount of the guarantee.

The good news is they’re trying something.

The bad news is that by putting limiters on the program, they also limit their own learning.

In this case it’s particularly short-sighted because they already had a case study to follow. If they achieve less than Hyundai’s results, will that be because (a) consumers wanted a cast-iron guarantee (b) liked Hyundai better (c) wouldn’t buy an American car at any price or (d) none of the above? Answers on a postcard.

If you’re going to try something. Try something. Even if that means you start by following someone else’s success. The process will teach you something about your business you didn’t know.

And that is the definition of growth.

Welcome to the Design Democracy

This is the age of design. With a lowercase d.

And whether you realize it or not, you and your business are judged every day by how well you take advantage of that fact.

Design comes in many forms. Aesthetically, we officially moved into the design age in 2004 when the US State Department announced in an internal memo that it was changing the font it had been using for as long as anyone could remember - Courier New 12 - for another because it took up less space on the page and appeared cleaner and more contemporary. The choice was Times New Roman 14.

This piece of history - taken from Dan Pink’s compelling book A Whole New Mind - is remarkable not because the change happened. But because, as he points out, everyone understood what the memo was talking about. Access to technology and software had suddenly given us control over design decisions that used to be exclusively the purview of professionals.

Five years on, the digital age has exponentially increased our capacity to design our worlds so they reflect us as individuals.

This blog is our design. Good or bad. And now you get to judge us not only by the words, but the way we present them. We’re no longer restricted to a designer’s interpretation of us, so what you see now is how we see ourselves. The risk is you won't like it. The reward is that if you do, we’ll be more directly connected. You probably didn’t think all that through when you came to this site today. But it was happening, nonetheless. And if you read this blog before Saturday, you probably also passed some kind of judgement on the fact we changed the aesthetic over the weekend. That, by the way took us 30 minutes. Design with a lowercase d.

The flip side of this equation is that we get to hold you to a higher standard too. As Seth Godin pointed out in his blog this morning, there’s just no excuse any more for bad design. And as a culture we’re increasingly less willing to accept one. Excuse or bad design.

Like it or not your business is being held to that standard as well. Not just in the way it presents itself aesthetically, but in how it works. Which is the other aspect of design that’s now in the public domain.

Nike ID gives us the ability to design our own running shoes. And in the instant that we do, we become Nike designers. To do this, Nike has to open up their IP to the possibility - probability - that I will design something that they would prefer never be seen attached to their swoosh. Risk. But because they trusted me with their brand, I feel responsible for it and loyal in a way that no marketing initiative ever could create. Reward.

TJMaxx changes its clothing every two weeks based on customer feedback. The best websites let me decide which information is important and where I want it to appear. I can design my own computer , phone  and house. I decide what I watch - and when. And I feel pretty certain that I was involved in designing our new government. In fact, I just got an email from Barack last week.

Based on all that, do you think I’m likely to settle for being told that I get no say in how I use your business?

The challenge is to design a model that lets every customer contribute part of themselves to the experience of working with your company.

Unless customer loyalty and innovation isn’t important to you. In which case cut your prices and carry on.

Head in the Cloud. Feet on the Ground.

Whether you’re a single-owner, home-based business or a multi-office, multi-national, you don’t need me to tell you that you need technology.

An email address and a website for sure. And if you have a web 2.0 perspective, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Disqus and possibly Valium.

Today, technology is evolving in real time. We’re literally watching it happen. Last November, the UK press included 40 articles that referenced Twitter. In the month ending today, there will be more than 700. And to coin Winston Churchill, we’re not even at the end of the beginning.

But while all this has been going on right under our very noses, an even more important technological revolution has been taking place in the back-rooms of some of our largest technology corporations.

It’s called the cloud. And in this exact moment, you’re in it.

The desktop revolution that Apple launched in 1984 has powered the PC revolution for a quarter of a century, putting a computer into the hands of virtually everyone we know. Indeed, the growth of the internet has been made possible by the advent of the desktop which gave us all web access - on our terms.

But in the last two years a subtle, and now increasingly significant shift towards a ‘cloud’ of massive, web-based, centralized servers is creating an entirely new set of possibilities.

This blog, like virtually every other blog, was created on a piece of software that exists only in this ‘cloud’ of central servers. The only point of access to it is through the internet.

No longer do I need a state-of-the-art laptop. Or three or four separate applications to create and manage the site. All I now need is a device with internet access. And nothing else. (This particular post was written and added to the site on my iPhone.) Software updates are a thing of the past, because they’re done automatically at the other end of the connection. And no more downloading, rebooting, reinstalling either. Just sign in, and you’re working on the latest version - though as Facebook users recently discovered, this-all-for-one, one-for-all approach can have its drawbacks. (Isn’t it time Facebook provided customized interfaces. Haven’t they heard we’ve individuated?)

The intensity with which some of the major technology companies are expanding the computing cloud, means we’re going to see a lot more examples of services like Google Docs, and WordPress. We’re also going to see stuff we haven’t yet imagined. How about multi-player, real-time video games that don’t need a $400 console or a $24.95 disc.

Of course, the cloud has enormous implications for every business owner. Big and small. A one-person company on a distant mountain top will now be able to have the same technological support as a Fortune 500 behemoth. Not close. Not like. The same.

When size no longer creates automatic marketplace domination that’s good for everyone because then innovative solutions to problems can come from anywhere, not just the giants. For anyone grounded in their business, that’s an incredible asset because now you can leverage the thing that sets you apart from your competition like never before.

Imagine if this concept could be applied to manufacturing. If the cloud could build and distribute cars - meaning anyone’s ideas about fuel, safety and aesthetic could be realized - does anyone believe we’d be sixty days away from the Big Three becoming the Big One?

That’s because the things that allow economies of scale to take hold - standardization, homogeneity, conformity - kill innovation. By definition. Instead, the cloud takes economies of scale and gives them to the individual, releasing the capacity for originality in all of us.

Now, overnight, we can all became Microsoft or Warner Brothers or Penguin. That’s a lot of responsibility. Let’s make sure we use it.

Pay? Who, Me?

Any industry that sells creativity on demand dances a tightrope between art and expediency. In this economy, that rope is not only frayed but one-sided. Expediency 1. Art nil. Except, of course, we’ve never been in greater need of the creative spirit if we’re really to innovate our way out of this mess.

My friend Jerry Solomon runs a film production company and blogged about an issue this morning that exemplifies why we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to fueling innovation in this country. 

Innovation requires creativity. Every year the advertising industry - one of the economy's creative drivers - meets in Cannes and offers an award for ‘the most innovative idea of the year’ - the Titanium Lion.

Which makes me wonder why so many advertisers and their agencies are now advocating a policy that would put out anyone’s creative fire.

Meet Sequential Liability - the art of commissioning work while shunning responsibility for its cost.

As advertisers and agencies race for the safety of the ‘hire now - pay much later or maybe never’ high ground, those left behind - the suppliers - are being asked to play today’s game by yesterday’s rules. ‘Hold the film negative’ is the new old cry.

But, as anyone who’s run their own business will tell you, that’s not a payment policy. It’s a time bomb from which the pin has already been pulled. Because in a world without credit, the cost of one uncollectible, one million dollar receivable can put a ten year old service company under - no matter how much film negative is in their vault.

If as a society we are going to create and innovate our way out of this, we need a model that encourages creativity and innovation.

And in this economy, expecting the smallest companies to do the work, provide the credit and take the risk is not that model.

In terms of the advertising industry, I like Jerry's first solution best. Have the advertiser put the money in escrow, draw it down as the job progresses and hold five percent until everyone signs off. Simple. Cheap. Effective.

And if an advertiser can’t afford to do that. Well, isn’t that how we all got here in the first place?

Bravery + Strategy = Innovation (part 2)

I’ve received an enormous amount of feedback to my post this weekend that innovation is what happens when you combine bravery and strategy.

Particularly the bravery part.

We talk about this a lot with clients. And we’ve become more sensitive to the fact that many times the real reason a business is struggling is because the owners have lost confidence, and so are clinging to what they know.

We learned when building our own business that it’s easy to be brave when things are going well. But much, much harder when your backs are to the wall. Pressure of every kind makes acting instinctively fraught with anxiety and restricted by second guessing.

This year I’ve started to work with a remarkable woman who specializes in helping people find their voice.  Jennifer Hamady is a singing coach, but her expertise extends far beyond the auditory manifestation of notes and lyrics. Her genius lies in helping people understand how to release their talent. To coin Sir Ken Robinson’s definition, she helps people find their Element.

There is greatness in all of us. And if for now that seems unlikely, history suggests that those who are willing to look for it, will find it.

Bravery + Strategy = Innovation

In late November a client of ours came back from a meeting with one of his biggest customers. He was visibly shaken. Hardly surprising given that they’d just told him their 2009 projections were based on a forty percent drop in revenue. They’d need a lot less from him. Forty percent less.

It was about then that we were all beginning to realize the world had changed. That the futures we had all expected weren’t going to happen. That this wasn’t a recession, or a downturn. That this was life changing.

The auto industry is living through its life change in public. And the debate about whether we should or should not be bailing out the big three will continue until someone asks better questions. ‘What do customers want?’ seems like an obvious one. In an industry experiencing a forty percent decline in sales, the answer apparently is, ‘not this’.

With one exception. Hyundai.

At the beginning of this year, the company launched a program that guarantees they will take back any car bought in 2009 if the customer loses their job.

At a time when cutting costs was everyone else’s strategy, Hyundai made theirs reducing risk. At a time when their competitors were asking for government money to survive until the upturn, Hyundai believed they could create an upturn themselves. At a time when customers wanted confidence, Hyundai made a simple, human statement. ‘We believe in you.’

Hyundai’s sales compared to a year ago? Up 4.9 percent. Number of cars returned? Zero.Cost to Hyundai? Zero.

When all around you are losing their heads, you need both courage and clear thinking.

The result is almost always compelling.

I Cannot Tell a Lie - This Is A Revolution

In revolutions, old stuff gets broken before the new stuff is put in its place. And that frightens people.

This - from Clay Shirky’s remarkable essay strikes me as an absolute truth. His conclusion is that people are so frightened by revolution they demand to be told that what’s happening isn’t really happening. They demand to be lied to.

Which, in my experience, is exactly what happens.

Most business owners argue - with their greatest passion - for their view of the present and the future. Because that’s where they feel safest. They tell themselves a story based on how they want the world to be, and then post-rationalize every piece of information to fit that view.

By the time reality is standing, arms crossed, in front of them tapping its foot, they’re backed in the corner like the heroine in a bad science fiction film. All that’s left is the scream.

It’s time to stop the lie. And to celebrate the unknown. Because that is where the future has always been.

Dream Big

Now is the time for big dreams. We are living in what will seen to be an Epoch. A time so distinctive that history will be measured by what happened before and after it.

So if you were ever going to change the world, this is the moment.

I had dinner last night with two people who are.

Sir Ken Robinson is passionate about transforming the education system so that instead of measuring our ability to conform, it provides an environment in which our individual talents are encouraged and applied. He says it far better than I can here  and here .

The other person is Barbara Royal, DVM who will revolutionize how we take care of animals. I have never met anyone more in their element than Barb, who combines Eastern and Western philosophies to treat animals holistically and, crucially, respectfully. 

Ken and Barb - you will not be surprised to learn - have a lot in common. First, they have incredible energy and razor sharp wit. Second, their entire lives have been devoted to the causes they now articulate.

And lastly, and I think most importantly they are willing to see the world entirely differently from the one we live in today. They want to transform - not reform. And they do not fear the process or the outcome or the change itself.

To quote Michelangelo, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it, but we aim too low and reach it.”

Now, Are You Small Enough to Innovate?

Every business owner is worried about the damage the economy is doing to their business. Sales, profits, opportunities are all down. And whether you prefer ‘downsizing’ or ‘right-sizing’ as part of your personal lexicon, the trends are all in the same direction. Your business is getting smaller.

But is it small enough? Or at the very least, can it act like a small business?

Today’s Intuit report on the Future of Small Business ( ) gives six reasons why small businesses innovate faster and more effectively:

1. Personal passion: small business owners are willing to try new approaches

2. Experimentation and improvisation: many small business owners and managers are willing to experiment and improvise, and accept failure as part of the process

3. Customer connections: typically small businesses have more direct and meaningful relationships with their customers so they understand their issues better

4. Agility and adaptation: their size lets them adapt faster to changing market conditions and to implement new business practices

5. Resource efficiency: Small businesses do more with less. And they problem solve more effortlessly

6. Information sharing and collaboration: Small businesses often share information more easily which inspires innovative thinking

Generally, I think these are true. Though the first two speak more to the emotional capacity of entrepreneurs that makes them, well, entrepreneurs. The others rely more on how well an organization is structured and managed, and less on the courage with which it's run.

The bigger question, however, is now that your business is smaller, are you taking advantage of these benefits to innovate faster?

If not, you need to ask yourself why. And then start.

Being Wrong is Right

We need new answers like never before. ‘Original thoughts that have value.’

That description is not mine. It belongs to Sir Ken Robinson who believes that we are all born with immense capacity for originality. In his TED talk ( ) he makes this case powerfully and memorably. If you haven’t seen it you should, because he provides many of the principles by which we can begin to construct a new future from the ashes of the old one.

New answers from old. Innovation. A much over-used and mis-understood term but one we need to come face to face with.

At the core of innovation is the ability to be original - to be creative. Without that fuel, innovation disappears. Repetition is its enemy. Fear is its foe. And the tighter we cling to the past, the more we eliminate its possibility.

Ken describes one of the conditions for originality as a willingness to be wrong. I agree. An environment in which ‘right is good’ and ‘wrong is bad’ over-simplifies every proposition and reduces the chance of achieving anything great - however you define ‘great’. Ideas themselves are not right or wrong. What do you do with them is what matters.

Whatever business you’re in, it will be improved if you think again about what you mean by being ‘wrong’.

And about why being ‘right’ is so important to you.

Lay Off the Lay-Offs

The news this morning is that more people lost their jobs in February than in any month since 1949. Which makes 4.4 million since December 2007. Staggering numbers. We’re on our way to ten percent unemployment.

But why? Aren’t these the very people that companies need to buy their products and use their services? Without a job they’re not likely to be consuming much of anything.

Companies that are choosing lay-offs over salary reductions - and it is a choice - are only looking at one side of the problem. Cutting costs. They’re hoping someone else figures out how to encourage people to spend.

I was in a meeting yesterday in which we heard that a highly paid employee had been told he was being let go last week. He asked if he could take a thirty percent pay cut instead. The company instantly agreed.

I’m sure he and his family are spending less than they were. But they are still spending. And more than if he had lost his job entirely. Which doesn’t take into account the fact that he’s not depleting his investment funds to pay for his lifestyle, or putting his house on the market. That’s a model that will create a natural bottom to all this built on real value.

If every company faced with the need to cut overhead had looked at the problem holistically, the answer would have been pretty clear. Companywide salary cuts give you: better cost saving results faster; more ability to keep your customers happy; a belief among your staff that you’re trying to protect them; a shared willingness to innovate and take responsibility for finding answers and flexibility if things get worse or improve. It also keeps the economy moving forward, albeit at a slower pace.

As a species, we do best when we’re moving forward. And generally we’re pretty good at being able to keep one eye on where we’re going while navigating the broken pavement along the way.

Running a business is the same thing. But if you’re only worrying about avoiding the broken pavement, who knows where you’ll end up?