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You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


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gilgerretsenmasterFor the first time ever, I am opening up my blog to a guest contributor… and it’s about time too. I should have started doing this years ago. Today’s guest post comes to us from local business and strategy coach Gill Gerretsen, who is arguably one of the most recognizable (and some might say influential) business figures in South Carolina.

Through BizTrek and Power-Note, Gil  has both helped and connected hundreds (if not thousands) of SC business owners over the last few years, and his community is still growing by leaps and bounds. (No big surprise there.) Aside from being brilliant, Gil happens to be a super nice guy, which goes a long way in my little world. We’re lucky to have Gil share some of his business insight with us today.

And as a bonus, Gil makes his point a heck of a lot faster than I do. (There’s a lot to be said for that.)

Fast Thinking

Most corporate executives spend less than 2.4% of their time actively thinking about the future. But the ability to anticipate is one of the key ingredients of success.


If you race ahead without knowing where you are headed, you may get there fast, but it will probably not be the place you wanted to end up. We see that happening a lot in today’s economic environment. Far too many business leaders never thought or planned for a serious economic realignment. For many, the possibility never even crossed their mind!


In contrast, entrepreneurs spend the majority of their time trying to imagine and anticipate the future … and then try to figure out how they can operate effectively in that environment. What steps can you take to better understand and predict the future?


1. Begin by looking backward. Studying the trends and cycles of the past will improve your ability to imagine the future. Remember the slinky? Eventually, the other end makes a landing. It is not in exactly the same place, but the patterns ARE predictable.


2. Figure out the next life cycle for your business. Every revolutionary idea unfolds in five phases. First, the idea is invented. Second, key enabling technologies allow the innovation to spread. Third, a key insight turns a technological possibility into a commercial application. Fourth, a business process emerges to generate profits from an unmet market need. Fifth, the product or service eventually becomes a commodity and price wars erupt. Then, consolidation shrinks the field of viable market contenders to just a few suppliers (often three).


3. As Michael Gerber taught in his book, The E-Myth, work ON your business, not IN your business! Spend at least one day per month out of the office to think and anticipate where you might be able to take your business.


What are YOU thinking about the future?


Gil Gerretsen

BizBullet.com


Have a great Thursday, everyone. 🙂


Speaking of Thursdays, today happens to be Power-Note’s April luncheon, so I will undoubtedly see several of you there.


PS: If any of you are interested in becoming a guest contributor on the BrandBuilder blog, send me an email or shoot me a direct message either on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook (links are on right hand side of page.)

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I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership, lately. Particularly, what makes a great leader vs. a lousy one. I’ve known a lot of lousy ones. I can count the great ones on the fingers of one hand. That’s really sad… and a little bit scary.

Back when I was fresh out of college, I enjoyed a brief but unforgetable tour of duty with the French Navy Marines. For the better part of a year, I had eight NCO’s working under me, each with a leadership style of their own. One was a tyrant. Another was a big brother. The rest found themselves somewhere in between. Most of these guys had 10-15 years of experience under their belts. I had three months. Let’s just say that when it comes to leadership training, I could have done a lot worse.

The tyrant didn’t last long with me. He and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on much. He had grown bitter about his career and enjoyed the power he held over his men a little too much. Morale on his team was low. His men weren’t engaged. They all wanted to transfer out to other units. Ironically, he was the one who got transfered after a few months. He was replaced by his second-in-command who ended up making a fantastic squad leader. Before long, requests for transfers ceased altogether, and everything got back on track.

I learned quickly that leadership isn’t about being the boss. It’s about giving your people the tools, the space, the authority, and the support they need to do their jobs. If you have the right people in place and give them all of these things, there is nothing they can’t or won’t accomplish or risk for you. Nothing.

I’ve met my share of lousy and good leaders since then, and I can tell you that the difference between a good leader and a bad one is huge. A bad leader can sink a billion-dollar company with a captive market faster than I can lose my shirt in a crooked poker game. A great one can make a small company with no capital the talk of its industry, and turn a small idea into a cultural phenomenon.

Let me tell you this: Leadership has nothing to do with diplomas or resumes. Our country clubs and executive suites are filled with serial CEO’s who couldn’t lead themselves out of a bunker, much less turn the companies they work for into the successes they were hired to conjure up. Leadership is a gift. A talent. You’re either a great leader or you aren’t. Sometimes, you don’t really know who the leaders are in a crowd until the fit hits the shan, and someone has to step up to save the day. Leaders aren’t always who you would expect.

Being a great leader is as much about character as it is about skill, experience and knowledge. It’s a complicated package. It’s a rare one. Finding one in the crowd can be as difficult as finding gold deep inside dark, damp mountains.

But they’re there, if you know what to look for.

What makes the lousy ones lousy? Here’s a list:

They don’t know how to listen.
They don’t love what they do for a living.
They don’t care about the people who work for them.
They don’t understand the difference between leadership and management.
They think that leadership is best exercised by barking orders.
They love power a little too much.
They inherited their position from Daddy.
They aren’t having any fun anymore.
They refuse to delegate.
They are terrified of making mistakes.
They really, really like the prestige of their position.

What makes the great ones great?

You naturally want to work for them.
They love what they do.
Their vision is both original and unshakable.
To them, failure is just a point on the learning curve, and nothing to be afraid of.
They’re most inspiring one-on-one, over a beer.
They are loyal to their team.
They are naturally curious.
They know when to listen, when to speak, and when to act.

Here’s more on what makes great leaders… well, great (via servant of chaos, by way of Johnnie Moore, originally posted by Lisa Haneberg):

“A leader is most effective when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, his troops will feel they did it themselves.”

– Lao Tzu

And this, from Lisa herself:

“Invisible leadership feels more like doing the best things without yielding power. Invisible leaders influence the system and people by being a partner.

“How do you select, hire, measure, and retain invisible leaders? Now that’s the rub. Well, if they love what they do (and they’d have to) retention is probably not the issue. Finding invisible leaders will take more work and a whole new mindset toward hiring criteria. The behavioral interview, so popular today, might not work to find the best invisible leader.

“Personally, for my next corporate gig, I want a fair wage for what my role is expected to contribute and then NO financial incentives. Hold me accountable – absolutely. Fire me in a heart beat if I do not perform. If I am doing my job as a leader, you will know it – not because I get accolades at meetings or make big and flashy wins. You will know it because the workplace is engaged, on fire, and performing better than you could have imagined.

That last part, the section in bold letters, it pretty much says it all. I’ve seen that magic happen before. I’ve seen it in the Navy. I’ve seen it on the soccer field. I’ve seen it in the corporate world. I’m not sure that a leader should necessarily be invisible, but I’ll settle for one that knows how to empower her people and is wise enough to get out of their way once they start working their magic.

Leaders take their people and their companies where they always wished to go, but would have never dared to on their own.

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Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin. Photo: Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin: The youngest coach to win a SuperBowl.

This is what I like to see: Management empowering dynamic new voices to lead.

To every football team, school district, board of directors, Senior VP, CEO and CMO: Next time you overlook the visionary kid with new ideas, remember this face.

Tell me he was the easy choice. Tell me he wasn’t the gamble. Tell me you wouldn’t have hired someone with more “proven” experience. Someone with a more impressive resume. Someone with a bit more seniority. Someone with more wins.

You would have been wrong.

Alexander the Great wasn’t a graying battle-hardened General when he conquered Persia.  Bill Gates wasn’t a Wharton MBA with twenty years of executive corporate experience when he started Microsoft.

Empower visionary leaders no matter how new and how young they may be. Mentor them if you must, but do not stand in their way. Do not tell them no. Do not tell them once you’ve been here twenty years, we’ll talk about it.

The Steelers made a choice. A difficult, risky choice. And it paid off.

In truth, these are the kinds of choices that almost always pay off.

So my question to you is… what kinds of leaders is your organization producing?

It’s an important question. One that could very well decide whether or not your company succeeds or fails in the next decade. Maybe even in the next year.

Give it some thought. Serious thought.

Welcome to a whole new work week. 😉

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Via OrangeYeti, from AdPulp, here is a little bit of an interview given by Maurice Levy (Publicis Groupe) to Scott Donaton (of Ad Age). If you’ve ever worked for a company that was so set in its ways that it had grown stale, you’ll understand what Levy is talking about:

“I have never stabilized an organization. Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don’t expect.”

“Without change, there is fossilization,and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“Ideas,are so fragile, so tenuous, that managers must destroy layers that can obscure or damage them. If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel.”

Read the full interview here.

So there you have it: As a business leader, look for flux. Look for tangents. Look for the unexpected. Recruit adventurously. Give your people the freedom and flexibility to contribute in the most personal, passionate of ways. Eliminate silos and procedures when it comes to the sharing of ideas. When it comes to dialogue. When it comes to cooperation. Decentralize “meetings”. Deconstruct the project ideation process. Empower your people to set the stage for extraordinary new products, business improvements, and creative work.

If you can’t trust your people enough to empower them, to literally give them the keys to the place, then you aren’t hiring the right people. Your job as a leader isn’t always to “lead”. Most of the time, because you aren’t there to bark orders or stand over everyone’s shoulder, it is simply to create an environment, an ecosystem, that allows your team, your army, to do the best possible work they can. It is to create a culture that makes them want to be a part of something greater than the sum of their job description. That makes them proud to be, even.

Ideas are fragile.

Without change, organizations die.

These are the two little mantras you should keep chanting every time you pick up the phone, or a magazine, or your TV remote. They should be in the back of your mind every time you shake someone’s hand or invite them to have a seat.

Embrace instability. Welcome change. Engage uncertainty. Welcome the unknown and love it for all of its infinite number of possibilities.

And they truly are infinite.

Chew on that. Have a great Friday. 😉

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More on the topic of experts, and how too much focus on “expertise” can actually be a very bad thing. Let’s flashback to Tom Asacker’s Ten Truths. For the full thing, go here. For my favorite parts, however…

“People today are incredulous of marketing, institutions and the media. The only way to suspend disbelief, cut through skepticism and create trust is to act as a real human being and get to the truth. As the sages say: “Words that come from the heart can enter the heart.”“What the business world needs now is a return to the idea of amateur spirit. Now, it’s probably not the amateur spirit as you may think of it. The definition of amateur has evolved for the worse over the past few hundred years, coming to represent a dabbler or incompetent. The original spirit of amateur was a positive, noble tag to apply to someone (the Latin root for amateur is “amator,” lover). An amateur pursuit was one you did for love, with a spirit of passion and authenticity. And it certainly didn’t imply a lack of skill. Thomas Jefferson was an amateur writer and philosopher when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

“Organizations – actually the people in them – must recapture this amateur spirit. Not because it is morally right, but because it’s the only way to succeed in a world stunned by scandals and greed-is-good ideology. Ask yourself these simple questions: Do you want customers and employees to come to you first – and stay with you? Do you want them to recommend you to their friends and associates? Then you have to get them to do what? Trust you. And how do you go about doing that in a post-Enron economy? Certainly not by saying, “Trust me.” That kind of talk immediately causes people to put up their defenses. Instead, you must get them to believe! Success today all boils down to belief. “Who should I believe? Who can I believe?” These are the critical questions. You must be believed to have any chance of success.”

“Within the first few seconds of meeting you or being exposed to your communications, your audience will form an impression that is easily reinforced and unlikely to change. They’ll observe your mannerisms, voice, choice of words, etc. and judge whether you are worth listening to. To cut through their innate disbelief – and very short attention span -simply push past your comfort level and be authentic! Amazingly, that’s all there is to it. Simply take off your mask – your title, your expertise, your bureaucratic language and technical jargon – and connect with them with honest, simple, and engaging language. Be on the level. Be moved to candor. Tell them what you believe and what you think. Speak the unspoken.

“Listen to your innocent, inner voice. Be childlike. Speak in a language that is natural, open, and honest. Get rid of all of the hype and toss in a dash of self-deprecating humor. State what you feel in a candid and caring, yet unapologetic way. And never – never – hide anything. People will then believe that you are being straight with them (warts and all), and as a result, you’ll be worthy of their trust.”

“Daniel Boorstin wrote: “The amateur is not afraid to do something for the first time.” And that’s the measure of great artists, great lovers, and great entrepreneurs (not to mention children). To say, “I don’t know.” To ask the hard question that is on your mind (in a soft way). To take risks. To be bold. To state what you are feeling, openly. To admit your weaknesses. To adopt this amateur spirit takes courage and demonstrates your love for – and connects you on an emotional level with – your audience. They’ll believe you. It will demonstrate your trust in them, and your desire to eliminate their fears and their concerns. And it will inspire them and engender trust because it rings true.”

And this:

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. And it doesn’t take a genius to tell the difference between someone who listens in order to get something, and someone who listens because she cares.”

Tom doesn’t get enough props for how brilliant he is… at not being an expert.  😉

Superfly photo by Christopher Wray McCann

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Too many times business owners seem to be satisifed spending their careers as managers rather than leaders. When you see real leadership in action, you’re left in awe. Real leaders are active, engaged and motivating. They create an atmosphere that’s electric – both fun and productive.”

– Mike Bawden (Brand Central Station)


If your new Big Idea doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s probably not a new Big Idea. If it doesn’t scare other people, it might be because you allowed the consensus (or what you imagined as the consensus) to smooth the pointy bits, buffing and polishing the idea into a nice safe state thatdispleases nobody and delights nobody.”
(…)
“But–if we let the critics (or fear of criticism) talk us out of an idea we still believe in, the world will be more homogeneous. Smoother. Less interesting. Imagine where we’d be if people throughout history had always give
in to the critics (or fear of critics). Imagine the ideas that would have been lost if others hadn’t been brave enough to stand up against smart people who disagreed. Nature needs change and diversity, but humans tend to favor the status quo.”

– Kathy Sierra (@KathySierra)

… Well, not all humans. Some of us are wired a little bit differently. It isn’t so much that we’re difficult. We really aren’t. It’s just in our DNA to a) figure out ways to make things better for people around us, and b) to find ways to take these ideas and actually make them happen.

We just want faster wheels. Safer helmets. Sharper pictures. Easier web interfaces. Cleaner fuels. Smarter workspaces. Softer beds. Fun retail spaces. Cheaper orbiters. More powerful telescopes. Tastier drive-thru coffee. Food, clean water and medicine for every human being on the planet. Better advertising. More honest and relevant marketing. Put simply, we have the skills to make these things happen, and don’t feel like waiting for someone else to get around to it.

Through the advent of social media, we discover each other almost on a daily basis, and we find ways to collaborate faster than ever before. We learn from each other. We infect others with curiosity, insight and knowledge. For that reason, this may be the most exciting time to be alive – at least if you’re one of the crazy ones. (Remember that great 2004 commercial from Apple? Yeah. That one.)

Here’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.

They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Amen.

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Why people and businesses choose to settle for average, I’ll never understand. Average products, average websites, average copy, average photography, average entertainment, average flavor, average executives… The list is long. The point is, if you look around, you’ll notice that average is the fat middle bulge in the bell curve. Average is the norm. Both the volume and frequency of “average” dwarf the precious few “remarkable” who work every day to raise the bar and set new standards of excellence for us all.

Think about your favorite companies to do business with. Your favorite restaurants. Your favorite movies. Your favorite products. Your favorite hairdresser or fashion designer or coffee shop. Think about how they stand out from their competitors.

Fact: Your favorite (insert product or service here) does whatever it does better than its competitors. stands out in some unique way: Better taste. Better experience. Better value. Better fit. Better… something. At some point, someone decided to do something different. Someone decided to commit to branching off and doing something unique, and that decision resulted in a notable improvement

You don’t build anything worthwhile by copying other people. Yeah, sure, it may seem like the safe thing to do, but it isn’t.

Bleh.

Welcome to the fabulous world of the “also in”.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the “why bother”.

Okay, sure, not every product needs to be extraordinary. Not every product needs to be unique. I guess you could set out to publish a magazine that’s a lot like Newsweek or Men’s Health or Fast Company… only more “average”. You could set out to produce a movie that’s a lot like Titanic or Sling Blade or Gladiator, but… you know… more “average”. You could set out to copy Subway or Jersey Mike’s or Quizno’s and make a subway sandwich, but… just a little bit more bland. A little bit less special. A little bit cheaper too, while you’re at it. I guess that would be swell.

To make up for the blandness, you could always pay an ad agency to try and pick up the slack for you and miraculously come up with a brilliant viral campaign that may or may not have people flocking to your stores.

Yep, you could do that.

I guess you could wake up one morning and decide that your work, the fruit of your labors, could be just… um… average. No more, no less. As long as your business makes money, who cares, right?

Forget the great American novel. Forget the Chrystler Building. Forget the iPod. Forget the Canon EOS 1D. Release your movies straight to video and your books directly to the bargain house. Tell your kids to shoot for a C+. It’s okay. Average is good enough.

Instead of designing your own products, find cheaper ones already being manufactured by someone else and pass them off as your own. Hope that no one will notice. As long as the profits are good, why not? Yep, I guess you could convince yourself that it’s okay to go that route.

It isn’t like you need to actually think about where your company is going. It isn’t like you need to give any thought to the relationship you have with your customers. What role you play in their world. Instead, you can just watch what your competitors are doing, and copy their every move. You can keep cutting corners. You can keep telling yourself that’s the safe thing to do. The smart thing to do.

You can keep telling yourself that if you make your products cheaper, you will sell more of them. After all, that’s how your competitors are stealing your customers, isn’t it?

Or is it better design?

Or is it because their stores have red walls?

I forget.

Why be relevant, after all? Why be relevant when you can just play it safe and follow the leaders?

Hmmm.

Is that what we learned to do in business school? Is that what we learned about in History class? In English comp.? Is that the lesson we’ve learned from watching millions of hours of sports on TV? Succeed by waiting to see what someone else will do to see if it’s safe to try it too?

Really?

Is that what a a CEO or a CMO is paid to do?

You don’t have to answer that.

Not if you don’t want to.

Instead, think fast and tell me how many skyscrapers there are in New York City.

(For the sake of expediency, let’s just say that there are LOTS.)

How many of those skyscrapers can you actually name?

Only a handfull?

Why is that?

Of the thousands of companies you’ll encounter in your lifetime, how many will you actually remember as being worthy of mention? Of having been a pleasure to deal with? A few dozen at most?

Why is that?

Of the tens of thousands of people you will meet in your lifetime, how many will you end up being truly impressed by? How many will you come to count as friends?

Again, why is that?

What does that tell you about average?

What does that tell you about the value of average?

Consider a few names: Starbucks. Target. BMW. Apple. Pixar. Ben & Jerry. Kenneth Cole. Nike.

What is it about these brands that makes them so special?

Is it their ability to crunch numbers? Nope.

is it their ability to copy the guys who came before them? (Um… who would that be?)

Are their products the best in the world? Again, no.

Reality check: Most of your local coffee bars make much better coffee than Starbucks. Target’s clothes are no better than old Navy’s. BMW arguably isn’t Porsche. Apple is nowhere near Microsoft’s sales. Pixar doesn’t always hit the mark. Haagen-Dazs makes the best Rum Raisin ice cream and Mayfield is pretty awesome too. DKNY, Express Men and Banana Republic give Kenneth Cole a run for his money. Most serious runners wear Mizuno, Asics or new Balance on their feet, not Nike.

So what is it?

Is it their ability to stand out? Sure, but that’s only a symptom of their success.

What’s key is their ability to a) create something special that their customers won’t be able to find anywhere else, and b) do it over and over again.

That’s the promise of these brands.

When you buy me, I promise that…

You will look hip.

You will sleep better.

You will save time.

You will smell fantastic.

Your cold symptoms will vanish.

You won’t have to worry about quality.

Without a promise, a brand isn’t a brand. It’s just a mark.

There is no such thing as an “also in” brand.

Okay, now that you’ve read it, say it.

Really. Say it outloud:

“There is no such thing as an also in brand.”

Very good.

When you’re an “also in,” what is your promise? What is your purpose?

“We’re kind of like Subway.”

“We’re kind of like Power Bar.”

“We’re kind of like CNN.”

Think about it.

I don’t care if you’re a mechanic or a graphic designer, a chain of dry-cleaners or a rental car service. If you aren’t there for a reason (other than just making money), you’re doomed. It may not be today or tomorrow or next week, but someone with a purpose will come along to eat you up. A real brand. A real business.

It’s just a matter of time.

If you’re going to be a mechanic, be the best damn mechanic in your zip code. Or the most honest. Or the friendliest.

If you’re going to design logos and layouts for clients, be the edgiest in your field. Or the fastest. Or the most pleasant to work with.

If you’re going to open up a dry-cleaning business, either offer the best quality pressing or the fastest turnaround. Make drop-offs and pickups velvet-smooth. Make your customers want to come back and recommend you to their friends.

I could talk to you about the role that pride plays in building a brand, but I’ll save that for another day.

The point is that being an “also in” company doesn’t cut it. Not if you want to grow. Not if you want your company to go anywhere.

Not if you want to survive, especially in this economy.

Copying other companies isn’t a strategy, it’s a death sentence.

Word to the wise: Don’t be a follower. There’s no safety in being second.

Welcome to a whole new week. 😉

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This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on adopting a leadership attitude. (If you can’t see the above image on your RSS reader, click here. The picture pretty much IS the post.)

Okay, so… Check out the two boxers in the image. Which one do you want to be? Which one are you most acting like today?

Be honest now.

I know that everyone wants to be the guy on the right… but are you actually acting like the guy on the right? Are you thinking like the guy on the right? Are you running your business like the guy on the right? Have you connected the dots between the image and the words?

I received a lot of emails, tweets and comments about this yesterday, many from business owners who were a little stressed out by the outcome of the presidential elections, so I think it is important for everyone to take a deep breath and take inventory of what is and what isn’t: Fear of what may come – any kind of fear for that matter – is not something business leaders can afford to fall prey to, especially now. Fear is distracting. Fear distorts reality. Fear immobilizes. Fear is the enemy of progress, innovation and growth. Fear is the enemy of success. Your success. Don’t let fear, especially fear of the unknown creep into your brain. Just don’t.

Repeat after me: “Fear, go away! Go on now, shoo!” 😀

When in doubt or cornered, focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect NOW: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail. Do not let your fears and worries distract you. (And if you have to stop listening to talk radio for a few days, by all means, do.)

Keep your focus. Feed your confidence. Dare to be bold. Take all of the things that have made you successful until now and use them: All of your strengths. All of your skills. All of your knowledge. Making your business successful in the coming year is going to require the kind of commitment, focus and courage that turns ordinary people into champions, soldiers into heroes, and managers into leaders. This is your challenge, and as long as you truly embrace it, you will not fall short. I promise you.

None of us can afford to be distracted by negative thoughts about what may or may not happen a year from now. Be in this moment. Work in this moment. Kick ass in this moment. Then let this moment stretch into the hours, days, weeks and months ahead until either a) the economy is healthy again, or b) you’ve realized that the economy doesn’t matter because you are not at its mercy.

Look up at the boxers one last time. The choice you are facing is simple: Be the guy on the right side of the image, and you’ll do great. Be the distracted guy on the left, and you won’t. The choice is 100% yours: Stay focused.

Have a GREAT day, everyone!

Incidentally, for those of you who inquired over the years as to when the brandbuilder would finally become more than a blog, guess what: With so many small businesses reaching out these last few months, the time has finally come for me to roll up my sleeves and help companies build better futures for themselves full time. More details on the what, how and when very soon, but yeah, I am VERY excited.

My name is Olivier Blanchard, and I approve this message.

Original photo: Doug Benc/Getty Images

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Republican business owners and managers, read this post. (Democrats too.)

Whatever side of the aisle you may be on, the die is cast. The democratic process has worked. Americans have elected the next President of the United States of America. #44, by last count.

Many of you are probably pretty excited that your guy won today. Many of you are probably also angry that your guy didn’t. All of you are probably worried about what will come next: The simple “okay, now what?” question. Will I still have a job in six months? Will my company continue to prosper in the next year? Will I be able to hire new employees this spring, or will I have to let people go? And on and on and on.

My advice to you: Chill.

If you are among the Obama/Biden supporters, I am going to guess that your outlook today is pretty positive. You’re looking at a bright 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the best time to start a new business venture, to travel abroad, to partner with great people and companies.

If you are among the McCain/Palin/Joe The Plumber supporters, your outlook is probably pretty gloomy. You’re looking at what may be disastrous 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the worst time to start a new business venture, travel overseas or partner with great people and companies.

Funny how your perceptions – and ONLY your perceptions – affect the way you envision your business’ outlook in the next few years.

So my advice to you again: Chill. Take a deep breath. Seriously. What happens next in Washington won’t affect you all that much at all. Relax.

Unless you’re big like Exxon, Walmart and at&t, whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office really has zero bearing on your business’ success. None. You may think it does, you may have come up with a list of reasons why McCain would have helped you be more successful and why Obama will kill your profits, but you’re wrong. The success of your company depends entirely on you: The CEO. The CMO. The salesperson. The customer service rep. The franchisee. The cashier. The designer. The IT guy. The PR manager. The product manager. The greeter. Success or failure are entirely yours to own.

Likewise, if you voted Democrat, having Barack Obama in the White House won’t make your business successful either. His presidency won’t miraculously cure the ills of our society and restore the market to its pre-crash bubble days. The truth is, regardless of who sits in the White House and who owns the Senate and House of Reps, we have some rough terrain ahead. We’re all going to have to be smart, innovative and resourceful if we’re going to be successful. Neither Obama nor Biden will do anything to help you make payroll, attract and retain customers, or launch the next game-changing product. They have bigger issues to deal with than you – even if you’re the coolest, smartest, hardest working person on the planet.

Reality vs. imaginary dragons: Focus on what you know, not on what you don’t.

What the next 4 years have in store, nobody knows. Higher taxes? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Best case scenario: Our taxes won’t change much. Worst case scenario, they will increase incrementally. As in: Not enough to make much of an impact on anyone, rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle. Even if I were in the $250K+ bracket (which I am clearly not), watching my taxes increase a little more to help ease our embarrassing trillion dollar deficit would be a small price to pay. What’s done is done. Let’s fix our mess, learn from our mistakes, and move on.

I only mention this to point out that whatever happens with taxes next year… or the year after that – or whenever – should be the least of your worries right now. Possible tax increases are not threatening your business right now, and won’t anytime soon. Get your mind back on the present. On what obstacles you are faced with today. There will be plenty of time to worry about next year’s challenges twelve months from now.

In other words, before we start speculating about the next four years, we might all want to start thinking about the next six months. What problems are you really facing between now and next spring? What are the immediate problems you need to find solutions to? These are the real questions you should be focusing on.

You may not be completely aware of it, but your emotional outlook impacts your success. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m spewing self-help bullshizzle right now, but it’s a fact: Believe in success, visualize it, map it out, and you will have a much greater chance of making it happen than if you instead convince yourself that your business will fail. Positive attitudes win races, win deals and win business. Positive attitudes win.

Negative attitudes don’t.

Have you ever been around someone who is just soooo negative? The sky is falling, nothing is going right, the world is coming to an end? After a few minutes, you start to feel the same way. Their negativity starts to affect you. It’s a natural thing. We all feed off each other’s moods and dramas. In the same way, as a CEO or business manager, if you’re negative, that mood affects everyone you come in contact with, starting with your employees and ending with your customers.

Consider this: Your positive attitude can infect your customer touchpoints in such a way that one short encounter with them tomorrow morning could set the stage for an afternoon of wonderfully positive interactions with hundreds of customers. Like the happy cashier at the checkout who makes you feel great about your shopping experience, because their day started with a wonderful experience at work. Likewise, your negative attitude might affect your customer touchpoints in such a way that a brief, negative encounter with them tomorrow morning might make them worry about their jobs, about whether or not they are seen as valuable employees and whether or not they even enjoy working there. What kind of interactions do you think they will have with the hundreds of customers they touch that day?

Your attitude affects the direction and success of your business every single day.

What’s interesting is that most of the time, positive an negative attitudes are entirely self-created. The world around you is the same from day to day. You make the choice to see it either in a positive light or a negative one. Whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office, the world essentially is the same today as it was yesterday. Only your outlook has changed. If you have concerns about your business, if you have real problems to solve, then focus on finding solutions for those specific concerns and problems. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about “what if” questions that may never turn into real issues for you. Even if you are a hard-core Republican, understand that President-elect Obama’s policies, beliefs and actions will not have a direct impact on your business anymore than if you had voted for him. Unless you are a Fortune 100 company, the who the President of the United States happens to be has pretty much zero impact on your business. Your fears in regards to what Obama will do in office are still in the realm of imagination. Until something actually happens to affect your business, you are worrying about nothing.

It’s kind of like this: You’re a knight and around you is a small band of foot soldiers looking to you for leadership. Ahead of you is a dark forest you have to cross. You’ve heard that the forest is teaming with enemy soldiers and ambushes, but your mission is to get to the other side. What do you do? Do you figure out the best way to deal with the problem at hand, or do you sit there and worry about other things that may or may not come to be someday that have zero bearing on your immediate situation? You’re letting dragons and ogres (imaginary creatures) distract you from your real issues. Pretty silly when you look at it that way right?

Focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect now: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail.

There will always be obstacles in your path. The odds will always be against you. The world will always conspire to make you fail. Cheaper imports, bigger competitors, better tools somewhere else, better tax breaks across the river, lower rent down the street… There will always be dark woods ahead filled with unseen enemies. Get used to it. It’s just how the world works. New elections, the economy, competition, new technologies transforming your industry, all of these things are part of the game. Your attitude will determine whether or not these obstacles and challenges help you build the next chapter in your company’s fascinating success story, or its sad conclusion.

Leadership Lesson: Taking the initiative always gives you a tactical advantage. The alternative (letting someone else decide your fate for you) is no alternative at all.

Great leaders aren’t usually characterized by uneventful tenures and comfortable lives without challenge. Great leaders are people like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi and Susan B. anthony, who in spite of overwhelming odds, in spite of the entire world conspiring against them, in spite of being faced with very dark moments of self doubt and despair, managed to embrace the impossible challenges of their times and come out of the woods transformed, cleansed of their fears, and most importantly: victorious.

As a business leader, you will be tested in the coming months. No question. The coming year will probably be the most trying of your entire career. You may work harder than you ever have before, risk more than you ever have before, and want to quit more often than ever before. But you know what, as long as you keep your wits about you, keep your focus on addressing your immediate challenges and keep your eye on making it through, you will. Not only that but you will come out ahead of your less focused and enthusiastic competitors. When you’re old and gray, you’ll be able to look back on this time and understand how it helped define you as a human being and as a leader. And chances are that every ounce of success you enjoy once the economy recovers will lead straight back to the decisions you made during this challenging time in your career. This moment in time WILL define you. How is up to you.

Now that the election drama is over, it’s time to get your head back in the game and give some serious thought to how you can turn immediate challenges into serious opportunities. If you didn’t vote for Barack Obama, don’t let yourself be distracted by negative thoughts and irrational fears. Your future and your company’s future are 100% in your hands. Not Washington’s. Let’s all put politics aside now and get back to the business of getting the economy back on track, starting with you.

So tell me: What is the biggest problem facing your business today?

How can those of us who know how to help businesses grow and prosper (my blogroll is only the tip of the iceberg) help you get through thee challenging times? Come on. Talk to me.

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05*

Warmest congratulations, President-Elect Obama. Not just on your victory, but on the unprecedented voter turnout your historic campaign generated. You may have done more to restore America’s faith in the electoral process than any other presidential candidate in history. You got people to care. You got people to vote. You got people to stop taking their right to elect their representatives for granted. Whether loved or hated, revered or reviled, trusted or feared, you made people care. You engaged Americans of every stripe to participate in the greatest political experiment in history. For that alone, you deserve our respect, and at the very least a standing ovation. Our hat also goes out to Senator McCain for putting up such a great fight for all these months and making such an honorable speech last night. You are both great Americans, wonderful statesmen, and examples to us all. Thank you both for elevating the game at such a crucial time in our country’s history, when we so desperately needed to be inspired and moved to act. America couldn’t have asked for better candidates in ’08.

President-Elect Obama, it’s your turn to lead us now – Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. All 305,579,683 of us. All you have to do now is stay true to yourself, stay the course, and make us proud.

Cheers, baby. You did it!

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Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

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