Inc.'s GrowCo conference was great again this year and there's no place like New Orleans to let the good times roll.
I had a chance to catch up with a bunch of old friends and get up-to-date on their businesses and what they see as major issues for their companies going forward. The future isn't really clear for a lot of us, especially with the uncertainties in D.C. these days, but it's also not going to wait for any of us--so we need to keep moving forward. Overall, the tone was upbeat and optimistic, but that's what you'd expect from a gathering of great and upcoming entrepreneurs.
It was cool to hear some very encouraging news from Steve Case about his new book and the Rise of the Rest; Sheryl Sandberg provided some real insights into new, simple and cost-effective tools that Facebook is deploying to help startups and growing businesses compete effectively with much larger firms and far more precisely direct and target their scarce marketing dollars; and Kevin O'Leary is always good for a few laughs, but also definitely tells it like it is. It's clear that we can all learn something new at gatherings like these and there was plenty of valuable content and a lot of tips that could be put to immediate use by almost every attendee - speakers included.
The room for my talk on "future-proofing your business" was packed (I'm happy to report) and afterwards I had a chance to answer questions. Many of the folks I spoke with said that they wished their whole team had been there for the presentation and a few suggested that it would be great if I could put a blog post together that hit the major themes in my presentation so they could share them (along with their own thoughts and notes) with their own shops.
It's tough to compress 200 slides into 1,000 or so words, but I'm willing to take a shot at it. So here goes.
1. Time is scarce, choices are many, speed is everything
If you're not in a big hurry, you're probably too late. Every business today needs to compete along the various dimensions and vectors of time - speed of access, inquiry, response, service, delivery, payment - you name it.
The desires, demands and interests of consumers and customers, partners and vendors, and even regulators and government agencies continue to grow and accelerate and if your focus on an everyday basis isn't on how fast your business is getting faster, you'll be out of business soon enough.
2. The future is here now, it's not incremental, it won't wait for you
Playing it safe and waiting for near certainty and relying on processes that used to deliver the degrees of visibility and precision that were typical in the decision-making of all organizations is actually a risky strategy today. Because far too many competitors, both large and small, are out there willing to move immediately and suffer whatever the consequences may be.
Jumping off the cliff and fixing things on the way down is business as usual these days. Once you've taken the big leap, a lot of the imagined impediments and serious concerns just fade away. What we're seeing over and over again is that baby steps and incremental changes and improvements are comforting in the near term, but they aren't going to change the game or move the needle in the long run.
3. Constant change is "business as usual," iteration is essential, cannibalize yourself
If you don't keep raising the bar and outmoding yourself, you can be sure that someone else will promptly come along and do it to you. I like to remind people that, if Zuck is worried about Facebook being replaced by the latest and greatest new kid on the block, then we (mere mortals) should all be quaking in our boots.
Change is the only constant today and you need to make yourself into a moving target-- always trying to move your business ahead--and ideally being over the next hill before the competition even figures out where you're heading.
Technology will help you along the path and speed is crucial, but take the time to make a thoughtful plan first-- even if you know that you'll need to change it a million times thereafter-- because, if you don't care where you end up, any road will take you there. But if you want to build a real business and make a difference, make a plan first.
4. Better isn't enough, new and different is essential, loyalty is a crutch for losers
There are a million "me too" products in every market today and making yours a little bit better isn't a formula for success or a way to build a sustainable competitive advantage. You need to be thinking about how these new technologies can help you do new things and to do things differently in ways that will set your business and your products and services apart from the pack.
Consumers today have almost infinite choices and very low, if any, switching costs. Their only loyalty is to themselves and they're only loyal to you as long as you keep delivering real value and as long as they haven't found any better alternatives yet.
5. Mass customization, all things to each person, I want what I want when I want it
Everything today is about me. I want it my way all day. That used to be an impossible task at scale for almost any business. But the good news is that we have tools and technologies available now that are accessible to almost any business regardless of size (as Sheryl said) and reasonably cost-effective. These new data-driven solutions permit you to be all things to all people and to deliver the right content at the right time and place in a customized and individualized fashion to millions of potential customers.
Bottom line: We have plenty of content, activity, data, demands and noise and not remotely enough time, attention, focus, engagement and information. The most successful businesses of the future will help us master, organize and intelligently deal with the vast choices, inputs and resources now available to us in order to permit us to live fuller, better and more productive lives. It's gonna be a bumpy and frightening ride in many respects, but well worth the trip.