Archive : September 2011

Getting Your Business to that Elusive ‘Next Level’

Posted September 22, 2011

When you’re in school they make it pretty clear what it takes for you to move up to the next grade: do your homework, pass your finals and maintain a certain grade point average, and off you go.  Out in the workplace, it gets a little harder, but in most companies you can also find a rough road map on how to move up, what the next level is in terms of job titles and what you need to do to get there.

Alas, when it comes to running or owning a business, it ain’t so easy, which is why the most common complaint I hear from other business owners is about their inability to get to that elusive “next level”.

The first question I ask in response is, “describe what that next level looks like to you,” and you’d be surprised at how often that actually stumps people.  But it’s really important, because without knowing where you want to go, how will you know if you get there?  It’s like the old bicycle analogy: you can pedal as hard as you want on the back tire, but if the front tire is pointed in the wrong direction, you’re lost.

The “next level”, of course, means different things to different people.  Invariably, many answers include financial metrics such as increasing sales, increasing profits, improving margins, etc., or customer metrics such as landing bigger clients, or more high profile clients, etc.   Getting there, involves two exercises: a road-map exercise, and a skills assessment exercise.

Road Map Exercise

  1. The 1st step is to hone in on these factors, and attach some numerical and qualitative goals to each, so we know what that next level looks like.   Let’s say your event company has been at $1 million in sales for several years, and you want to get to $2 million.
  2. Next we would break this down.  Let’s say your $1 million business comes from doing 40 events at $25,000 each.  To get to $2 million, you can either look to double the number of events (e.g. 80 events x $25k ea.); or double the size of each event (e.g. 40 events x $50k ea.), or some combination of both.
  3. So what does your company need to look like to service that kind of income.  For example, from an execution standpoint, if the answer to #2 is to double the number of projects, we’d probably need to add account managers/event planners, or perhaps hire more assistants to support the ones you already have.  If the answer was instead to double the size of your projects, we might explore adding additional services to offer clients, or having planners with deeper skill sets to service these bigger clients.  The point is to visualize your company at this next level, then reverse-engineer a plan for getting there.
  4. This is an over-simplification of course, and only focuses on the execution aspect.  You’d have to extend this exercise into marketing, finance, management and other areas, figure out how fast you can afford to grow, etc.

Skills Assessment Exercise

Even if you can create a clear road map for getting to the next level in the above exercise, however, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lead your business there.  The reason is that the skills required to start up a business are different from the skills needed to take an existing business to its second level.  And those skills are different from the skills needed to take a company to its third level, sell the company, take it public, etc.  At each phase the game changes, and the skills needed to excel change with it.  Much like a reptile sheds its skin as it grows, so a business needs a new infrastructure when it grows.

This is probably the single biggest reason companies struggle to get to the next level.  They assume simply doing more of the same, or doing it faster or bigger, will yield the desired results.  Big leaps forward, however, usually require substantial changes in how you operate.

For example, a $25,000 event usually has no written RFP.  The specs are delivered verbally, and your proposal can be done on Word.  To go after a$500,000 event, on the other hand, you’ll need to plow through a 20 page RFP and your proposal will likely need custom illustrations, professional quality copy writing, graphic design and possibly animations in order to win the job.  The event budget alone will take at least 10 hours to put together, and you’ll likely be asked for your company’s sustainability policy, detailed bios on your staff, an org chart of your production team, etc.  Plus, the selling process takes a while to even generate the RFP in the first place.  And there’s a good chance you’ll need to upgrade to a higher level of staff in order to land and produce an event of this caliber.

If it seems like a big investment is needed to get to the next level in this example, well, that’s because it probably is.  But at least now you know you can’t get there by simply “pushing harder” within your existing framework.

If the Events Industry Disappeared Tomorrow, Would It Matter?

Posted September 11, 2011

What we do in the events industry doesn’t matter in the world.  Well, not much anyway.  If you’re waiting for my typical sarcastic follow up line, it’s not coming.  Sorry.

That’s what the ten year anniversary of 9/11, or any truly sobering moment, does to me.  It makes me realize how little what we do truly matters in the world.  I get the same feeling when I hear someone I know has died, been diagnosed with a terrible illness, lost their job, etc.  In those moments of reflection, if someone came up to me and asked what I did for a living, I terribly wished I could have said something more useful to society than event planning.  Doctor, teacher, CIA counter-terrorist analyst, etc.

Make no mistake, we are not alone.  Probably 80% of the jobs people have in the world provide little benefit to society.  A hedge fund analyst trying to guess which way some random stock is going.  A marketing expert coming up with a zippy campaign to sell more hand lotion.  The person who designed the pleated drapes that hang in my living room which I hate.  If these jobs disappeared tomorrow, would society be much worse off?

I vividly remember one TV broadcaster reporting from ground zero shortly after the towers fell.  She was holding up a ream of paper she’d picked up from the debris, spread sheets with analysis on them.  “How important did this seem just hours ago?,” she said.  The camera zoomed in to see an endless parade of tiny numbers stacked in neat little columns.  It then pulled back for a wide angle shot of thousands of such dust-strewn papers blowing around all over the place.  A sea of detritus that seemed to mock us for having focused so intently on such minutiae.

Depressed?  Climb in back off the ledge of your building.  It gets better.

Andrea Michaels, owner of Extraordinary Events in LA, one of the most award-winning companies in the world, is one of the icons of our industry.  She was also born in a concentration camp during World War II.  This is one of the more touching revelations she shared with me in a video interview we conducted for the Event Leadership Institute’s Maverick Series.  She uses this experience to ground her, to put everything we do as planners in proper perspective.

Interview with Andrea Michaels, Extraordinary Events
Chapter 9 of 14: “On Being Born in a Concentration Camp
Running time: 02:56

To watch the full interview click here

And that, ultimately, is what I take away from these somber moments in life.  Perspective.  Because, my fellow planners, we can ALL, use a bit more perspective in our world.  To quote from Andrea, “A hurricane forces you to evacuate 300 multi millionaires, do I stress out? Do I care about a wilted flower?  If the drummer is 15 minutes late do I think the world changes?  Absolutely not.” These are all important to our events, to be sure, but they don’t quite measure up to removing the wrong kidney from a transplant patient, or misreading the water level during a shift at a nuclear plant.

    You get we’re I’m going with this?  I’m not saying what we do doesn’t matter.  It does.  Events inspire, educate, inform, recognize and celebrate so many facets of our personal and professional lives.  Whenever we come across a milestone occasion, we create an event to mark it in a special way.  Yes, we matter.  Just not in a life-or-death way.  And that recognition can empower us, liberate us, to give our work the perspective it needs, to help us focus on our craft without getting sidetracked by unnecessary anxiety over the little things.

    Socrates said “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” I take that to mean that when we get too busy, it’s easy for the truly important things in our life to get lost in the shuffle, and for us to lose our proper perspective.  On this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us pull back and inject some perspective back into our lives.

    Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

    Posted September 2, 2011

    If you’re like me, you’re constantly frustrated by not getting all the things done that are on your To Do list.  Figuring out what to do is the easy part for us, and we simply assume that putting it on that list is all it takes to ensure completion.  Bzzzzz!  Wrong answer!  Johnny, show our contestants what they win just for playing our game!

    Alas, our To Do lists are the fly paper of business; they’re so sticky they indiscriminately attract all kinds of things, and once something’s stuck there it’s hard to come off.  Peeling them off is so elusive, tons of productivity gurus have written books on how to get things done.

    One of the most insightful I’ve found is a book by Steven Covey called “First Things First”.  In my class on Prospecting for New Business, I talk about perhaps the most illuminating part of the book, the Four Quadrants.  (For more info on this see my earlier blog post).   The idea is to force yourself to schedule things that are important, but not necessarily time-sensitive.

    Not All Hours Are Created Equal

    However, as helpful as that is, some tasks require different amounts of creativity, energy, intelligence, etc. than others, and unfortunately our levels of those traits vary greatly throughout the day.  Some people are sluggish in the morning and are at their productive peak in the afternoon; for others it’s the reverse.  The key is knowing your own rhythms and scheduling your tasks to best suit them.

    Schedule your most important, complex, and creative tasks (proposals, blog posts, client meetings, etc.) for when you are the most energized and clear-headed.  Move the monotonous yet simple tasks (data entry, basic bookkeeping, expense reports, etc.) to your sluggish periods.

    For another example, in her class on Catering Creativity, Stella Ballarini suggests that if you’re hitting a creative wall when it comes to menu planning, shift gears and focus on drink options instead, which are invariably much simpler.

    Avoid ‘Switching Time’

    Jed Weinstein, of WCMG Events, turned me onto a great article by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in the Harvard Business Review called “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”.   The authors identify a number of tactical suggestions for productivity improvements, and after tracking them through a group of loan officers at Wachovia, found that the group that implemented their methods improved performance by over 20% vs. the control group.

    One of their suggestions is to avoid distractions.  They found that “a temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance—increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time.” It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”

    I’ll take this a step further, and suggest that once you get your head into a creative mode, for example, you stay there and bang out as many things requiring creative input as you can.  It takes a while to shift gears, so why not knock out a second blog post while you’re still in a creative writing mood, for instance?

    Replenish Productive Energy Levels

    You can also replenish your energy level during the day as well.  Simply taking a break to walk around the block without making calls or checking emails can renew your productive energy significantly.  It may seem paradoxical that you can be more productive by cutting out 20 minutes of work time to clear your head, but it’s true.

    If you take one thing away from this post, it should be to move away from the concept of managing your time during the day as a uniform commodity.  All your working hours are not equal, and by simply understanding that you have some parts of the day where you’re more productive than others, and then matching those hours to tasks requiring similar energy levels, you’ll both accomplish more, and feel better about it in the process.