Motorcycle Diaries: Observations on Business Growth

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My wife and I enjoy going on long motorcycle trips. Not rides. Trips.

One summer we decided to go to go on a long round trip that took us through Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Riding three thousand miles over a period of several days gave me time to think. And observe. And to pick up a few lessons that I’ve shared with clients when helping them with their business growth: some that may be beneficial to you.

1. Create the unexpected

We spent the first night in Salmon, ID. A small town on the Salmon River. For a small town, there are lots of motels available, one that I stayed at when working with a family business just a few months before our ride (NOTE: real motorcycle riders don’t take trips, they take “rides”). Because it was summer, most of the motels by the river were booked. We had to take a chance on some place I had never seen and we couldn’t have been happier.

The Syringa Lodge is on the “other side” of town, away from the river, the main street, the restaurants, the traffic. Sitting on an open field, I was skeptical when I pulled up. Going inside, I was impressed.

In addition to our rustic room, the lodge has several porches overlooking the town and was owned by two wonderful, gracious hosts. Instead of old mattresses, drafty rooms and stifling hallways we had a unique experience in an unusual bed and breakfast.

After our experience, I’ve become a raving fan of the lodge, encouraging people to stay there when they are in the area. So far, everyone who has done so has been equally happy with their stay.

When owning a business, too often the unexpected takes a negative twist. Situations come up that we endure until they pass. It could be a phone call from an unhappy client, or the two-week notice from a key employee, or word that your brother-in-law is moving to town and needs a job. Intuitively we lower our expectations and are surprised to find that the customer wants to buy more product and the key employee was only doing a marginal job and your brother-in-law turns out to be a pretty good guy.

But what if we turned this around? What if we looked at our competition and created something like the Syringa Lodge; something unexpected but in a good, positive way? What if we added an extra touch, a small gift, an personal benefit that our customers or clients did not expect, but enjoyed?
Years ago I was part of a team that was contracted by a national financial advisory firm to “coach” some of their more successful advisors. I was working with the head of a firm in Washington and quickly saw how he had taken the “unexpected” to his clients. From roses, to candy, to gourmet coffee, to having cars washed in the parking lot, to client appreciation nights, to dinners; he made it a point to “spoil those who are spoiling me,” he told me.

More than that, in his “real work” of managing investments and advising clients he had a well-designed system developed with their needs in mind and refined regularly to stay both relevant and fresh.

His commitment to the “unexpected” is helping his practice grow; a growth driven by the referrals made from his clients.

2. Invest in the right places

You can’t eat the ambiance. With that in mind, the next time you find yourself in Salmon, ID, be sure to have dinner at the Junkyard Bistro. It’s a dive. Bad décor. Bad seats. Bad floors. But great food and cold beer. The owners are putting their money in the right places. And it shows.

If you own a business you will always need to buy something. A new computer. Paper. Larger piece of equipment. A 2014 Victory Cross Roads motorcycle (in my case … if I could only get my CFO to sign off on it).

In the book, The Innovator’s DNA the authors remind us that when we spend money we are actually “hiring” something that is beneficial or valuable to us. We “hire” Ford or GM or Lexus to give us transportation or status. We “hire” Nike to keep us slim and Budweiser to keep us from worrying about becoming slim.

When helping a healthy company grow I’ll ask a series of questions (Why do you want to grow? How have you tried to grow in the past? What happens if you do not grow?). The conversation can be lively, encouraging, frustrating … all at the same time. But it usually stops when I ask, “Why do people hire you?” “What benefit do you bring to them?” and “How does your capital investment plan help you deliver what your customers/clients want?”

The owners of the Junkyard Bistro get this. So they decided to invest in great food and recipes and beverages and service. They know that their customers don’t go there for a nice, romantic meal. They want unusual food that is well prepared.

3. Watch out for short-cuts

For the first time on one of our cross country rides I decided to use a GPS. My wife could not understand why since I had already printed maps and memorized the route. She still had a few questions when I explained the GPS as a “guy thing;” like having a bunch of tools that I never use but want to have if I ever need them. Like a router.

Of course, I don’t understand why she needs more than three pairs of shoes (brown, black and running) but I don’t ask.

We left Salmon for Park City, UT. At more than 400 miles this would be our longest day on the bike. The weather was clear. The roads were dry. We made great time until we hit Salt Lake City. Then, for some reason, the voice of the woman on my GPS directed me off the freeway and into the city. Or, more accurately, onto a number of neighborhoods and side streets.

After several minutes the voice of the woman behind me wanted to know why we were riding through residential neighborhoods, past schools and around shopping malls. And the Temple!

It turns out that it was my fault (NOTE: usually when things like this happen it is because of something I either did that I shouldn’t have, did not do that I should have, or none of the above but which I take the responsibility for). When I programmed my GPS I set it up to take the shortest route to Park City. Not the fastest.

The shortest route added an extra hour to an already long day.

At some point, all of us have tried to find a short path through a difficult challenge only to find that we’ve wasted time or money or people. Usually it’s because we confuse activity for productivity; thinking that doing “something” was better than doing nothing.

It’s easy to do. At one point I reduced the importance of strategy while increasing that of execution. “Doing” helped to get things done. Which is true. But like my GPS setting, an over emphasis on “doing” (shortest) can be costly.

For example, before starting a corporate renewal (performance) project I take time to review the overall condition of the company. This determines the pace we need to take to effect lasting and positive change. If the business is in trouble (distressed) we work quickly, decisively and – to a large extent – autocratically. In a matter of days we may need to replace managers, create strict financial controls, design and begin implementing a business plan. Our GPS is set to the “shortest” and “fastest” route.

But when the crisis is over, we change our settings to something more appropriate for a company that is underperforming or has stopped growing. There we work at a more deliberate pace, collaborating with leaders – even as the enterprise is restructured – to ensure understanding, support and success. We still need to fix the problem, but not by supper.

Knowing the true condition of the business or practice is essential to setting the right pace for the most effective solution.

Conclusion

Enhancing your services, investing in what customers want, finding the right pace; these simple lessons apply to any business. Putting them in place may take time (a long ride), or bring you to some unfamiliar (or unwanted) neighborhoods. But if you stick with it – keep riding – you’ll create your own stories of a journey that is more rewarding than the ride I took last summer.

A ride that I’ll probably repeat. With a new destination. And new lessons. But not until I learn how to use my GPS.

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