Oozin’ On Down the Line

It probably should happen more often, but occasionally — usually on a Saturday — Annie and I will head out for the day without a particular destination in mind, just to see what turns up. Because I’ve always been a Point A to Point B type of traveler and she’s always contended that the journey is more significant than the destination, these single-day excursions play to her experience, so I’m happy to let her take the lead. We call it “oozin’ on down the line” — no phone calls, no checking email, no looking at the clock.

So it was, that a couple of weekends ago we found ourselves heading for Sand Bash 2012” on Fort Myers Beach in Florida. (Full disclosure: not so far down the line — it was less than 15 miles from our winter condo.) I had visions of discovering some elaborate sand castles from which I might extract ideas — and maybe even some techniques — with which to impress the grandkids this summer on the beaches of New England.

Under a huge tent which housed 200 tons of sand, a dozen artists — master sand sculptors! — had created competitive works of art interpreting the theme of “The Movies, Sculpted in Sand.” From Cinderella to The African Queen, and from Forrest Gump to Cars, the images were remarkable in their clarity and detail. Painstakingly created and on display for a week to thousands of beachgoers, the art by Monday morning was to be reduced to plain ol’ beach sand.

I asked apprentice sand sculptor Sandi Adams (real name — I’m not making this up), how she and her fellow sand artists dealt with the transitory nature of their creativity. “Well,” she said, “for the masters, turning sand into gold [doing commissionable work for sponsors] is sort of like alchemy. For the rest of us, it’s kind of a Zen thing. Unless the planets come into alignment for you, you really have to be satisfied being in the moment.”

As Annie and I took the fast track (non-stop air) back to New England this past week, Sandi’s reference stuck with me. I’m frequently struck by how much of small business ends up being “kind of a Zen thing.” Millions of entrepreneurs pursue their dreams of creating a unique and valuable product or service and then cashing in for a big return, but only a few thousand do so each year. The rest are, at best, rewarded by creating income for themselves and (in some cases) for employees; by developing and (in most cases) selling a useful product or service; and (in comparatively few cases) seeing their businesses survive them.

Unlike sand sculptors, however, they do keep looking for planetary alignment, often in the form of a receptive economic environment. They remember the fat years, pre-2007, as providing something for everyone, until the receding tides swept much of it away.

For many small business owners, waiting for the perfect economy is like waiting for the planets to align. It’s not going to happen any time soon. At the same time, you can’t take a couple of quarters of mediocre sales as evidence of a double-dip recession, causing you to hunker down again. More often than not, the big winners in the small business race are the swift, the bold, the innovative, the risk-seeking. You have to keep moving.

Consider the following moves among Financial Managers’ current client base:

  • A health and wellness software company took on its first 7-figure contract in 2010-11 with a big offshore company and incurred a significant loss on the project when a co-venturing partner failed to deliver as promised. But the resulting lessons-learned, applied to the next two $1MM+ opportunities, resulted in disproportionate gains, establishing the company as a national leader in an emerging field.
  • A 25-year-old boutique executive development consulting firm converted its home-grown client-supporting software into a stand-alone SaaS (Software as a Service) package, entered into a joint venture agreement with a strong marketing organization, and is about to spin off the new company with an established sales base of $1MM in mostly recurring revenue.
  • A young specialty retail group, having successfully carved out a niche with four stores in Greater Boston, has refused to be intimidated by the Web. By investing heavily in product knowledge and training of its sales staff, the company has retained its competitive edge even as it tests a modified bricks-and-mortar concept in a fifth store which opened in November.
  • A Naples, Florida-based construction company, targeting an upscale home remodeling market, has recently initiated a public relations campaign emphasizing print media to announce its new “concierge builder” concept. Why print? A significant portion of the target market of Naples-area retirees still turns to newspapers and magazines as its primary source of information.
  • A long-time player in the crafting and scrapbooking business emerged from bankruptcy a year ago with its client base still intact and its legacy untarnished. Addressing its management deficiencies, the company upgraded its level of professionalism by hiring new senior managers in finance, operations, and design and is projecting its most profitable year in a decade.

You got into your own business by being action-oriented. You moved ahead by planning and making aggressive moves. (Okay — maybe in the early days it was less planning and more making). You’ve passed the survival tests, so what’s your next goal, and the ultimate one? Are you now so busy protecting your sculpture from the wind and the tide that you’re missing opportunities to create something permanent? Perhaps you need a time out for some strategic planning. Otherwise, it will be hard to establish a Point B, much less to get there, if you’re just oozin’ on down the line.