I am a self help / business advice junkie. I read all the small business blogs I can get my hands on, devour all the great business leader autobiographies, follow all the notable entrepreneurs on twitter. There is so much information out there and sometimes it gets confusing and even contradictory.
Some people say “ask your customers what they want and give it to them.” And then I read Steve Job’s book and he says “we never do beta testing or ask customers what they want. They don’t know what they want.“
Some people say “focus on marketing.” Some people say “ignore marketing and just focus on the product. If your product is good enough it will market itself.“
If you’ve read The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries he is a huge advocate of getting a minimum viable product out quickly and seeing if people like it. If they don’t, then scrap it and focus on something else. This is what the founders of Instagram said they did, to much success. It is the “Fail Fast” mantra. And then I read an interview from Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest. He says that at first Pinterest had very few users and that it actually took a long time to catch on. Silbermann says that he is glad he didn’t read the Lean Start-up because he would have quickly scrapped Pinterest.
So with all this conflicting advice, who do you believe?
I’ve come to the conclusion that, while I enjoy reading all the business advice material I can, ultimately the dynamics of any business are so situation-specific that there are few business axioms that you should obey at all costs.
For me, the real value of these business advice books are motivational. I LOVE to hear about how Steve Jobs came back to Apple and slashed all but 4 lines of products so he could simplify and focus. I LOVE to read about Howard Schultz’s vision of Starbucks as a Third Place where people could hang out and socialize.
But the lessons that each of these entrepreneurs learned along the way are very specific to their business, and may or may not apply to Clean Bottle.
The best analogy I can use is to think of each of these business leaders as explorers. They are hiking or sailing or climbing their way through an unknown territory. Each one is in a different environment, in a different time period, with a different goal. And each one is describing how they successfully navigated their way to their goal. But what worked in maritime navigation may not apply to mountain climbing and vice versa.
So, while these stories of success are powerful, and while I have found a lot of general themes that make sense (have plenty of cash, have a differentiated offering, etc), I find the stories mostly valuable for their motivational merit rather than any specific advice they can offer.
What has worked the best for me is to find an entrepreneur that has gone through a situation as close to mine as possible. Clean Bottle is a one product company, with a low price point, in crowded, commoditized, relatively niche industry with a few huge brand names. We are competing not on price, but on the fact that we have one feature that no one else has. So, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find companies that were in the same position and have still succeeded.
And when I find these leaders I ask them general business advice, but I also ask them specific questions like “Who is the REI buyer?” and “how much do you comp your sales people?”. And I try to find a way that we can work together that is win-win.
For example, we are working with a drink company, HDX. The founder, Vipe Desai, has a great track record as an executive and entrpreneur. I picked his brain on general advice, but we are also working together. I am putting a packet of HDX in each Clean Bottle we sell online. And he is representing the Clean Bottle brand at various events he attends. These kind of win-win relationships are more valuable than any general advice I could have gotten from Vipe and it is absoluately the only way small companies can compete against entrenched encumbants.
So – read all the business advice you can get your hands on. But don’t blindly follow this advice at the expense of what you think is best for your business.
And spend your time seeking out companies in as similar a situation as you are and use those relationships to help guide you and grow your business.
Thats all from me!