Beautiful Business

Beautiful Business
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What is Beautiful Business? These days, we all know a thing or two about what the marketers call business segmentation. You’ll recognise the language; Business to Customer (B2C), Business to Business (B2B), the public sector, the manufacturing sector, the third sector, and so on and so on.

But apart from the language, the idea’s not so new really, is it? Long before any of the B2B, B2C or B2B2C concepts had been talked about, we’d already been running successful “businesses” for around the last ten thousand years. There are clay receipts and inventories in the British Museum to prove it.

Why do we do it? Well, because at its core, business has – and always will be – about people interacting.  People to People, or P2P, if you will.

What I like to call beautiful business is about people. It’s about our relationships – and it’s about our values.

To retain business growth, we’re often encouraged to use techniques such as price matching or, as is the growing trend, focusing on what the customer values instead of price alone (just look at We Buy Any Car as an example). But not all of those methods get the whole story.

Story telling is at the heart of business. So much so, that it’s even starting to appear in some of the latest job titles we carry on our business cards. I saw an advert the other day for a Chief Technology Story Teller – and recruitment firms generate stories from People Ninjas!

Tell a Tale

These modern-day storytellers in the business environment lean heavily on marketing and sales techniques. To be fair, that’s understandable; the stories they tell are intended to convince us that our business really needs their product or that we absolutely must buy into the latest ‘next big thing’ to be successful. But the pressure to jump on the bandwagon can get a bit pushy, too – who doesn’t want a Data Lake distributed across the cloud with human driven analytics, bots everywhere and digital experiences across every known channel, hmm? It can feel a little bit like a modern twist on the Emperor’s new clothes sometimes.

Still, I have no issue with storytelling as a method; after all, it’s part of our human nature. We all know what a Limited Company is, and I’m sure many people reading this have their own Limited Company. But did you know that limited companies were created because of a story (or, as the legal profession would put it, a ‘legal fiction’)? In 1896 Armand Peugeot used the extant French legal code to create a convincing story that a non-physical entity (The Limited Liability Company) could be created to protect the individual from any legal action should the company fall into problems.  All he needed to do was write his story on the correct paper, have it witnessed and signed by the right people and voila; Limited Companies were born.

Stories help us to engage with one another and can create powerful emotions.  Over the years, it’s become something of an art form in the business world.  However, the pressure on story tellers in business is becoming harder as profit margins are squeezed, shareholder demands increase and more and more competitors enter the market. To remain convincing, the stories businesses tell can often become focused on powerful negative emotions like fear and greed.  Worse still, we find some companies resorting to outright lies (just look at the news to get an idea of the latest business being sued).

It can be hard to know which ones to believe.  Which stories are genuinely compelling and which ones are stalking you like sharks in the shallows?

In the consultancy industry – my industry – selling with shark stories is sadly rife.   That was the inspiration behind our previous blog on the Emperor’s ‘digital new clothes’.  Yes, digital is increasingly critical, BUT you should see it as a tool to enhance your own capabilities, not a silver bullet – which is sadly how digital is sold all too often.

When you get five minutes, try a quick browser search for some well-known consultancy firms, and see how many of them plaster their sites in white papers, webexs etc. on digital transformation. Then tell me how many play on your fears, “…if you don’t do this your business will fail…” and even sometimes their greed, “…we’re the only ones that can help you…”!  On the latter, the internet begs to differ; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses that can help deliver digital transformation.

Quieten the Noise

Sometimes, all you really want is for things to be simple.  When we set up Marjolo there was so much noise out there about digital products for business. We focused on understanding our core capabilities first, based on our values, and only then started to look for technology and tooling to support us.

In the end, we chose our accounting platform based on expert advice (from our accountants). Then we simply ruled out anything that didn’t integrate with it.  When you allow yourself to start saying ‘no’ it can be quite liberating. It’s like you come out from under a cloud and can just get on with building your business and making a positive difference in the world.

But what if you need to engage with more than just digital products? What if you need service support, printing, manufacturing? You might want to outsource your marketing or even your strategy.  How then to be a smart customer?

Here’s a hint: it isn’t about cost.

I understand that when you’re a start-up or an SME that it’s incredibly difficult when you’re watching every penny. You need to grow, you might be lucky enough to have an investor, or have bootstrapped the business, or even taken on a loan. In this environment, it’s understandable that you want to account for what you are spending because it can lead to the right decisions.  All too often, however, it leads to compromises. And even if you do get a great deal on that flyer and business card at the local printing shop, all you’ve got at the end is some materials for your money. Could you have got something more?

You may well have seen many variations of this image.  How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you differentiate yourself? What is your USP?  And on and on it goes.  And you’re not wrong. To be a viable business you need to know what your value proposition is, who your target market is. But, coupled with watching every penny, this type of image begins to paint a very lonely picture.

Consider for a moment this quote from Sebastian Thrun:

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment”

If this is indeed true, then it can’t be done by any one person or any one business. It requires multiple partners working together to achieve the true value.

Growing through Partnerships

How many genuine partners do you have to achieve your true value proposition?

Partnerships don’t have to be big and complex, with multiple detailed contracts.  If you find someone of like mind and values, who can enhance your capabilities, then start a conversation.  See how you can help one another.  It’s a powerful thing when partnerships are formed around your common customer, business and personal values.

I’ve seen so many times, even with large clients, decisions being made based too heavily upon price.  It seems like a great idea at the time, but often fails to really deliver its full benefit because such an approach doesn’t really include the idea of shared value.

A couple of years ago I saw a great example from a client who focused on the overall value that a potential supplier could give them rather than the price. Don’t get me wrong, price was still a factor – but not the determiner. The winning supplier wasn’t the cheapest, but when it came to an assessment of (a) the delivery of the initial ask, (b) the skills and knowledge transfer to client staff, and (c) their cultural values, they were head and shoulders above the rest.

Focusing on values in this way meant that what the client got in return was a valuable set of partners that could work together in different ways to provide support and new opportunities. That would never have been realised if price had been the deciding factor. The result? A business that has grown steadily and consistently in an industry that is largely flat. The bonus? Added value to the business, shared amongst its people.

Whilst knowing your value, avoiding the sharks and building partnerships are all important, there’s one more vital element involved in building a beautiful business.  It links to all business really being about P2P. Without your people you’d simply fail, no matter how much focus you put on your customers or into your product.

I could reel off a hundred quotes to support my argument. Whether it’s Stephen Covey, Richard Branson, Simon Sinek, Akio Morita, the list goes on; they all say the same basic thing.

Treat your employees as you would like to be treated; this is how they’ll treat your customers!

At the core of this statement, is something as old as humanity….. community.

Connecting via Social Media

We always thirst for that feeling of being connected. The explosion of social media over the last decade is a fantastic example of that want and need.

You might argue that we’ve gone too far with social media, preferring to create online communities to ones that involve more tangible human interaction. Working with a client recently, my time there happened to coincide with their annual graduate intake.  It was fascinating to watch a group of fresh-faced individuals seemingly find it so easy to communicate via Slack, Trello and so on.  Yet the idea that they could just get up, walk twenty feet across the room and hold an actual conversation with a colleague was anathema to them. You’d think someone had suggested they run naked down the high street!

In the business environment, there are some well-known companies that push this point; about community and human interaction as well as digital interaction. First Direct has a great online presence, and at the same time is proud NOT to use any complex voice-recognition systems; when you ‘phone them, you get to speak to a human being. I’ve seen more and more SMEs with adverts on the London Underground that play on ethics and community; look at Farm Drop, the ethical Grocer, and so on.

The final element of this idea of community – one that is close to my heart and has been central in building and developing Marjolo – is FAIRNESS, in both risk and reward. Moving your business model to one that incorporates a style of employee ownership is critical if you want to, as Martin Reeves puts it, build a company that lasts 100 years.

A lot of you reading this might be firmly in the Start-Up stage, or possibly developing into SMEs. You might feel that what I’m outlining does not apply to you. Why worry? You’re going to build quick and sell on.  So what if the business gets asset-stripped and its employees are made redundant? All I ask is…is that really you?

And forgive me for momentarily using negative storytelling myself here, but what would you say to your child if they came home from school and told you someone had pretended to be their friend only to then abandon them?

Whatever your reasons for being in business, you can still adopt a community ethos; build to sell, build to grow, it doesn’t matter. Ensure that how you set your company up allows you to develop employee ownership business models, if you can; there are plenty of different options here. This will allow you to create an open culture in your business built on shared values.  And by focusing on your people, they will in turn focus on the people who are your customers (B2B, B2C, citizens etc, etc). And you can then further enhance it by building the right partnerships.

Look after each other and you will be a smart customer.

So, I’ll leave you with a question. How can you use a ‘values-driven approach’ to create your own beautiful business?

If you think any of this is of interest to you too, we’d love to talk, by the way. Come and start a new conversation with us.

You can leave any comments via LinkedIn

Dave King

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