Staying Relevant For The Zombie Apocalypse

nice-night-to-shoot-zombies

Most people who know me are unlikely to put my name in the same sentence with zombies, especially in the context of designing book covers. My style tends to embrace architecture, nature, Art Deco and sometimes a splash of unabashed whimsy. Yet when a colleague recently asked me if I could come up with something for his Romeo and Juliet riff in which the star-crossed lovers team up against the ghoulish undead, I heard myself say, “Sure! Why not?” Not only was it a chance to expand my mental margins (and get paid for it) but also to explore the correlation to today’s businesses needing to stay relevant in a mercurial marketplace.

In a nutshell, no matter how well a particular approach to your services and products has served you in the past, nothing courts obsolescence faster than the belief that the status quo will continue to work in the future.

Take restaurants, for instance. When customers began paying more attention to what they were eating, savvy restaurateurs recognized the need to tweak their menus to reflect nutritional information, calorie-count, heart-healthy choices, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan, low sodium, no trans-fat, etc. Longstanding cooking techniques such as fried, breaded, battered and glazed began giving way way to grilled, roasted, broiled and steamed. Depending on the cuisine, there has also been a downsizing of plate and portion size to trick the mind into feeling “full.”

Another example is the landscape design business. Southern California homes that once boasted lush green lawns have now turned to a combination of drought-resistant plants and ground cover, artificial turf, and bark, brick and decorative rock – lawn alternatives which 21st century landscapers have had to step up and accommodate in order to stay viable.

Own a brick-and-mortar shop? Many have already transitioned to an online or hybrid presence in response to their customers’ desire to have 24/7 access, not have to deal with holiday crowds and parking lots, and addressing the escalating fears that being out in public places such as urban malls isn’t nearly as safe these days as it used to be.

Even publishers of books, magazines and newspapers are making the shift to electronic platforms in concert to the way today’s readers like to read. Given the fact that 30 percent of trade paperback and hardcover books end up in landfills, the evolution of ebooks and self-publishing reflects not only a “green” environmental solution but also a way for authors to exercise more control over their intellectual property, accrue higher royalties and get their books on the market much faster than via traditional channels.

With these examples in mind, what has your own business done to reinvent itself in the past year? The past five years? The past decade?

The following are some considerations which should be at the top of your To Do list:

  1. Study your competition’s unique selling points. What can you do to (1) emulate their successful platform and (2) differentiate yourself in attracting the same clientele?
  2. Explore new ways to keep your existing clients and customers happy. Engage them in the process by letting them know their opinions count. At the end of the day it’s much easier and less expensive to retain loyal fans than it is to pursue new ones.
  3. Become a lifelong learner. Educate yourself (and your employees) on industry trends by attending seminars/webinars, reading new business books and trade publications, tuning in to podcasts, and expanding your social media network.
  4. Update your business image. Whether it’s a creative retooling of your website, a redesign of your corporate brand, an expansion of your existing services and products, or doing seasonal window displays to catch the attention of passersby, it’s the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome that makes people curious to discover something new.
  5. Invest in new technology that will allow you to manage your time and delivery systems more efficiently. You may also want to invest in the expertise of a marketing coach to guide you in maximizing your resources, identifying ways to diversify, and reach potential consumer groups you might not have thought of.

It also goes without saying that survival is ultimately contingent on the mindset to take risks, to try things you’ve never done, and to stay absolutely and positively fearless. Your business adversaries may not be zombies but they will indeed eat you alive if you’re not prepared to stay one step ahead of them.

 

 

Scattered Thoughts With Intermittent Brainstorms

December 2015 image

If you want your business to stay viable, visible and competitive in the coming new year, it’s essential that your staff not only have a sense of ownership in that process but also be invited to show you what they’ve got in terms of untapped creativity and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for a risk-averse manager to use “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as an argument to discourage initiative. By the time the breakage occurs – sometimes irreparably – the chance is often lost to hear solutions that may have been floating in the hallways all along and yet were never actively solicited.

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Thinking Outside the (Suggestion) Box

If the drop-slot of your employee suggestion box is crisscrossed with cobwebs, it’s time to embrace a more interactive approach to feedback. Distribute questionnaires (with an option for anonymity) to gauge staff satisfaction levels with working conditions, procedures, policies, and perks/privileges. Demonstrate that you’re actually receptive to input by publishing the results in your company newsletter and using them as your talking points for the launch of a brainstorming task force. This strategy works well if the size of your organization precludes a full group meeting or if you’ve observed that workers are hesitant to speak out with suggestions for fear of rejection or reprisal.

Thought Bubble Diversity

Within any goal-oriented group – be it TV sitcom writers, nonprofit volunteers or corporate committees – there are typically four personality types: leaders, creative thinkers, analysts, and pleasers. If all the participants in your think-tank session are drawn from the same quadrant, don’t hold your breath for progress to ensue. Why? Because functionally they will cancel each other out: the leaders will grapple for power, the creative types will bounce off the walls, the analysts will scrutinize everything to death, and the pleasers – too timid to offend anyone – will assume the role of bobblehead yes-men. Likewise, if you’re exploring new ideas which will impact multiple departments, the reception to those ideas upon implementation will be a lot warmer if each division had a rep involved in the planning stages.

Forbid Podium-Hogging

What do brainstorming meetings and elementary school classrooms have in common? They are either a scene of cacophonous pandemonium in which everyone talks at once or a setting wherein a handful of know-it-alls dominates the discussion and intimidates the rest into silence. For a brainstorming session to be effective, you must not only brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order (http://www.rulesonline.com) but encourage full participation as well. To get the conversation started, make sure everyone has a clear understanding of The Problem. In other words, what, exactly, are they there to solve? Next, have each participant write down his/her solution to the problem on a folded slip of paper and put it in a bowl. Each “anonymous author” idea is then drawn forth and written on a whiteboard for everyone to see. Start with the first idea listed and ask each participant’s opinion regarding that idea’s merits and flaws. Set a timer so no one is allowed to hog the stage with a filibuster. Rebuttals and interruptions are not allowed when someone has the floor. Ideas that accrue a higher number of negative hash tags are erased. Once you have gone around the entire room, start the process again, gradually whittling down the list – and incorporating modifications – until you arrive at a solution that everyone can agree with.

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As energizing and empowering as these brainstorming techniques can be, however, an absence of sincerity – coupled with an unwillingness to compromise – is the quickest way to kill esprit de corps. Whether you’re requesting fresh ideas and then stealing them, trivializing contributions or ascribing value based on rank, or asking for input on a decision you’ve already made, it won’t take long for employees to start keeping their best thoughts to themselves or, worse, giving them to your competition.

Wherever you are in the world, here’s to a joyful holiday season and a spectacular 2016!

Office for One

P.S. Will this be the year you decide to go into business for yourself? If so, you’ll want to add Office for One: The Sole Proprietor’s Survival Guide to your wish list. Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, this indispensable resource is perfect for any entrepreneur who wants to go it alone without getting lonely.

 

 

Mrs. Shinn Makes a Spectacle

Mrs Shinn130

Sad but true: Not everyone tasked with planning a corporate retreat, a class reunion or a charity fundraiser has the business acumen to generate excitement and actually make it a success. Some fall into the job by default (i.e., “You’re the most recent hire so you have to do the annual fill in the blank campaign”). Others are guilted into volunteering (i.e., “Don’t you care about the plight of endangered muskrats?”). Some see the title of “organizer” as a fast track to the popularity that has previously eluded them (i.e., “They’re finally going to know my name.”). Then there are those who shamelessly wrest command on the basis of their social clout; would anyone in River City, for instance, challenge the entitlement of Mayor Shinn’s wife to direct the Ladies Auxiliary Dance Committee?

All of these scenarios have one thing in common: If the person in charge has invested either too little heart or way too much ego, the event will probably fall flat.

Let’s start with corporate off-sites. Like a summons for jury duty, it’s always a mandatory event. And – like jury duty – “mandatory’ is not synonymous with “fun.” While it’s time spent away from the office, the work will continue to pile up in one’s absence and, thus, create a stressful return. Depending on the venue and duration, it’s time spent away from one’s family as well. This, in turn, disrupts the home-life routine and fosters grumpiness. Lastly is the question of why corporate off-sites are even necessary. According to the pricey facilitators brought in to run them, it’s all about team-building and the loopy premise that group hugs, tearful disclosures, and role-playing games will cause everyone to suddenly become besties when they’re back at the office. Seriously? I have yet to see this happen.

Even if your participants aren’t a captive audience and can exercise free will insofar as attendance, five critical considerations should go into the event planning process:

Incentive aka “What’s In It For Me?”

Your employees, classmates or prospective donors are more likely to embrace your vision if they can see a correlative benefit to their own lives. Will it provide them with exciting networking opportunities? Will they glean knowledge on how to achieve their goals? Will they be served an incredible meal? Will they feel better about themselves for supporting a cause that’s dear to their hearts? Never lose sight of the fact that your event likely has plenty of competition for your participants’ attention. If it’s something that’s going to take them away from their loved ones, cause them to miss another event scheduled for the same weekend, or require them to ask for time off from work in order to fly or drive, it will always be easier for them to RSVP with a “no” than a “yes.”

Affordability

The current economy has given rise to a whole lot of belt tightening. In the business world, the use of teleconferencing, webinars and podcasts has proven to be a cost-effective alternative to physically sending staff members out of town. If it’s daunting to think about paying for a large group’s transportation, lodging and meals, consider hosting a virtual event that takes place on a technology platform instead. For events in which prospective participants are paying out-of-pocket (i.e., a writers conference), be sensitive in developing a pricing package that is realistically within their reach. You might also offer an “early bird special” in which those that register by a certain date can do so for a lower fee.

Accessibility

A colleague of mine is skipping his upcoming college reunion. Although it’s a landmark decade – and, accordingly, a steadily shrinking alumni – the reunion committee chose a venue that is 75 miles from the closest airport and has no nearby hotels. Further, it didn’t put any thought into a formal, themed program beyond a no-host bar and just sitting around. In a nutshell, the only attendees that have thus far signed up are the committee members themselves (who didn’t want to travel outside the comfort zone of their home zip code). Whether your own event is scheduled for a few hours, overnight or a weekend, you need to address factors such as (1) how do participants get there, (2) where do they park, (3) is there a shuttle service, and (4) will the hotel offer a group discount.

Weather Or Not

I used to belong to a national writers group that held their annual conference every July. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many places in the U.S. that are particularly enjoyable that time of year. Nonetheless, quite a few events do get planned for June-August, the primary draw being that attendees with families can build a vacation around it without having to take the kids out of school. If it’s the peak season at your intended locale, it’s going to be more expensive. If it’s off-season, you can usually score some perks. And, of course, never schedule your event around or near a major holiday or three-day weekend where your attendees will have to contend with heavier traffic.

Feedback

If it’s going to be a recurring event (i.e., the annual Founders’ Day Social), it’s essential to find out what worked (i.e., the music), what didn’t (i.e., Mrs. Shinn’s Grecian Urn Tableau), and what everyone would like to see next time around (i.e., more food). Make it as easy as possible for participants to share their two cents. MailChimp.com, for example, lets you create a free, online survey without your respondents having to go find an envelope and a stamp. While backend feedback is useful for future improvements, it’s just as valuable to ask for input prior to an event’s implementation (i.e., “Where should we hold our first auction?”). If, however, you reject every idea that’s presented and, instead, go with whatever you wanted to do in the first place, don’t expect such decisions to be met with feelings of unmixed delight and esprit de corps.

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My savvy guest bloggers this month include:

How To Increase Employee Engagement on ‘Dirty Jobs’ – By Dana Barker Davies

Were You Born To Do Something Great? – By Marlon Smith

Reduce The Complexity When Franchising Your Business – By Brian Keen

The Science of Social Media – Better Engagement/Better Measurement – By Sam Reader

The Business of Being Creative

Painter

Several years ago at a party someone asked me what type of business I was in. “I’m a writer,” I replied. “No, I meant for a real job,” she said. Despite the fact I’ve been a full-time wordsmith for some time and earn a good income from it, her response wasn’t an uncommon one. When you have a career that pays you to have fun, it somehow flies in the face of conventional wisdom – and parental nay saying- that you’re just not treating the concept of “work” seriously enough.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a number of aspiring writers, artists and musicians that are apologists for their own talent, boxing themselves into the category of hobbyists on the argument that they haven’t been discovered yet. To support themselves until that day arrives, the salary they draw from being employed by someone else often becomes the excuse to avoid thinking about how they’re going to be their own boss.

This is a self-defeating mindset on several levels, the most important being that if you’re not treating your creative endeavors as both a brand and a business right now and spending the time and money to be successful, no one else will invest in your dream, either.

Even if your passion is currently in the part-time/evening/weekend stage:

  • Do you have a well defined marketing plan?
  • Do you have a presence on social media?
  • Do you hold regular staff meetings with yourself?
  • Do you set weekly goals?
  • Are you willing to cut poorly performing divisions (i.e., low-paying markets)
  • Do you research what your competition is doing?
  • Do you really know who your audience is?
  • Are you staying abreast of current trends and technology?
  • Do you constantly look for ways to repurpose/reinvent/recycle past projects into exciting new ones?
  • Do you reward yourself when your one-person team does well?

Creative types are also the least likely to pay attention to what they have to pay in taxes or what types of business expenses are allowable as deductions.

Herein are six tips to lessen the pain of tax season (and possibly avoid an audit):

  1. Even if you haven’t made the transition to a full-time creative (and your relatives still refer to this quest as your “little hobby”), it’s critical to treat your craft like the professional enterprise it is. If you don’t have one already, there should be a designated “home office” space in which you can perform, uninterrupted, the principal tasks relevant to your biz. If this space is used exclusively and regularly for that purpose, you may be able to claim a tax deduction for costs associated with its maintenance (including utilities and repairs). Note: If your art/music/writing really is a hobby, the deductions you claim can’t exceed the total amount you have earned.
  2. When you work for someone else, a lot of deductions come out of your paycheck before you ever see it – the largest of these typically being state and federal income tax. If you’re a freelancer, the responsibility to estimate these amounts is up to you. For every check you receive, set aside approximately 25 percent of it so you won’t be caught short when annual taxes are due. If you’re bringing in large sums of freelance money on a regular basis – as opposed to occasional dribs and drabs – you’ll need to make estimated tax payments every quarter.
  3. Familiarize yourself with what’s a legitimate business expense and what’s not. If, for instance, you’re writing a biography about Beethoven, you’re likely to show up on a tax auditor’s radar if you went out and bought yourself a grand piano for $100,000 to just sit in your living room and inspire you. On the other hand, a $2 pair of earplugs so you can immerse yourself in Ludwig’s world of silence would qualify as a research tool. Other deductible expenses include resource materials (books, periodicals, tapes), office equipment and supplies, business insurance and licenses, membership fees, conferences and subscriptions, telecommunications, photocopying and postage, and marketing. Travel, meals and entertainment may also be deductible if there’s a verifiable correlation to your business.
  4. Keep detailed records and receipts for everything you plan to claim as a business-related expense. And no, we don’t recommend throwing everything into a shoebox. Set up an Excel file or purchase an accounting software program to judiciously log every money transaction that comes in or goes out. Create a back-up file and store it somewhere other than where you keep the original.
  5. Don’t toss your rejection letters. Yes, yes, we know they’re painful reminders that someone didn’t like your work and you’d just as soon rid yourself of the evidence. When you’re just starting out, however, this paper (or email) trail of correspondence serves as proof that you have actually been trying to hone your craft. Otherwise, that pricey new computer you’re claiming as a business expense could raise suspicions that you’re only using it for games and watching cat videos on YouTube. Keep in mind that you have to be earning something from this creative endeavor and that it has to be more than what you’re trying to claim on deductions.
  6. Hire a professional who is well versed in the tax laws and filing requirements specific to freelancers home-based small businesses. Even if you’re as savvy with numbers as you are with words, tax preparation can be stressful. (And really now, shouldn’t you be putting your brain to better use thinking of a plot for your next book or the subject of your next painting?) If you do try to go it alone, second-guessing what’s allowable, what isn’t and which form to fill out could get you in trouble. FAQs can be found on your country’s tax authority website along with a help line to speak with an expert.

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Here’s the line-up of this month’s guest bloggers:

Can Introverts Excel at Publicity? – by Marcia Yudkin

Level the Playing Field Using Sponsored Content – by Roger Wu

The Anatomy of a Killer Facebook Ad – by Jasmine Batra