Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life: grow your own 360 degree listening skills

A few years ago, Terry was in the lucky position of being able to employ 4 new people early on in the life of his dry cleaning business in Bristol. He got their job descriptions clear, worked on bonding the team, consulted on the vision and devised a plan for the following three years which was to drive the business into the land of milk and honey.

His efforts to develop a listening and consulting culture were so effective that everyone cheerfully added their thr’pence on every conceivable decision: the office biscuits, the colour of the reception furniture and whether or not the vision of the company was the right one at all.

A couple of staff were unimpressed with the dry cleaning business and thought the company should move into website design, as after all, they argued, the Internet was where everything was at those days – and dry cleaning was a bit of a specialist field that wasn’t that interesting to them and which they didn’t really get anyway.

Terry listened to their views which were persuasively put with some sympathy, trying as he did to listen to all view points at all times.

Trouble is though, that in listening to everyone around him, he turned down the volume on listening to his own multiple voices which were also looking at things from all angles – his 360 degree voices – but which were ultimately urging him to specialise further in the dry cleaning business as this would have given him a unique advantage in the market.

He reached a critical moment where the opportunity for a business development grant meant that the company had to decide whether it diversified into website design or continued to specialise in dry cleaning. The external voices all around him yelled ‘diversify’; his own 360 degree voices whispered ‘specialise’.

It was a hard decision to take as there were compelling arguments on both sides and he finally agreed to listen to those louder, external voices and invested the grant into an impressive suite of computer hard and software as opposed to the more specialised kit required to improve his core dry cleaning business.

Now of course, a couple of years later when the digital world became completely inundated, Terry has found himself with a pile of obsolete computer kit which he can’t use as the skills needed to implement the diversification didn’t come in the computer boxes. Lots of nice shiny aluminium boxes and glossy software downloads – but no skills.

The advantage he had in the dry cleaning has been lost as others have stepped into that market place and he now finds himself back at square one having to reinvent the business from scratch.

The staff who weren’t interested in dry cleaning have long since left the business taking their noisy opinions with them; and it’s only now, 3 years on has he realised that those 360 degree voices in his head were right all along. His core business should have been refined even further with that grant; not become confused by well meaning pragmatic attempts to respond to a foreign market place.

It’s been a tough lesson to learn – and hindsight is always everyone’s best friend – but it will at least mean that phase two of the business will be driven by the multiple voices in Terry’s head and not the competing caterwauling of well intentioned colleagues.

Tips for Business Start Ups: 5 things your MBA won’t teach you. And 1 it will.

If you’re about to set up a new business then you need to know that you’re not about to enter a Newtonian type universe where every cause has an effect or where every action has a reaction. You’re joining the slippy sloppy world of quantum mechanics where minor variations in inputs have surprising unplanned and unexpected consequences on your outputs. You’ll need to be reading up on chaos theory soon.

But if you don’t have the time to wade through complexity, strange attractors and topological mixing, then here are 6 essential tips to prepare you for those next strange journeys you are about to encounter.

1. Working hard doesn’t necessarily get rewarded. You can work your backside off over many years but it’s a guarantee of nothing. There’s no straight forward logic between effort and reward.

2. The market place is not a fair equitable system which is built upon civilising values of integrity, honesty and balance. Markets are not like super-bazaars where there’s a variety of stalls selling you 7 sorts of trinkets. They’re imagined, fluid and fickle apparitions which wander Second Life. You’ll be dealing with 2 dimensional avatars not 3 dimensional people in those virtual spaces. Avatars have questionable ethics, suspect memories and indefinable bank accounts. They’re not who they say they are, they don’t do what you think they’re doing.

3. It’s not what you know, it’s not who you know either. No, it’s what you imagine that will get you through the days. What you know is probably outdated; who you know was another avatar from another second life. You can at least trust your own imagination as it resides in your mind and body, not anyone else’s.

4. Be clear what your targets are. Proper targets are things like what time you get up in the morning, how much sugar you put in your coffee and what time the bar’s open. These are knowable, quantifiable and achievable. Concepts such as wealth, love, happiness are not targets at all but mirages with a mind of their own. They will come (or not) to you when they’re ready, not when you decide you want them.

5. Will there always be trade? To paraphrase what Milo Mindbender in Catch 22 was fond of saying? No, there will always be a desire for selling and buying and pretending to buy and sell. Whether there is any actual buying and selling is another matter altogether. There will always be pretence, mirage and unexpected consequences.

6. Cash is king. This is true.