How Much, When and How to Charge

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One of the dilemmas I have not sorted through for myself is whether or not to charge the subscribers of FirstCuts, my online ezine, and other publications issued from my firm.

The decision is not a simple one, as I find myself caught between conflicting commitments as a manager of a business, and an investor of my own time and energies.

The first question I think I have to deal with is “What is the purpose of my ezine?”

The ezine started as a way to stay in touch with those who have an interest in the work that we do here at Framework Consulting. That remains the primary purpose. I want a reader to read each issue, and then immediately want to pass it on to other Caribbean managers at all levels.

The second purpose is to give people superior value for the time they invest in reading each issue, and the price they pay to receive it.

The third is to provide a source of leads for potential projects. I hope that a subscriber will think about some topic I have discussed in the ezine and call me to see if I have an interest in getting involved.

So far so good.

Lately, however, I have become increasingly aware that people value what they pay for. Or, at least I know that I do. I pay more attention, my standards rise and I expect more simply because I pay a nominal amount.

Therefore, I have been wondering if I should charge for the newsletter to help establish the fact that it is not being produced for free.

But before getting much further, I should put to bed the idea that I ever think that the newsletter will earn a great deal of money. I cannot imagine that, given the narrow range of topics, that the total number of subscribers will ever exceed a few hundred. Also, the purpose is not for it to generate a profit by itself. Instead, its main business purpose is to generate leads.

The cost to produce the newsletter includes the cost of the subscriber service I use (Aweber.com) which sets me back about US$30 per month or so. I plan to engage the services of an editor in the future, which I estimate will cost around $50-100 per issue.

The time it takes to craft the content, and to manage the delivery is considerable, however.
My estimates are as follow:
Writing and editing – 10 hours
Delivery Management – 3 hours

That is quite a bit of time to spend each month, out of an already very busy schedule.

Another complicating factor is that Caribbean people are not as comfortable with the idea of using a credit card on the internet as their counterparts in North America. I am yet to see a single Caribbean company even offer the alternative of internet payments.

By requiring an internet charge, I could well be erecting a barrier that most would have a hard time overcoming, not because they perceive that the price is too high, but because they are unwilling to go through the hassle of using, say, PayPal.

I believe that the answer for me right now is not to charge, but to remind subscribers that there is a cost that is being incurred, and a fee that is being waived. I will revisit this when either

  1. paying over the internet becomes more of an acceptable method for Caribbean managers
  2. one of the costs of producing the ezine rises dramatically
  3. it fails to meet the business objective of producing leads

Therefore, for at least another year, I will waive the price of subscription.

The Right to a Job

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One of the great laments I have about those who run our government in Jamaica is that precious few of our leaders have run their own companies.

There is something sobering about running a business – a real one, with its ups and downs, cash-flow requirements, weekly payroll to meet and taxes to pay. Economies rely on entrepreneurs and business owners who are willing to expand their companies so that they help to grow GDP, reduce unemployment and give people hope for the future.

I recently read an article by Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine that gave me pause for thought, and convinced me that the situation that prevails in France is one that we Jamaicans would do well to avoid at all costs.

His essay, (Time, April 17, 2006), includes the following excerpt:

Millions of young people and trade unionists, joined by some underclass opportunists looking for a good night out, have taken to the streets again. To rise up against what? In massive protest against a law that would allow employers to fire an employee less than 26 years old in the first two years of his contract.

Basically, French youth were protesting against what some called “precariousness.” They essentially wanted the law to continue to protect them from being fired. They wanted “an absolute guarantee from the state that their very first job will be for life, with no one to challenge them for it,” according to Krauthammer.

The result of this law? Unemployment of 10%. Among young people under 26, it is 23%. One in ten kids who leave high school don’t have a job five years after taking the baccalaureate.

Furthermore, in France, not a single enterprise founded in the past 40 years has managed to break into the ranks of the nation’s biggest companies.

Krauthammer rightly notes that precariousness goes hand in hand with the very idea of being an entrepreneur – although that word has somehow become a dirty one in France. Instead, they have a country in which 76% of 15-to-30-year-olds say they aspire to civil service jobs from which it is almost impossible to be fired.

This is something – young people who are fighting for life to be made less risky, and for the government to take care of them not when they are old, or infirm, but when they are at the prime of their energy.

This all sounds to me to be upside down, and as a business owner it seems unthinkable. The worst employees I have hired or worked with are those who attempted to buffer themselves against life’s risks in inordinate ways.

When I left AT&T Bell Labs to start my own company in 1993, I did so at a time when it was the pre-eminent research facility in the world, bar none. Nobel Prize winners worked in the same building, and the perks accorded to its members made for quite an easy life for its basic researchers, systems engineers and technicians. Friends of mine at the time warned me that I might be making a mistake, and that they were opting for the safer route.

If they knew now what we all know then they may well have chosen differently.

Within a few years, AT&T was split into parts, including the members of the old Bell Labs. The name “Bell Laboratories” was passed on to Lucent Technologies, which only recently brought itself back from the brink of bankruptcy after cleaning up some massive fraud, forcing it to restate its earnings.

The division I worked for with hundreds of others no longer exists. The name Bell Labs is hardly heard nowadays – it is only a shadow of the proud entity that once existed.

In other words, my colleagues that stayed for the “safety” ended up being cast to the wind, at the whims of forces they could not control, and possessing only obsolete skills that were perfect for the old AT&T, and irrelevant in the real world.

A friend of mine who also worked in the Labs says that one of the best things that ever happened to him was that his division came close to being disbanded shortly after he joined in the late 1980’s. The few months of uncertainty taught him (much earlier than the rest of our colleagues, including myself) that he could not rely on the company, and needed to start his own. This he did, several times, until one worked.

He recently sold it for a tidy profit.

Here in the Caribbean we do not have the stifling laws of the French, although we do have unions that are quite aggressive in their defense of worker’s rights. At times, their aggression is misplaced, and they can end up defending rights that should not be defended.

My concern is that our leaders of government who have never run companies do not understand the nature of business, and when they start to support the individual’s “right to a job” they do not understand what they are saying. It seems to me that a job is a privilege, not a right, and that a person has as much right to job as they do to a spouse.

The French laws are promoting a lie, and the French people are paying for its promotion in high unemployment and stagnant growth.

As a business-owner, if faced with that law I can freely confirm that I would simply never hire employees covered by that law.

Working with McKinsey – Smart people

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I have had the fortune over the years to work alongside consultants at McKinsey & Co, both on project teams and as a member of the faculty for one of their training programmes.

McKinsey is just about the highest ranked consulting firm in the world, and charges just aboutthe highest rates to its clients.

One of the justifications that the firm has for charging the rates is does is that they hire the best and the brightest through an exhaustive process that begins with recruiting at the very best schools of all kinds. While they traditionally have hired business school graduates, they also now take people from all academic backgrounds, including doctors, lawyers and engineers.

What I have found, is the one thing they all have in common is what McKinsey people call “smart.” The highest compliment that one can get from another McKinsey-ite is that “he/she is _really_ smart.”

This particular evaluation has always struck me as a bit peculiar, but not only because McKinsey is the first place that I heard it.

In other workplaces, I have heard other values being expressed: “he/she is really nice” or “he/she is really cool” or “he/she is really down to earth.”

But “smart” as the single most important attribute still sounds a bit strange to me.

Why so?

Maybe because I think that being smart is just not enough, if it ever was. Someone who is smart is able to do well on exams, solve complex problems, get good scores on tests, learn abstract theories, and do other IQ-based tasks with ease. They may even be articulate, well-spoken and have a tremendous vocabulary.

However, that is very different than having a high EQ – Emotional Quotient – which is defined very differently, and I think, perhaps even more important that just being smart.

From Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Quotient, he defined 5 emotional competencies:

  1. The ability to identify and name one’s emotional states and to understand the link between emotions, thought and action.
  2. The capacity to manage one’s emotional states — to control emotions or to shift undesirable emotional states to more adequate ones.
  3. The ability to enter into emotional states (at will) associated with a drive to achieve and be successful.
  4. The capacity to read, be sensitive to, and influence other people’s emotions.
  5. The ability to enter and sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships.

These are not God-given skills, and thankfully they are unlike IQ-based skills in that they can be learned and developed.

In fact, the most potent consultants at McKinsey seem to be the ones who are committed to developing these competencies throughout their careers.

They might be the smartest McKinsey-ites of all.

P.S. To those who have been around the firm, the picture above is frighteningly typical!

FirstCuts 6.0 — Trinidadian Executive Study

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FirstCuts Framework Consulting logo

A Framework Consulting Online eZine

High-Stake Interventions — New Ideas Issue 6 December 27, 2006

Trinis Coming to Jamaica
by Francis Wade

Editorial

I decided to write a shorter version of FirstCuts from vacation here on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

My trip here has been interesting, as this is truly a country of contrasts that is in the middle of a mighty transition. What is obvious is that south.. they are taking this quite seriously.

A recent trip to the Apartheid Museum taught me how seriously they take the business of bridging cultural differences. When my niece sang the national anthem I could see how hard they have worked to create common ground — the anthem has four verses, sung in four languages, in two entirely different tunes.

At the same time, our recently concluded study indicates that we West Indian managers often mistakenly assume that we can overlook our cultural differences. As we discovered in our research, Trinidadian managers did this to their detriment when they arrived in Jamaica in the late 1990’s to assume control of Jamaican companies.

The study was based on interviews of Trinidadian executives who have worked in Jamaica. The data we gathered focused on their experience of managing and running companies in a very different cultural environment.

In the report, which runs to some 16 pages of findings and recommendations, we describe the phases that executives go through when they come to work in Jamaica, and also how they should prepare themselves to survive and then succeed.

At the very least Trinidadian executives can take a page from the book of the South Africans: cultural differences are real, and bridging them well takes concentrated effort. Possibly the worst posture to take is to assume that these differences are minor,
because this is often construed as a mindset of arrogance.

This was certainly the reaction of Jamaicans working for the Trinidadian managers who fell into this trap.

Francis

*
Next Steps
~~~~~~~~~~
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More on a Likkle Man

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Growing from being a Likkle Man performing a service or selling a product in the Caribbean means more than just expanding the top or revenue line of the business.

The pathway for growth must include some basics – there has to be a market, and there has to be some basic means of supplying it.

Beyond these basics, there must exist a company that is able to provide what the market needs. This is where the Likkle Man typically runs into problems, and has no clue how to get himself out of it.

A business can grow by just being in the right place at the right time – in other words, from luck. A friend of mine just happened to be selling roller-blades in Austin Texas, when no-one knew what they were. Then, all of a sudden one Christmas, everyone had to have one under the tree and she sold enough roller-blades to make a tidy profit.

However, most companies are not lucky. Their growth comes from careful cultivation of a market, and the organic growth of their capabilities to meet that market.

In one sense, my friend from Austin was “lucky.” However, she also told me that she spent several months giving away free classes in roller-blading at a time when no-one was interested in the sport. In other words, she systematically created the demand for the product by giving people an experience of it, at a time when no-one would pay for the classes.

She gradually built up an organization that could take advantage of the sudden demand that kicked off what became national fad.

And that is what the Likkle Man must do – build up an organization that will enable his company to create demand and take advantage of it. This is where the Jamaican entrepreneur is weak.

Based on my experience working in the region and beyond I would say that we Jamaicans have no problems dreaming big, and envisioning what a business idea can become. The challenge comes when the dreams must be translated into an organization that must deliver the product or service reliably.

The typical entrepreneur’s approach is to do it all themselves, and then hopefully find someone else who is willing to learn to do it themselves to pass it on to (often an heir). However, the problem with this approach, unknown to many entrepreneurs is that this approach keeps the company at about the same small size.

While there is nothing wrong with being a Likkle Man forever, a lack of growth does less than it could for owners, employees, customers and countries. Most company owners are not interested in remaining small.

However, it is fair to say that they do not know what it takes to grow and develop their organizations to be anything other than small.

The good news is that this is one of the skills of entrepreneurship that can be taught. The work done by Michael Gerber, author of The eMyth books, is a method that I continue to use years after reading his original book, and has the simplest and best prescription on how to develop an organization over time.

Even a Likkle Man who has no desire to grow can use these skills.

When we Caribbean people ask someone if they know a Likkle Man, what we are asking for is only a lower price, not a lower standard of product or service. A Likkle Man such as a shoemaker who operates out of a converted container (like the one I used 3 weeks ago) can use Geber’s techniques to consistently maintain extremely high standards that cause customers to keep coming back, and referring others.

In our region, there is nothing like a high standard to attract attention from customers. This is unfortunate, because so very few businesses are able to produce anything at a high standard.

On the other hand, it makes for lots of low-picking fruit. When the market is used to low standards, a higher standard comes as a welcome surprise, and even a shock. In many of my blogs, I have written about the presence of higher and lower standards indirectly.

The ongoing quest for higher standards of product and service delivery are critical to the entrepreneur’s goals of revenue expansion, market growth and greater profits. This quest is also important to countries, such as Jamaica, that have high unemployment and years of stagnant GDP.

This is where all Caribbean need to be very, very careful to empower the Likkle Man, but demand that he deliver at an ever-increasingly high standard. Perhaps we have failed ourselves by not demanding more.

Slowly writing but not blogging

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My two blogs seem so lonely nowadays.

The irony is that I have been writing more than ever (I think).

What has changed is that I am writing more for publication to my ezine and in white papers, and while I can throw out a blog here and there with little or no editing, I find that I cannot do that with my other publications.

So, I have been writing and writing, and editing and editing. Just as much activity as before, but much less to show for it.

I hope the quality shows, at least!

A Likkle Man

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Here in the region, we delight in finding a “likkle man” who can do something at a fraction of the cost of a much bigger player, at the same perceived level of quality.

Shoes need to be repaired? Take it to the likkle man on the corner. Oil in the car needs to be changed? Take it to the likkle man down the lane.

Empowering the likkle man is an everyday form of rebellion, perhaps going back to plantation days when holding back business from Massa was an imperative. Giving it to the likkle man kept the business in the community.

However, giving business to the small man is only the beginning, and unfortunately, we in the Caribbean are very weak in helping the likkle men around us to turn into big men. We don’t challenge them to achieve high standards.

That is not to say that they are not able to produce samples of high quality. In Jamaica in particular, we have hundreds of artisans in the arts, for example, who are incredibly ingenious.

The problem is that we mistake the importance of technical ability, and vastly underestimate the importance of entrepreneurial ability. Our schools are organized to produce technicians in all fields, and from age 16 a student must narrow down their course of formal study (for life in most cases) to four subject areas and General Paper.

The truth is that educating another lawyer, doctor or accountant is unlikely to contribute much to our GDP. Narrow technical abilities are admirable, but nowhere near as vital to countries in which the large mass of people cannot afford to use them.

What most developing countries need are not more professionals with masters degrees in contract law, but more entrepreneurs who are willing to hire ever increasing numbers of ordinary people.

In the Caribbean, we have developed First World values that have no basis. In other words, we cannot afford to produce more and more sophisticated cardiologists, when the people who need them are selling icy-mints and steering-wheel covers on the corner.

What would it be like if we as a society were to value entrepreneurs, and determined to make their way easy?

What if that ingredient were to be taught in schools as a subject? Included in every profession as a subject to be studied? There could be subjects in medical school, engineering school and law school on starting and running successful small and mid-sized companies.

What would it be like to know that in the bigger picture, the company that creates opportunities for others enables all professions to thrive, all families to eat, and all children to be educated?

As an engineer who started his own company with little or no formal training in entrepreneurship, I made far too many mistakes that could have been avoided. When I graduated, I had no idea I would end up owning my own company, and it was not until my father started his that I could imagine that it was something I ever wanted to do. That was 14 years ago.

It is about time that we not only loved our likkle men, but gave them the environment that they deserve to grow from being likkle. It is about time we gave them the laws they need to be successful, and about time we gave them the support they require to hire the unemployed youths who sit around our corners deciding each day whether or not to join the local gang or not.

Harvard Business Review (ed)

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Is it just me, or has the shine paled on the institution that the Harvard Business Review once was?

It used to be that the articles were weighty, and almost all were worth reading, if only to broaden one’s understanding. I vividly recall reading it from cover to cover, learning about obscure ideas in unfamiliar industries that just might apply to my own. It seemed to regularly give me food for thought, and pointers to great books with powerful ideas that I could use.

Since it moved to a monthly format, however, things changed to my mind.

More lightweight stuff-started to make its way in, and in my field there is a lot of it, consisting of little more than re-treaded ideas said just a little differently. I have found the good articles to be more rare, and the best reading to come from the short “forethought” articles that track new trends, and new ideas. I used to think that the articles were the place to find new ideas, but not so anymore…

Of course, could just be that I am a bit older than when I first started reading the journal in my early twenties. Being forty does change a few things, and it might be that I have been around the block a bit, and heard some of the same ideas over and over.

Maybe it is just a bit of both.

An Employee’s Worst Nightmare

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Life in Caribbean companies can be chaotic. Employees take advantage of the chaos by trusting that managers will forget about half the things they ask for in a matter of minutes. Changing circumstances will render unnecessary a good number of the other requests, leaving employees required to keep track of perhaps only 10% of all the things a managers asks for.

The tricky part is to figure out which 10% is important.

I remember a US executive I once consulted with, who expressed some frustration with his direct reports. They apparently could get little done, leaving him feeling frustrated at their collective lack of progress.

I interviewed his direct reports, who admitted that they freely ignored his first few requests for any action, knowing that he would either forget the request, or resort to making the request of several people at once.

When I asked him about repeating his requests to different people, he freely admitted that he used this practice because “that was the only way to get stuff done around here.”

Did I mention that he was a Senior Vice President, and that his direct reports were all Vice Presidents?

Into this morass of confusion comes a product that a colleague of mine, Scott Hilton-Clarke, has been refining for the better part of the last 6 years.

Executive Slice has been through several iterations, and its latest test release is the most innovative and provocative, which tells me that Scottie is on the right track.

The new promise of the software (which is shared between executives, managers or professionals on the same team) is that it “Prevents Promises from Falling Through the Cracks” (or something quite similar.) It does an amazing job.

What Scottie has done is to imagine the conversational “space” between the members of a team, and the promises that keep things together, or allow them to drift apart.

His thesis (in my words) is that managers have no business trying to remember all the promises that they have made, and others have made of them. They world is moving too quickly, and situations are changing too frequently to even try.

It is no mistake that Scott is a Caribbean consultant, who led the Y2k implementation at Jamaica’s largest bank. He knows a thing or two about managing against a background of chaotic events.

Whereas a manager in North America and Europe might try to reduce the chaos, Scottie seems to understand intuitively that that approach is doomed. Instead of wasting energy in that direction, it seems that he has instead focused on managing the promises that fly around organizations un-managed, and unrecorded.

The chaos will never go away, but we can become highly effective in managing or thriving in spite of it. (From my point of view, this could become a company’s competitive advantage.)

His software offers a powerful way to shape the promisphere, that space of promises and commitments that exists between managers and their reports.

In Executive Slice, promises that are made are immediately captured in the programme, and then “remembered” by the system’s players all the way through completion. As useful as this feature set is, the real power of the system comes after the promise has been made.

The manager to whom the promise has been made has a variety of interesting ways to follow-up on progress, and ask for updates, information and clarification. The system automatically reminds him when promises are overdue, or in limbo.

At some point in the future, it will offer coaching on how to have difficult reporting conversation, and even coaching conversations so that a manager who has two minutes to prepare can do so effectively.

Over time, the effectiveness of both a manager and their reports can be tracked by simply measuring how well they are managing the promises they are making, and the ones they are receiving.

To go back to the example of the Senior Vice President and his hapless Vice Presidents, a reasonable performance review system would show who are the effective and ineffective players in the promisphere.

But let us not be fooled – this is an employee’s worst nightmare, regardless of level. The time is coming, through tools such as Executive Slice, where chaos and change will no longer be good excuses to not get work done.

The 10% game will be over, as will its cousin – the game of working ridiculous hours to fulfill unrealistic deadlines. In its place will come a level of rationality and communication that will help teams to deal with chaos more effectively, and this will be no small blessing for the Caribbean manager.