Stay Out Of The Ditch: The Whole Story
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
This was a blog series released over the summer of 2020.
In my twenties, I was extremely interested in philosophy. I would head to the local bookstore and spend 90% of my time in the philosophy section flipping through the ponderings of philosophers old and new. The final 10% of my time was spent looking for fiction to rest my brain!
It always amazing to me that those who lived so long ago were debating the same topics we were struggling with today. The nature of love, justice, peace, humanity, ethics, and more.
One such interesting figure was Aristotle, born around 385 BC. He was the teacher of Alexander the Great, a student of Plato, and the father of modern ethics. Aristotle was the first known philosopher to speculate that a person could develop better character (or virtue) through education, practice, and encouragement. A revolutionary thought at the time.
In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, he argued that each virtue had a Golden Mean. You can think of the Golden Mean as the final bed Goldilocks tried in the story of the three bears. The first was too hard, the second too soft, but the last one? Just right.
Here are a couple of examples from Aristotle of the Golden Mean as it applies to virtues. The Golden Mean between rash and cowardice is courage. The Golden Mean between wasteful and stingy is generosity. My personal favorite is the Golden Mean between boorish and buffoonery, which is wittiness.
I would argue that just as there is a Golden Mean for virtues, there is also a Golden Mean for business activities. This does not mean we will never be on the “too much” or “too little” side, but it does mean we can learn and practice and become better over time.
My task is to help define the “golden mean” for different areas of business.
When applying this idea to business, it helps me to think of the Golden Mean as a road. The place where you are meant to drive. The place where your business can move forward with the least amount of drag. “Too much” and “too little” are now ditches.
The goal is to stay out of the ditch.
We will explore different aspects of this road and these ditches in detail. We will define the road and ditches for goal setting, executing, and measuring. Looking forward to taking this journey with you!
PART 1: GOAL SETTING
Let’s explore this idea of the road and ditches to goal setting.
Goal setting is something we all do, conscience or not. Some people seem to be masters at setting and achieving their goals and others seem to set goals and forget about them the next day. Where do you fall on this spectrum currently?
Before we jump in, let’s define a goal. A goal should be something outside of your operational or “to-do” list activities. They should be things that help set the direction of your business, informing your decision making, and keep you focused.
Alright, let's start with the ditches:
The Too Much ditch for goal setting is just that: too much! Too many goals, or goals that are wildly unrealistic. The Too Much of goal setting usually leaves us frustrated and defeated within a few weeks (or hours). With too many goals our attention splintered, leaving us without clear direction. Or, the goal is unrealistic and we are constantly tired because no matter how much we work, the “goal” is still miles off.
We often drive into this ditch at the start of a year. Maybe while creating a vision board or listening to a podcast on making this year the very best ever! These goals are often set when we are away from the day to day realities and we dream of all we can accomplish now that we are determined to wake up at 5 am and take cold showers!
When reality hits and your new client piles on some extra work, you fall behind on your goals. Hoping to catch up, you work extra hours over the weekend. Some progress is being made, but you always feel behind and are now not sure if the goals you set are making any difference to your bottom line...So much is happening, but it does not seem like you are moving forward.
The Too Little ditch can be just as dangerous.
At a recent networking event, I met a frantic business owner. He talked about how busy he was and how he needed a coach to help set up business processes so that he would not feel “crazy” all the time. He was working constantly and said, “I take every job, you know because you don’t know when the next one will come.”
I responded, “I can definitely help. But first, let me ask, what is your financial goal for the year?”
He paused and said, “…I don’t know.”
“Okay,” I said, “do you know how much money you have made so far this year?”
Again, a blank look. “I could call my bookkeeper, or I could guess, but I am not really sure.”
“Do you know how much money you need to make in a year?”
In this case, the business owner might be doing well, but he does not even know it. When we do not have any goals, it is hard to gauge how we are doing in our business. We can work 60+ hours a week but are never sure we are doing enough. This can be taxing and exhausting...So much is happening, but it does not seem like you are moving forward.
Just Right goals have two parts. First, we need to know our 'why' and then we need to be SMART.
One of the greatest determining factors for reaching your goals is your
understanding of why you are setting them in the first place.
In other words, what is the goal of the goal?
I cannot tell you how many business owners I talk to say, "I need to post on social media more". Then, I ask, "why?" and they don't have an answer (or it is generic, like "I need more followers").
Posting on social media IS great. But, if you are not sure why you are doing it, it will be hard to create a plan or strategy. Therefore, your efforts will not have as much of an impact.
So, before saying what you will do, define why you are doing it. Think about the results you want. Will this get you there? What is the return on investment for this goal in your business?
Once you know your 'why', you can create Just Right goals that are SMART. There are many great articles written on these kinds of goals, so I will only add a quick summary here. The acronym has changed a bit over time, but it is believed the original concept should be credited to George T. Doran in the early 1980s. He created this system to help managers and their teams' complete company objectives.
The terms have changed over time, but the principles are the same. SMART goals are:
Specific: What are you going to do?
Measurable: How will you know you have reached your goal?
Assignable: Who will accomplish the goal?
Realistic: It is possible to achieve with available resources?
Time-bound: When will the goal be completed?
As you set SMART goals, you can break them down into actionable steps that can be added to your daily or weekly task lists. Your objectives for each day, week, and month become clear.
You can see progress toward your goal, even if you have not reached it.
For solopreneurs and most small business owners, I would suggest setting goals that are time-bound to no more than 90 days. Even if you continue with the same goal for a year, it is valuable to check-in and evaluate your goals multiple times a year.
Make sure the goal still meets your needs. Is the specific deliverable still “right”? Could you do more? Should you do less? Are you seeing results from the completion of the goals? If not, what new area(s) should you focus on during the next 90 days?
My hope is that as we understand our 'why' and set SMART goals, we can focus our energies on the things that truly move our business forward.
Congratulations, business owner, you are out of this ditch!
PART 2: EXECUTION
More than any other factor, execution has the greatest impact on success for a solopreneur or small business owner. It is not your pitch, your product, the way you dress, or your networking group (although ALL of these are important). If you do not execute, none of these other pieces matter.
Regarding execution, Too Much often comes from thinking we need to do it all, all the time. Too Much comes from implementing the business courses, books, and podcasts without vetting or prioritizing the activities for our specific business. We do not spend time trying to find better systems, we just DO. The thought is, “if I am busy, I am moving my business forward”. Or, “if it worked for this person, it will work for me”.
This comes from a lack of understanding of what is truly needed to grow our business. We lack the ability to see how the tasks we are doing impact the progress toward our business goals; therefore, we believe that simply doing anything brings forward movement.
Often, I see Too Little execution as a result of a lack of confidence or another mindset block. We are overwhelmed with what we need to do and so we do not do anything. This overwhelm can come from fearing failure or, more often, fearing success.
So, we find something easy to do that takes up our time and we do not make a plan for the important activities. We always find something else to work on, something else to prioritize, something else to distract us.
So how do we execute well?
First, we need a clear understanding of where we are trying to go. Without a clear plan or specific direction, we will not be able to identify what it will take to get there. Once we know where we are going, it is easier to get there.
Second, breakdown the plan into specific steps. Breakdown the big goals into little ones. Define pieces you can work on each day, week, or month that will move you closer to your goal.
Third, test and evaluate your business activities. Are they getting you the return you expected? Is there a way to make an activity more effective? Set aside time each quarter to evaluate your progress and make changes as needed.
Lastly, create accountability. This can be with a networking group, business associate, or a business coach. Many of the business activities that move you forward (networking, marketing, sales, etc.) can become mundane, but they are the ones that will keep your business growing. Keep yourself motivated with some great accountability!
Congratulations, you are out of this ditch!
PART 3: MEASURING
Of the ditches we have described so far, measuring is the one I see WAY more people in one ditch than the other. Can you guess which one?
Yup. Most are in the Too Little ditch.
For those rare people who are in the Too Much ditch, hours of their month are spent keeping up spreadsheets and analyzing data. Because of this extreme, I will be spending more time on the Just Right section (hoping to win some of you over to start tracking SOME data in your business!)
On rare occasions, I meet a business owner who knows EVERYTHING about their business. They can rattle off the top 5 Instagram posts from last year, the daily average sale details for the last 90 days, the open rate of their last 6 newsletters, and their close rate per 100 cold calls.
While I fully support measuring data points in your business, there is a Too Much ditch that can take away from moving your business forward because you are always looking back. In this ditch, it can be difficult to distinguish data from important data. It can also be hard to know what data to consider when making decisions for your business because there is just so much of it!
More often, I run into business owners who do not measure anything (beyond total gross revenue) in their business. This can be for a myriad of reasons. For example, not having the time, not knowing how to create a system to track the data or, most often, not feeling good when they see the results.
This leads to “going with my gut” decisions which often miss the mark. As there is not a good way to truly see what leads to business growth, these business owners constantly try new things or get stuck bad patterns.
Data helps you make good decisions. Yet, the challenge is, some data can feel like a judgment on our success or failure. So, before we start to track data, we need to have the right mindset around data.
Which brings me to divorce. Not the legal dissolution of a marriage, but the second:
...to "separate or dissociate (something) from something else"
In regard to business, I want to make the case that if you are able to divorce your emotions from the data you track in your business, you will make better decisions.
For example, I was talking to a client recently who didn't want to look at her financials because they are not where she wanted them to be. It is 100% difficult and discouraging when business is down!
What if you could see the decrease as a data point and NOT a single indicator of your success or failure? If you can see a dip in revenue as a data point, it can help you see trends, learn when and how you need to adjust your marketing, understand more about your retention rate etc.
In the same way, an increase should not just be a "good-feels-bringer", instead it should be confirmation that joining that networking group WAS worth your time, or the new ads you are running are working or that client retention is up.
When we can see data in our business as guideposts, tools, and information versus success or failure, we are able to make more strategic, purposeful, thoughtful decisions.
So, what do we track?
If you are not tracking any data, I would encourage you to start with three things:
-Marketing Activities (networking, cold calling, social media, other)
-Client numbers (on-going and project-based)
-Sales (current and projected)
These three things are all tied to customers. Without them, you cannot survive. There are LOTS of things you could track within each one of these but start by focusing on the things you do on a regular basis.
1) MARKETING ACTIVITIES:
Make a list of the marketing activities you do each month. Networking meetings, groups, events, one-to-one coffees, posting on social*, etc. This can be as simple as a word document or an Excel spreadsheet.
Keep track of who you met with (or the event), and what came of it. More introductions? A client? An invitation to speak? Nothing? Remember that some “results” may be a few months later!
*a note about social. Remember that Social media is a long game. If you are posting on a platform, and not seeing “clients” come from that post, don’t worry. Adjust what you are measuring. Measure engagement, new followers, etc. Social is PART of your marketing strategy, not all! Also, if you are in your first year as a business owner and trying to keep up with 4+ social platforms, that may be too much Simplify and become an expert on a specific platform that is best for your client base, then expand as time and money allow.
After tracking your marketing data for a couple of months, you should be able to see your fastest route to customers. It is networking? Social? Cold calling? Events? Speaking engagements?
Once you know your sweet spot, increase your activity in that area. Does it pay off?
Then, go back and look at your second fastest route to customers. Evaluate if there are ways to change tactics or messaging. If you can try a couple of new things, can you increase your client numbers?
Keep refining until you have 1-3 ways of gaining new customers that is consistent. This will help you ramp up or down as needed.
2 & 3) CLIENT NUMBERS & SALES:
If you have a large volume of clients, your invoicing software will be able to run reports for you on this data. If you serve a smaller number (dozens a year) then you can use the system below:
In an Excel document, have the first column be the name/company of the client, then the next twelve columns will be the twelve months of the year. The last column will be a note about how you secured the client (referral, website, networking group, etc.)
For each client, fill in the dollar amount you were paid each month. If you do multi-month contracts, make the first-month green and the last month orange to see starts and stops and have another color for contract renewals.
At the bottom of each column, create a formula to calculate the total revenue for each month, then add a formula that adds all the monthly totals together to give you your yearly total.
As you build out the year, you will start to see holes in income or busy seasons. If it is February and you have multiple 6 months contracts, you should be able to see your projected income months in advance.
This data can also be used to alert you to a when multiple contracts are ending at the same time and give you time to run ads or increase your networking to onboard new clients.
You will also be able to see how you are securing new clients. As you look at this list, what surprises did you find? What trends can you pick out? Is a specific person or group supplying most of your referrals? If so, how can you replicate that relationship?
As you track this data, use it to make decisions that will continue to move your business forward, and let go of the stuff that does not. Are there fancy tools to track this stuff as you grow? You bet! For now, keep it simple and focus on growth.
Congratulations, you are tracking what you need to track to help your business grow – you are out of this ditch!
Two books I strongly recommend for solopreneurs and small business owners are:
-The 12 Week Year, by Brian P Moran and Michael Lennington
-Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, by Charles Duhigg
Here is an article that addresses some common reasons we sabotage our goals and what to do about it.
If you are struggling in the early stages of your business, here are some tips to remember.
Amy Lynne Coaching works with small business owners to help them move their business forward. You can learn more here: amylynnecoaching/coaching
Amy Lynne Coaching is located in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN.