Why Our Favorite Questions Keep Us On The Treadmill

The Four Short-term Q’s

There are six basic questions we ask in business, but we only love the first four. We ask those four all the time. We’re consumed with them:

What – What do we sell?
Who – Who do we sell it to? (or for English majors – to whom do we sell it?)
How – How do we market it?
Where – Where do we sell it?
…or other versions of the four.

We use those four questions to create, innovate, clarify, repeat the same activity every day, stall and do nothing, pay the mortgage, and in general, to run our business.

The Four Treadmill Questions
But there is something inherently wrong with these four questions – they will never get us off the treadmill. Why? Because they are most often used to help us make money right now, and anything that focuses us on making money NOW is likely to keep us on the treadmill and make it harder to build a business down the road that makes money when we’re not around. These four questions help us a lot in the short-term, but very little or not at all in the long-term.

Why, “Why”? And When, “When”?
There are two other questions that we don’t like so much, but are a lot more helpful to growing a business in the long term:

When – The Second Least Asked, Second Most Important Question in Business
When should be asked every time you asked the first four – “When” will you… →figure out “what” to sell, “who” you sell it to, “how” you will market it, “where” you will sell it?, etc. We don’t like “when” because it holds us accountable, creates metrics that demonstrate clearly how we’re doing, and makes us work when we feel like goofing off (“sorry, got a deadline, need to keep going”).

Why – The Least Asked, Most Important Question in Business
We don’t like why at all. We don’t know how to ask it, it’s too fuzzy, it takes a lot of energy to answer, but most importantly, it doesn’t seem to make us much money right NOW. But “why” is the question that is most likely to build a business LATER that makes money when we’re not around. And the best way to build a business LATER is to ask “Why” NOW with every one of the other five questions, including “When”. (When will I do it? Why then?)

Three Whys to Every Other Question
Want to get off the treadmill? Any time you ask what, who, how, where and even when, ask why. The best habit would be to ask at least two to three “whys” to every other question. (What do I sell? Why do I sell it? Why not sell x instead?)

If you only ask the first four questions, you are likely to only make enough money to pay your mortgage. If you ask the last two, “when” and “why”, every time you ask the others, you are likely to build a business a real that makes money when you’re not around.

Get off the treadmill. Ask when and why all the time.

We don’t know HOW to get where we’re going.

Neither do you.

A few years ago the Fortune 500 CEOs were all surveyed and ask this question:

“What is your greatest fear?”

The #1 answer – “I’m afraid I will be found out to not know what I’m doing.”

I’ve started seven businesses. None of them have crashed and burned (yet), but I got out of a few because they were bad ideas that weren’t going anywhere, and in some cases barely breaking even. A couple made decent money and grew well, and we sold one to the largest company in that particular industry. Right now we have two businesses growing internationally, one of them on four continents that has the potential of changing the game for small and local business owners worldwide. It grew 392% in the last four years.

So it’s nice to be able to claim a decent track record: to date – so far. And yet I have to be honest and say that when it comes to getting where we want to end up, I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m pretty comfortable with that, because I’m just as sure you don’t, either.

Utter Clarity by Groping Our Way to the Light
I do have a pretty sane assessment of where we are (most business owners don’t), and I know with Utter Clarity where we want to end up, but I have no grand plan to get from where we are to where we want to end up a few years from now. The journey is not mapped out and the path ahead is full of Intuitive Guesses yet to be made. It’s not going to be easy, and there is no such thing as going on auto-pilot and watching this business fly itself.

Just like the Fortune 500 CEOs, I’m making this up as I go along. But since I don’t have nervous investors, unlike them, I don’t have to pretend I know what I’m doing. I can say, “I don’t know” out loud.

It’s okay to not know how we’re going to get all the way from where we are to where we want to be. In the real world, business owners don’t become successful by a grand vision, a genius scheme, a fail-safe product, or a five-year business plan (also known as voodoo & fortune telling). As Bill Hewlett of HP said, they had no business plan in the early days when they got moving, they were just being opportunistic and doing whatever they could to grope their way to the light.

As We Go, Not Before – The Intuitive Guess
We will grow this business not by having it figured out, but by figuring it out as we go. We will not get to Utter Clarity by digging a canal, lining it with concrete and floating to our reward, but by a thousand changes in a thousand directions, relentlessly doing whatever we have to, adapting however we must in order to get to our ocean.

All we get to know along the way is where we are, where we want to end up (Utter Clarity), and an Intuitive Guess at what we should do next to get there. And we’ll be “wrong” a lot (we already have been)– that’s how we’ll find out what we should really be doing. We’ll get our maps when we’re done, just like any explorer.

You’re going to do it the same way. Welcome to building a business. Stop trying to figure out HOW to get all the way from where you are to where you want to be. Know exactly where you are, and get Utter Clarity about where you intend to end up, then make one short-range decision that you think might help you get to the end game. Take the feedback the world will give you from making that decision, and do it all over again.

A Thousand Little Hows, Not One Big How
Don’t waste time trying to figure out how you’ll get all the way from where you are to where you want to be – as if there is one big “how” that would answer that. Get Utter Clarity about where you want to go, then be comfortable asking a thousand little “hows” along the way to get there. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just have to know where you’re going. That’s enough. Anything more would spoil the adventure anyway.

Three magic words: “I don’t know”.
Use them often. They will guide you to the next little “how”, and all the way to where you want to be.

How: the worst, most asked planning question

How now, never later.

It’s a terrible long-range planning question, but we love to ask “HOW will we get from where we are to our three year objective?” Asking HOW ensures nothing remarkable will happen and is much more likely to lead you to disaster.

Business planning gurus and academics love to teach us to answer all the outstanding questions before we get moving. And “how” we get from where we are to where we want to be is stressed above all else.

Life Happens
The problem is life. It keeps getting in the way of our best plans, and no matter how well we plan how to get where we want to go, as soon as we start moving, the world and life starts messing with our plan. It simply never works out anything like we planned, and the farther out we are planning, the less likely it is to work out.

A Harvard researcher found that 97% of all businesses leave their prime objective in order to be objective. The world’s greatest past and present businesses (Apple, Google, Facebook, HP, 37signals, etc.) all started out to do something other than what they ended up doing. And none of them did much pre-planning, if any.

Even among those few that wasted time pre-planning, they all took a left turn fairly early on to make money. Ben and Jerry put together a nice plan to make bagels, then they went out to buy a bagel machine and found they were expensive. The bagel machine salesman told them ice cream machines were less expensive, so we have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream instead of bagels.

Strategic vs. Tactical
“How” is not a strategic question. It shouldn’t be asked in long ranging planning. That doesn’t make it irrelevant. It is a great short-term, tactical question. Once you figure out where you want to be three years from now, ask “How will I get from where I am to the next step?” Use “how” to answer one step at at time on the way to your long-range objective.

Use “how” only in the short term pre-planned how to get all the way from non-existent to being a $2billion company, and never wavered from their great plan. They went bankrupt a few years later, taking all $2billion in investor’s money with them. Like Webvan, answering the long-range “how” is much more likely to make us think we’ve got it all figured out, and will keep us from responding to the cues from the real world that always lead us to success. Remarkable things come from answering short-term “how”. Disaster is more likely when answering long-term “how”.

Never use “how” for long-range planning. Use “why”, “where” and “when” for the long-range stuff. Once you know exactly where you want to end up and when, then ask “How do get from where I am to the next step?” Come up with a plan to get through the next few weeks, then ask short-term “how” again. And do it a thousand times on the way to your objective.

A Thousand Short-term “hows”
Life and business are to fluid to ask long-term “how”. Keep “how” for the short term. You’re much less likely to run into problems if you ask a thousand short-term “hows” than if you ask a thousand long-term “hows”.

How now, never later.

Two things a business owner should never do.

The 2nd is worse than the 1st.

One of the worst things you can ever do is write a business plan. But easily the worst thing you could do is follow it. It’s a great way to go out of business. It’s the 97% rule.

97% of all businesses leave their prime objective in order to find the thing that eventually makes them money. Good businesses almost always start with a bad plan.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Harmonica Tuners Gave us Silicon Valley
In the late 1930’s two guys started a company for $538 and were messing around in a garage. They made an automated bowling lane violator, a harmonica tuner, an automated toilet bowl flusher and a few other stupid products. Somebody came along with something called an oscillator and asked them to build it. They didn’t think it was a very good idea, but that bad idea became the first thing they made money at – HP was born and became the foundation of silicon valley.

Model Rockets Gave us the First Personal Computer
In the very early 70’s a couple guys were messing around with a simple automated launching system for model rockets. They put the kit in a magazine and thought they would sell a few dozen. They sold thousands. They used that experience to focus more on technology than on model rockets. In 1975 they put another kit in a magazine for something called the Altair 8800, and thought they would sell a few dozen. It was the first personal computer and it sold thousands. They ended up building the kits and selling them as finished computers. Five years later this stuff became the basis for Microsoft’s Altair BASIC language.

HP Gave us Apple
Around the same time some 12 year old kid called HP and demanded to talk directly with Bill Hewlett because he wanted to buy parts (for his Altair?). Bill took the call, was really impressed and a few years later gave the kid an internship. Later in his life that kid, Steve Jobs, who also met Steve Wozniak at HP, said, “Without HP, there would be no Apple.”

Xerox’s Business Plan Gave Apple the GUI
In 1979 Jobs visited Xerox and saw something called a graphical user interface – GUI. Xerox invented it but couldn’t find it on their business plan, so they sold it to Jobs for $50,000. Bill Gates visited Apple later and poached the idea.

All of this, from the 1930s to the 1980s involving a few dozen people from all walks of life in many different places, came together to give us the personal computer. It wasn’t on a business plan, and the only guys with a business plan – Xerox – ignored it because it wasn’t on their business plan.

Bagels or Ice Cream?
Ben and Jerry make ice cream. What few people know is that the ONLY reason they make ice cream is that a bagel machine was too expensive. They were all set to go into the bagel business but hadn’t bothered to price out the machine. When they did, they found out an ice cream machine would be cheaper, so they did that instead. Wasn’t on the business plan.

Panty Lines or Millions of Dollars?
Sara Blakely looked in the mirror just a few years ago and saw panty lines under her slacks. She couldn’t find underwear that didn’t show, so she started Spanx, which is now a huge international clothing line success. Not a business plan – a mirror.

Webvan Followed Their Plan
In the late 1990’s Webvan decided people would buy groceries on the internet and have them delivered by van. They put together one of the most elaborate and detailed business plans ever concocted, raised $2billion, hired the best talent in the technology and distribution businesses, and followed their business plan right off the end of the earth. They took $2billion of investor money with them – a lot of people were really impressed with their business plan.

Let it Collect Dust!
97% of businesses leave their prime objective to become profitable. Webvan stuck to theirs, none of the others above had one, or if they did, they left it behind as the world interacted with their “plan”. If you can’t help yourself and just have to do a business plan, at least have the common sense to put it on the shelf and ignore it like most people.

You won’t find success in a business plan or in an MBA program. You’ll find it in the trenches by being willing to adapt and execute exceptionally on what may seem ordinary or throw-away ideas.

Do Something.
Ask the successful people. It’s never how good your plan is that matters. It’s how committed you are to the bad plan you’ve got.

Speed of execution. Stop planning. Get moving.

Lewis & Clark – Your Best Business Heros

Maps are over rated.

Don’t look at IBM, Starbucks or Facebook to see how to start and grow a business successfully. The adventures of pioneers Lewis & Clark 208 years ago are the prototype for all of us. Things don’t often work out as we planned. Most often what happens instead is the good stuff.

In May of 1804, Lewis & Clark were given the mission by President Jefferson of finding a water passage from St. Louis to the Pacific ocean. How they approached fulfilling that mission is one of the best business start up examples in history.

Lewis and Clark were masters at planning as you go – what we call the 2.1 Planning Process. They only knew 2.1 things:
1) Where are we? – St. Charles (St. Louis)
2) Where do we want to end up? (the Pacific ocean)
2.1) What are the next few steps? (get a boat, hire a crew, leave)

Just the next few steps
You never get all of step “3)”, which is HOW to get all the way from step 1) to step 2). You only get “2.1)”. Traditional business planning teaches us that HOW you get all the way from 1) to 2) should be planned before you leave. But it’s voodoo, nonsense and fortune telling.

Just like Lewis & Clark, we never get all of step three, and you definitely don’t get it before you leave the dock. All we get is 2.1 – the next few steps.

On the third day of the trip, Lewis and Clark’s main vessel nearly capsized which would have ended the trip. Their experience even on waters others had traveled before was vastly different. Sound familiar? The other guy’s business experience won’t be yours – don’t let him tell you how it should go.

Lewis & Clark planned for the first few miles and could only guess at what they needed to take with them beyond that. All they could do is plan the next few steps and get moving.

Movement beats planning
They took off with 38 men and three boats but could have easily taken 1,000 men and 100 boats. Looking back from the future, we know this wouldn’t have helped them, and all that over-planning would have in fact made it even harder to move quickly, support such a large contingency and survive the winters.

This is where we miss it big time – over-planning before we even get moving. Lewis & Clark only figured out what they needed as each new obstacle presented itself. After planning as best they could for the first few steps, they simply had to be willing to make constant and quick adjustments or they would have perished. Every business has to have the same willingness to get moving and take soundings as you go.

Long-range planning doesn’t work
If you read the adventures of Lewis & Clark it reads like everything from a sappy novel to a National Lampoon comedy to an Indiana Jones movie. No business plan would have uncovered 1/100th of what actually happened.

They thought it would take 12 months, but 2 1/2 years later they stumbled back into St. Louis where people had long since written them off as dead. They thought they would float in big boats all the way to the Pacific but ended up in wagons, then canoes, on horses, walking, back in canoes, back on horses and wagons, all the while hoping they would find locals who they could trade with to get these things. They were making the whole thing up as they went along.

On they way back, only one month from the safety of St. Louis, Lewis was shot in the touche by the near-sighted, blind-in-one-eye Private Cruzatte who thought he was an elk. You just can’t make this stuff up. And you can’t plan for it either.

Pursue the first thing to find the real thing
Businesses almost always find what they will succeed at by failing at their first objective. Lewis & Clark had one main objective, find a navigable passage from the midwest to the Pacific Ocean, connecting the Mississippi to western oceanic trade. They utterly failed in their main objective. Yet pursuing that objective led them to multiple huge successes; mapping thousands of miles of land, treaties with Indians, identifying and naming hundreds of plant and animal species and opening up a whole new land for exploration. They gave courage to a whole generation who would follow in their steps, and rough maps to begin the journey.

And as with any business, those who followed the same route as Lewis & Clark had entirely different adventures. No two businesses can follow the same plan, even in the same industry.

Move the boat, then make the map
But the best correlation between Lewis & Clark’s adventure and your business is the answer to this question:

When did they get their maps?

The answer? When they got back.

Take the first step, then do it again and again
The best way for you to know how your business will unfold is to know exactly where you want to go, leave the dock and get moving, be flexible and adaptable, make it up as you go along, and grab the opportunities as they unfold. The thing you thought would be your main business will almost certainly grow into something you could have never seen from the dock.

Don’t know what to do to get all the way from here to there? Figure out what the next step is, even if it is a guess, and do it. Then do it again and again. Always know exactly where you want to end up, and take a thousand first steps to get there.

We usually find the good stuff by wading through the muck we thought was the good stuff. A map would take all the fun out of it. You’ll get your maps when you’re done.

Always release your product before it is ready.

Movement, not Planning.

Want to be successful? Get your product or service out there now, not after you’ve refined it and made it good. The MBA programs are wrong. Get moving.

Facebook sucked when it first went live and changed almost daily.

Google was a bare bones search engine called BackRub in 1996 and was still simplistic when it became Google in September 1998.

The Denver “T-Rex” redo of the entire highway system was 25% completed and open for traffic before the design was even completed.

The only way to learn how to run a four-minute mile is to first run something much slower, in public.

To learn to ride a bike, first, fall off.

Committed Movement – It’s never how good your plan is that counts, but how committed you are to moving on the bad plan you’ve got.

Purposeful Direction – We don’t need to know HOW we’re getting to our objective, we just need to know what our objective is, and the next few steps in the right direction to get there. Purposeful Direction is not about having things figured out first, but simply knowing with utter clarity where you want to end up.

Committed Movement In a Purposeful Direction is more critical to success than anything else.

There is a fundamental lesson about life and business in the above statement, and how we take that lesson on board makes us either very successful, very average, or a real shipwreck.

Successful people understand that planning is like a rudder; it’s useless without movement. Highly successful people have a very clear, transformational understanding of the relationship between movement and the rudder.

If you get your relationship right between these two, it will transform your life and your business as well. If you don’t, you’ll stay grounded on your sandbar and wonder why your life never had the impact you’ve always known it can.

The idea of massive pre-planning before you start seems to be a very sound practice, but only in concept and in business school. The problem is it just doesn’t match up with the reality of what actually makes for a successful business.

In the last three years I have watched four different companies go through the whole focus group/product development/perfect rollout process that most MBA programs and books about success would tout as the right way to do things. They all failed. I’ve seen others become successful by just getting moving in a small way like Facebook, Google, eBay, the sticky note, the television, the car, the internet, the steam engine, and all parents, all of which had a better chance of success by releasing the product before it was ready then by perfecting it first.

A controlled experiment in the real world
The key is to do it with very few customers who love you and want to work with you to make it what it will someday become. Reality is a much better laboratory for business than the laboratory. Customers are a much better focus group than a focus group. And a small rollout to the faithful is much less expensive and more informative then the balloons and parade approach.

We went through many iterations of paid workshops and mastermind concepts for three and half years before we arrived at 3to5 Clubs, which are now spreading on four continents. But we did it in small groups where perfection wasn’t necessary and everyone of the faithful were served with our existing but under-developed product.

Speed, not Planning
Success is much more closely related to Speed of Execution than to in-depth planning, because most planning is done in a vacuum prior to actually producing anything. Only after the plan hits the real world do we find out that it doesn’t work in that real world.

In the face of that reality and all the evidence we have that massive pre-planning is a waste of time, we keep trying. We can’t help ourselves. Hope springs eternal. In the meantime the Facbooks, Googles, and T-Rexs of the world are in their boats running flat out and heading for open water while we’re still trying to decide how to build the rudder.

Man has yet to devise a great way to plan in the absence of movement. The painstaking detailed analysis we are all taught to do before we move is almost always of little value because it never works out the way we had hoped. And as a result it never saves us the time and money it was supposed to. Instead it usually costs us precious time getting started, puts us behind someone else who has decided to get moving, and creates soaring costs down the road.

Practice, not Perfection
Always roll out your product or service long before it is ready, before your website is done (we only had a holding page for the first 18+ months). Just do it in a controlled but very real and “live” environment where the feedback you get is from real live bullets – people deciding to pay with real money and giving you feedback on how to get better.

Get out of the lab and into the real world. Tom Watson, founder of IBM said, “Test fast. Fail Fast. Adjust Fast.” I would say get out into the real world and just keep practicing to get better all the time.

If you haven’t been arrested in Tanzania…

…you haven’t lived.

Building a business is a lot like my trip to Tanzania. I was supposed to be there for seven hours just to meet a Congolese Chief. Five days later I was still trying to get across the finish line and get home.

The trip seemed to be over at least 20 times.

At the outset, my visa and passport didn’t come back to Denver from the visa processor in NY. The day before I left I set up two one-way flights to NY and DC to get it, and then canceled them as the passport ended up in DC. I got it 30 minutes before they closed the doors for my flight to Africa. I raced through security and walked on as they closed the doors.

I needed to be in Tanzania to honor two chiefs, who were going to do business with us for years to come. Even though we had competent employees there, it would be an insult to not meet an owner for their first export shipment. Two days both directions on an airplane for a few hours with them was well worth it.

The visa snafu was only a warm up. They were supposed to meet me at the airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When I got there Wednesday I learned they hadn’t been able to get across the border into Uganda from the Congo yet, but would arrive the next day, Thursday. I lost my non-refundable ticket home and bought a one way for the next night.

I had no hotel, no contacts, no knowledge of Tanzania. English is the written language but I was having trouble finding anyone who spoke anything but Swahili. I got a cab, a hotel, dinner, and went to sleep.

The next three days were spent trying to figure out how to get the Chiefs from the DR Congo through Uganda to Tanzania. It was excruciating, and at least twice I had to have the airline call the gate to release my seat with just 90 minutes or so before the flight, so I could get my money back and schedule one the next day. The third day I took a long walk. That was a mistake.

On that walk I took a picture of a street with nice trees and a tall wall down one side, and was quickly faced with three policeman in fancy uniforms who let me know it was the President’s house behind the wall, and I has just taken an illegal picture. As they confiscated my iPhone and were walking me back to the guardhouse I realized my passport was back at the hotel, a big no-no, and my one-day visa had expired three days ago, a bigger no-no.

I was in the country illegally.

I decided to employ the adage “He who makes the rules wins”. So I grabbed my iPhone back from the guard, showed him how I could delete pictures, made small talk with a few simple phrases I’d learned in Swahili, then made a bold move. After asking his name, “Jina lako ni nani?”, I told him mine and said, “Nafurahi kukufahamu” (pleased to meet you). Then with my iPhone in my hand, I turned around and started to walk away.

He let me go and I didn’t turn around to ask why. It could have cost me my iPhone, my computer (which I had in my bag) and a few thousand shillings in my wallet. I slept real good that night.

On Saturday, four days after I was supposed to leave, only one of the Chiefs arrived with our employee. The other one was still stuck in Kampala, Uganda. I changed my flight again at the last minute to leave Sunday. By this time I had frozen up two credit cards with what looked like suspicious activity in Tanzania (the card companies didn’t know I was there). The third and last card worked.

We spent the next 24 hours doing everything we could to get the Chief there. He needed money via Western Union. My third card was now locked up and so was my ATM debit card because I had hit the limit getting cash to buy them hotel rooms, dinner, etc. We had someone wire us money from the states, but when it came two hours before the Chief’s flight, they spelled Marian (our employee), as Marien, and Western Union wouldn’t give us the money. After all this it looked like an ‘e’ was going to wreck the whole five day ordeal. We headed back to the hotel wondering if it was all for nothing.

At the hotel, exhausted and out of options, I tried my ATM card one more time. It had come out of its 24 hour max, and the machine spit just enough money to buy the airline ticket. We raced back to Western Union but learned on the way there that the Chief was 10 kilometers from the airport and needed $6 to get a cab to get there. With only 45 minutes left before his flight, it wasn’t going to happen.

We went back to the hotel and Marian talked to the Chief. He decided we had been honorable in trying to get the other Chief here, so he would sign the papers for both of them. We signed, took pictures, and with 10 minutes before they closed the gate for my flight to the U.S., I walked on the plane. Had I missed it, I wouldn’t have had enough money to even get a hotel.

I got back in Denver at 1pm on Monday, changed in a hotel bathroom and facilitated a workshop from 4pm-6pm. That evening I took my first hot shower since the Monday before and had a great night’s sleep.

The point?
Honestly, this is how you grow a successful business. You have a clear goal in mind, you get moving, and then the world begins to interact with your plan. And from that point on it’s nothing like your fancy business plan said it would be.

It’s like a stream running downhill, winding all over the place to get where it needs to go. Those that get tired of hitting and overcoming beaver dams will quit. Those that are able to clearly keep the goal in mind will keep going, pay the price and push their business over the top to profitability. Those seven days were like a compressed microcosm of what it was like to build the seven businesses I’ve started over the last 25 years.

Want to be successful? It won’t happen because you have a great idea, big financing or slick marketing. It will happen because you know exactly what the goal is, you never lose sight of it, and you become a bulldog, doing whatever you have to in order get across the finish line, even if it means making your own rules.