“Does your business matter?”
I’ve worked with many companies - designers, retailers, manufacturers, service-delivery firms – that have benefited by asking the tough questions that reveal whether or not they really matter. And I have come to believe that only businesses that deliberately set out to make an impact in some significant way are immune to the perils of commoditisation. Let me explain this belief.
The very nature of modern enterprise dictates that, unless you have some kind of sustainable competitive advantage, your business will eventually be differentiated based on price alone – a condition commonly referred to as commoditisation. Furthermore, it has become evident that traditional methods of establishing competitive advantage – “faster, cheaper, better than…” – aren’t sustainable and actually hasten the race to the bottom that is competing on price. So if “more of the same” and “better than” the competition at the same set of metrics isn’t the answer, what can a business do to establish a true competitive advantage and avoid becoming another purveyor of commodities? The answer, I believe is to build a business that matters to people. Build a business that affects the lives of others in a positive way. Create genuine relationships with the people that use the products and services you deliver. Ultimately, the goal of being a business that matters is about making people care enough about what you do that they would be devastated if you closed the business tomorrow. The true measure of your business’ impact is whether anyone would miss it if it were gone.
How do you go about deliberately building a business that matters? I’ve worked with hundreds of owner-managed companies, and I’ve found that embedding three key principles into everything the business does are the foundation of a business that matters.
Principle #1 – A business should be a pleasure to own & manage.
Few businesses meet this benchmark, and I often begin by working extensively with my clients in this area. There is a mindset shift required to get to where you see your business as something that is a pleasure to own and manage. Successfully making that shift is all about grasping a clearly defined purpose for yourself and your business. I start my discussions with clients by asking questions that they typically haven’t considered. What is the focus of your business? Why does it exist? Whom does it exist for and what impact are you trying to make on those people? Most businesses don’t know why they do what they do or who specifically they do it for. This lack of focus means that there are too many strategic options available and therefore, the choices made by the owners are usually made in a vain attempt to satisfy everyone.
The first thing you have to understand when searching for your purpose is that your business isn’t for everyone. In fact, it cannot be. That’s because your business creates some kind of unique value and only certain people are able to receive 100% of that unique value. Understanding what value you create, what your business is “the only…” at is half the battle. The second half of the battle is understanding who is going to care the most about the value you create. When considering value, you also have to realise that it isn’t about the product or service you provide, it’s about the impact that you make on people.
Businesses with this clarity of purpose – with genuine focus on why they exist and whom they exist to make a difference to - are always more of a pleasure to own and manage than businesses that attempt to please the mass market. If your business isn’t a pleasure to own and manage, it will always be difficult to invest the best of yourself into it with the energy required to build something that matters.
The Key to a Business That’s a Pleasure to Own & Manage = FOCUS ON A CLEAR PURPOSE.
Principle #2 - A business should be a pleasure to work for.
Sadly, I’ve seen numerous businesses, started by people who have “escaped the corporate salt mines”, that are every bit as horrible to work for as the big corporations their owners ran screaming from to start with. To build a business that is a pleasure to work for requires the ability to understand others’ priorities. It is important to distinguish that what is required is the ability to “understand others’ priorities” not the determination to “defer to others’ priorities”. Your focus, established by finding your purpose and setting appropriate priorities based on that purpose, should not be forgotten just because you need other people to assist you in achieving your vision. Instead, take careful consideration of how others’ priorities align with your purpose. When there is alignment between your purpose and the priorities of those working for you, it is relatively simple to go about building a business that’s a pleasure to work for.
Businesses consistently rated as the best places to work typically have three things in common.
First, they provide their employees with a means to a fulfilling work experience. For most people, simply providing a paycheque isn’t enough anymore. Employee engagement, an absolute necessity if you’re going to fulfil your purpose and build a business that matters, hinges on their ability to find a sense of personal purpose, mastery and autonomy in their work.1
Second, businesses that are a pleasure to work for are perceived as fair in all their dealings with staff. Establishing fair process allows the business to keep employees engaged even when strategic decisions don’t completely match their ideas of how things should be done. Put simply, businesses that are perceived as fair always give employees their say on anything that directly affects them, while maintaining the understanding that not everyone is going to get their way when the final decision is made.
Third, if you want to build a business that has people lining up to work for, make sure that there is at least an element of fun embedded in the workplace. At a minimum, most of us spend ⅓ of our lives at work. So it should be fun – at least some of the time. In my experience, businesses that take themselves too seriously are businesses that struggle to reach their full potential. That’s because it’s difficult for anyone to consistently produce their best work under the pressure, stress and lack of joy that accompanies workplaces enforcing (either intentionally or by default) a strict “no fun” policy. On the other hand, businesses that maintain an environment that grants the permission to have fun have been proven to be more productive, more profitable and have a lower rate of staff turnover than average.
If your business isn’t a pleasure to work for, you’re always going to struggle to recruit, manage and retain employees that are willing to go beyond grudging compliance with “the rules” and voluntarily invest their energy into building something that matters.
The Key to a Business That’s a Pleasure to Work For = UNDERSTANDING OTHERS’ PRIORITIES.
Principle #3 - A business should be a pleasure to do business with.
Many companies that I have worked with don’t immediately understand the need to spend time thinking about building relationships with their customers. They tend to place more importance on things such as making their product work efficiently and effectively or making it look good. Their focus is often entirely on their product or service instead of their customers and finding a way to connect with their audience.
Successful companies look out into the world and deliver things that make people happier and make their lives better. Businesses that consistently concentrate on making every aspect of doing business with them a pleasure create a sustainable competitive advantage. On the other hand, companies that are struggling tend to look at business from the viewpoint of “here are some assets that we have, here’s some stuff that we can make, now let’s get it out there and let’s sell it.”
Making your company a pleasure to do business means considering everyone along the supply chain – from the people that provide you raw materials to your customers and even the wider community where your products and services are consumed. But your customers are always critical element. How well you build and maintain trust-based relationships with your customers will determine whether you have “satisfied customers” or advocates - the kind of raving fans willing to camp out overnight for your latest product launch. Increasingly, customer satisfaction is equated with nothing more than the simple acknowledgement that you’ve done the minimum expected (or that you haven’t ripped me off). That’s not exactly the foundation for genuine customer loyalty. What you should be aiming for is the kind of customer experience that no one else can duplicate – a customer experience based on making human connections with the people that choose to do business with you. These connections are increasing in value to people starved of meaningful relationships in an impersonal world.
If your business isn’t a pleasure to do business with, then customers will only ever buy from you because they don’t think they have another choice, because you’re the cheapest or because your product or service “meets their needs”. Businesses that matter go beyond simply meeting needs, relying on their customers’ ignorance of their options and competing solely on price. When you’ve succeeded at building something that matters, people do business with you because you’re delivering what they want. Tapping into what people want is much more powerful today because most of us have everything we need, strictly speaking. What we want, or better - what we “must have”, is the catalyst for long-term relationships with the people that give it to us. When you build something that matters a lot to a group of people that have a personal connection to you and your business, then they’ll do business with you because they want that connection – because your business has become an integral part of their lives.
The Key to a Business That’s a Pleasure to Do Business With = MAKING HUMAN CONNECTIONS.
I challenge everyone reading this article to contribute to building something that goes beyond the standard measures of what makes a successful business. You can do this no matter what position you hold within the business and it will benefit everyone that comes into contact with the company. Building a business that matters provides greater satisfaction (and equity) for business owners, the opportunity to find fulfilment at work for employees and genuine human connections for the people who use its products and services. A business that is a pleasure to own, work for and do business with is about connecting to people at a level that goes well beyond merely trading money for more stuff. And that connection is the only basis of sustainable competitive advantage.
I hope that you found this article insightful and valuable. I welcome your comments and feedback – let me know if you agree with me or not!
If you’d like to find out more about building a business that’s a pleasure to own, work for and do business with (what I like to call a business “fit for humans”), please feel free to CLICK HERE, fill in your details and I will be in contact with you.
1 Reference to “autonomy, mastery and purpose” as the source of human motivation, particularly in the workplace, is credited to the work of Daniel Pink in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.