Tag Archives: enterprise formation

Risk is free, risk-free costs

Enough said.

Unemployment is not working

Enough said.

Designing Your Work for Dummies

If you peruse the online booksellers, or wander into a bookstore, you’ll quickly find volumes from one of two series, labelled either “(whatever) for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to (whatever)”. These two lines — which started as a way to produce manuals you could learn from rather than the incomprehensible ones delivered with computer products — now cover everything from cat care to knitting, fixing outboard motors to baking.

So, with chapeau doffed in admiration to the concept of making complicated things simple, let’s talk about designing your work.

Notice I didn’t say “find a job”. It may be that the design you come up with leads you down that road (it’s hard to be in certain roles without fitting into an existing societal structure). But if you start by thinking about your future in terms of designing around the work you’ll do, you will have a lot of the thinking necessary to consider creating your own job.

The person who is employed by someone else can find themselves out of work because of external events that cause the enterprise they’re a part of to cut back or fold — or they can be on the street (or never hired) because of the pique and incompetence of a manager (as sketched daily in Dilbert by Scott Adams). The person who creates their own situation is still at risk of the first — but is unlikely to fire themselves in a malicious way.

The tool I’d like to point out to you is called a business model canvas. The million-copy seller for designing a business is Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation. Its counterpart for designing an individual’s life-work plan is Tim Clark’s Business Model You. The latest improvement to the concept is Antony Upward’s “Strongly Sustainable Business Model Canvas”, built around triple bottom line concepts (Antony has a number of interactive presentations, YouTube videos, and a LinkedIn group available on the web; the process of turning his dissertation into a friendly book is underway).

All you need is a hunk of wall. Some people draw the canvas outline on a white board, others tape up butcher paper. Get some post-it notes.

What the process of working with a canvas asks of you is to identify the answers to questions. When using it to design your life’s work, you can start with what you’re good at, or needs you’ve seen that could be fulfilled, or connections you have. When you use a canvas to design an enterprise (creating your own job), you do the same questions but with more business-like terms such as customer segments, value propositions, key partners, and the like.

It’s decidedly simple stuff, but powerful. Four people gathered toward the end of February to think through the creation of a new not-for-profit organization to promote local business webs in a major city. None worked in the field (although all were running their own enterprises). None had training in the use of the canvas. Two hours later, the wall was absolutely covered in post-it notes, real reasons why people would pay to join such an organization had been identified, its staffing needs had been uncovered, and so on.

If you take away the right conclusion from that — hey, I don’t have to be an expert on business to do this — good for you. You don’t. Which means you could work on your canvas with friends, with family, with anybody. You move the post-it notes around, you throw some out, you add some new ones. Collectively, they tell a story about what would work for you — or how this new business would feed you.

Although Tiffinday wasn’t built using one of these canvases, it was thought through the same way. Tiffinday is a company that delivers hot, fresh lunches in Toronto’s financial district. The containers are reusable. The food is prepared by mothers with children in school. It’s put together in the mornings using a parter — an evenings-only restaurant whose kitchen was free (there are laws about food preparation). A bicycle courier company delivers the containers, then picks up the empties after lunch for cleaning. Everyone’s home again in time for the kids to come from school.

Would you have thought to provide an ever-varying menu to workers in cubicle land, employ people who would likely not work because they’re only available between 9 and 3, partner to use underutilized resources and avoid having to capitalize your own using all the traditional “follow your passions” business development advice? Canvases can see all sorts of opportunities that traditional methods don’t.

This is just one of the way Personal Due Diligence advisors work with clients to expand their opportunities. Are you ready to expand yours?

Enterprises of tomorrow

Work (that pays) tomorrow is far more likely to develop in enterprises of tomorrow rather than yesterday.

So what should the newly-minted graduate, the seasoned professional now forced into early retirement, and everyone in between be looking for, if they’re looking for an enterprise with legs into the future.

Funding sources: Traditional means of funding new enterprises like venture funding, angels, etc. will still exist, but they’ll be increasingly concentrated on opportunities that promise a quick payback and exit. But a growing number of new enterprises are either started on shoestrings, quickly moving to customer funding (through sales of products or services), and thus bootstrapped up, or beginning with a crowdsourcing funding model (like Indiegogo).

Community support: You’re far more likely to get your community behind you for a crowdsourced funding option if you’re providing something your local community needs. The more the project is one of those “we’re going to dominate the market globally” types, the less likely it is to get started on a “pass the hat” basis. We’re seeing this with people going into food production (farming) using community supported agriculture, where outputs are “pre-bought” by subscribers rather than building a farm to try and join the major grocery supply chains; with people doing light industry replacing parts or products that had been imported to the community, often with customization included, and with new twists on service around traditional products.

Keep it small, keep it quality: Above a certain size, managerial layers must increase and processes must be well-defined and controlled, so there’s an advantage to keeping the size of a venture below those limits. Yes, you might end up with an asset worth hundreds of thousands rather than tens of millions, but so what? Far too many organizations go under due to the problems of growth than go under because they’re nimble, stable, persistent and adaptive. Manage the risks you can, to avoid the ones you can’t.

A big part of this is being able to keep control over the venture, at least as far as its future goes. Quality means that even if a global chain decides now is the time to wipe out all the competitors you’ll persist: there is always a market for “better”. Not growing too much, and therefore having to dilute ownership to the point where you don’t control the future, means that you’ll decide when and if to sell, as opposed to having your business sold out from underneath you by your investors.

Use people instead of technology if you can: If you buy technology to do a job, the money spent flows out of the community; if you employ people to do a job, the money circulates in the community and comes back to you as customers buying your products and services. Some technology is fine; using it to “displace labour” comes at a price. Consider the long-term impacts on your local environment of the decisions you make.

One of the reasons the German economy prospers year after year is that the country is littered with small to mid-sized companies that are world leaders at what they do, and remain in the villages they started in. The Mittelständ, as they’re known, are often family-owned businesses on fourth or fifth generations of ownership, who make decisions for their firms with their communities in mind.

Something similar can be found in Italy’s Po Valley, Europe’s wealthiest area, with very small firms (under 20 employees) predominating and working in networks, while remaining essential to the communities they are located in.

North Americans don’t tend to think this way — but we need to. Think “part of the community, part of the environment”, not “bigger and better dominance”.

Ambiguity: Are you a social enterprise, or a for-profit? Why not both? Becoming comfortable with both/and solutions, rather than either/or, is a key part of the enterprise of tomorrow. So is being comfortable with non-hierarchical solutions to organization, more complex adaptive thinking in work organization, more safe-to-fail experimentation to deal with an ever-changing landscape of competition and opportunity, and far less process myopia, the twentieth century method for commanding and controlling results (and the hallmark of today’s giants, private, public, and not-for-profit).

Learning how to deal effectively, yet decisively, with ambiguity, is a key part of sustaining tomorrow’s type of enterprise.

Consider where you’re locating: This last is the one thing that may argue against starting just where you are. Many of the New Urbanists of the past few years, graduating from their architectural programs, aren’t settling in major cities as they used to, or joining well-established firms, but are striking out to open practices in small towns that have decided to stop decaying under national brands and media and start building up their local worlds again.

Some communities are more ready to become real communities again now than others: more enterprises of tomorrow in their midst adds to the desire, but to manage your risks you may want to choose your location more carefully than you would if you were building for one of those “global dominant” futures.

All of these ideas are grounded in the core notion of the Personal Due Diligence Project that integrative approaches to managing personal risks and rewards is key to secure futures in the times we live in. Whether you’d simply like to explore your situation, or whether you need more structured coaching to make a change, we’d be delighted to hear from you.

From “what can I do” to creating your own work

Creating work for yourself is easy. Creating work that pays you regularly, on the other hand, requires a little more effort.

I recall sitting in a roundtable of CEOs — I was the only one, other than the facilitator, there who wasn’t currently running a small to mid-sized company. (I had been a CEO, and was consulting to smaller businesses at the time, and the facilitator invited me to join the group to add my “insights” [such as they were] to the discussion.)

Each of the other players at the table was quite sure that I, who was teaching, consulting, writing, volunteering, etc. (a typical portfolio of things underway) was wrong. “Find one thing and stick to it.” “Follow your passion.”

Passion isn’t enough, although it’s the number one word thrown out there by those advising potential entrepreneurs (remember, starting a not-for-profit or social organization is just as entrepreneurial as is starting a for-profit, “going to take over the world” one — not that any of those CEOs saw any value in the not-for-profit route, either).

What does the market need? — Who’s going to buy it and why? — Do I care enough about this to make it work?

The last of these is passion. All three are required to have an enterprise. (Answer all three and you have a business plan, or at least the key elements of it. Business plans are less about the numbers — the forecasts — and more about the problems, opportunities, etc. of the situation.)

I also recall, earlier in my career, working in a sales organization as a systems engineer. There came one of those afternoons where an account executive came running into the office to announce a big deal he’d just closed. “Party on, dudes!”

I had my required glass of wine in hand to celebrate, and realized I wasn’t at all excited. That client didn’t need a whole whack of new gear; that client needed someone to go in and help them make what they had already work better. That what they had came from a competitor meant no one from this firm would be doing that: it would be like the Toyota dealer fixing a Ford to avoid selling a new Toyota.

To me, that was a signal to change jobs. I didn’t have the required passion for the business (which was all about selling new gear). I was always happy when a client needed something new and we sold it to them, but not when they didn’t need it.

You need to know yourself well enough to know that you, for instance, can’t sell someone something they don’t need.

Choosing, as many recently unemployed executives do, to throw that leaving whack of cash into a franchise “because there’s money to be made in it”, but hating the product — imagine owning a KFC or McDonald’s and loathing the food! — isn’t how you create your own work. (It is how you create your own nightmare.)

I spent part of yesterday watching a professor tear into a graduate student who was defending his thesis. He’d done work suitable for a consulting practice, and was being shredded because he hadn’t treated it like an IT effort. (The student did pass for all that, but it was unpleasant.)

Is he passionate about the subject matter? Yes. Does he have something that can be bought, and a reason why a client might buy it? Pretty much. Whether the market perceives a need remains an open question — and this is something that I, too, think the market desperately needs to focus on and employ.

But there’s been lots of things in history that filled needs that the response was “meh”. Riding on the sidewalk on your Segway, are you? Flying supersonically across to Europe and back to do same-day meetings, are you? Watching laser disc movies, are you?

Even the public sector has its programs that are announced with fanfare and there’s no line to apply for the money, and there’s been no shortage of community organizations that opened … and shut … because of a lack of interest.

That’s why finding work for yourself is actually easier than it looks at first. Your contribution doesn’t have to break a lot of new ground. It just has to offer something somewhat better than what’s out there.

Maybe you’ve a passion for coffee, and your neighbourhood is already littered with coffee houses. No worry: what’s the niche that everyone missed, and are there enough people like you who miss it? If you get that right, there’s room for one more … or the weakest player will end up leaving the field.

Two “just out of school” types in Etobicoke sat down and said “what is it all the other organizations trying to fight for climate change issues are missing” … and built an enterprise educating youth about the science of climate change and the interrelationships in the economy flowing from it. It doesn’t pay a fortune (yet another reason not to have a pile of student debt hanging over your head when you start out) but it does keep them busy and in money, enough to live on.

The bottom line is this: resiliency (personal) is grounded in constantly asking the three questions of “what’s needed?”, “who’ll buy it and why?”, and “am I passionate about it?” in all sorts of situations whether you’re looking to start something or not. Resiliency (community) is grounded in having many vibrant players doing exactly this: as Nicholas Taleb pointed out in his latest book, Antifragile: things that gain from disorder, for any community, the number of restaurant tables tends to stay pretty constant, even though the restaurants themselves come and go.

In other words, there’s lots of opportunity out there, if you’re willing to come at it with an open, active mind.