Change Catalyst with Shanna Mann: Strategy & Support for Sane Self-Employment

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I think it’s interesting how you can be in one business, but in order to kill it in that business, you need to attain mastery in some other, seemingly unrelated sphere.

My favorite example of this is Amazon. You might think that they are an e-commerce company. But what makes them so competitive is their unparalleled distribution system. They not only own warehouses in dozens of states, they have sophisticated programs to anticipate what products should be placed in what parts of the country. They are continuously aiming to close the gap between purchase and arrival, and that’s creating a nearly insurmountable obstacle for their competitors. Retail is their industry, but their mastery is in distribution and scale.

Another example you may have heard of is Zappos. They’re in e-commerce, too, but they went in a slightly different direction. They decided to completely master the art of customer service, to the point where it became legendary. The way to create the best customer experience, they decided, was to create the best employee experience. THAT was their differentiator.

Apple? Think about how utterly obsessed they were with design. That’s how they set themselves apart. Sure, they made cool gadgets. But more importantly, they were the prettiest, most intuitive gadgets around.

I call this the 5 Hows.

One of my favorite exercises for getting to the heart of any matter is to ask five whys. But when you’re looking at what you’re going to do to stand out in your industry, look at the hows. They’re going to show you how to compete.

The 5 Hows at Bonsai Scale

When you deliver a product or a service, you’re not just delivering that thing. I know a VA whose secret sauce is that she shows her employer that she cares as much for the business as the owner. (If you’ve ever had indifferent help, you know how much of a relief that is.) But a different VA sees it as her mission to make it so that her client never has to think about a task again. Assign it to her? *Poof* — it’s gone, and that mental space can go to something more important.

If you deliver a product, unlike Amazon, you can’t deliver speed, or send pizza like Zappos. But you can think about how you want people to experience their purchase, and then figure out how to deliver that. How, and how, and how, and how, and how. You will wind up with incredibly granular ideas that will add up to a truly remarkable experience. What Amazon does with speed and Zappos does with employee perks, you will devise your own secret sauce. You might not have the budget of Jeff Bezos, but you’ll be able to do something.

Why Is This So Important?

There are a few different ways to think about the advantage conferred by this mastery of an unrelated field.

In the first place, it is remarkable. In the Seth Godin sense, people are bound to talk about it.

In the second place, it is a competitive advantage that is extremely hard to combat. Anyone can compete on price, but it’s hard to beat this one-two punch of philosophy and tangibly different experience.

And thirdly, when you’re remarkable, when people resonate with your philosophy, and especially when you provide a tangibly different experience, people are willing to pay more. So it’s good for your margins, too.

Plus, the follow-on effect of getting to work with people who not only match you on a philosophical level, but are gushingly enthusiastic about your brand.

But it’s hard.

There are comparatively few remarkable businesses out there.

I believe it’s because we all want to take a direct route to success, and in doing so, we pull our focus away from that seemingly unrelated mastery that could really set us apart. There’s a kind of zen focus-not-focus that we need to adopt, and quite frankly, we care too much to show how much we care.

So just a little food for thought: think about your 5 hows. Think about some remarkable businesses that you enjoy and consider what their ‘unrelated mastery’ is, and how it effects your experience with them. Consider whether you can learn something from their example.

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Things have been going pear-shaped around here for a while now. I will spare you the litany of issues because it actually sounds made up! My husband jokes that we must have angered a gypsy or something.

But we’ve been rolling with it, mostly. And since this kind of thing is hardly unique to me, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned through this episode and others like it.

‘Never waste a crisis’ ~Winston Churchill, attrib.

Since crises come along with fair regularity, I’ve learned to appreciate them.

For one thing, crises are clarifying. I, at least at this point, have no problem immediately reprioritizing, tightening my focus, and winnowing to the essentials. Pay attention to what you let drop easily. Perhaps you shouldn’t bother to pick it back up.

‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’ ~Mike Tyson

Once you get used to the split-second culling of priorities, if you have a chance during a lull in the ‘festivities,’ try to think about taking care of the things that, should they go awry, will only exacerbate your stress.

These are usually maintenance tasks– getting at least light exercise, making sure the oil change is done on your car, checking to make sure the bills are getting paid. Most people will let these lapse when they are highly stressed, but I’ve learned that it actually reduces stress. Murphy’s law LOVES to strike during a crisis. Play good defense.

“We thought it was a rough patch, but it turned out to be our life.” ~cartoon, The New Yorker

Sometimes, (many times) I have had crises that went on and on and on. At a certain point, you just have to accept that those halcyon days you keep trying to return to are not your life. What you are going through right now — the constraints, the responsibilities, the burdens — are your life. And now you just need to let go of the ideas about what you’ll do when “things settle down” and thing about what you can do now, with what you’ve got.

This is the most difficult step, because it involves accepting that things are not as you want them to be, perhaps not how you deserve them to be. But they are. And this sucks. But what’s the alternative? Staying stuck, waiting for things to get better before you make your move? Risky.

Crises are never convenient. And they’re never exactly fun. But it’s kind of like getting onstage. You can tell yourself “I’m so nervous” or you can say “I’m so excited!” For me, every crisis is a chance to get better at handling crises— the stress, the pain, the fear, the loss. You never know when The Big One will hit, and when it does, I want to at least have some practice.

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Last week my husband needed a haircut. We’re not fancy, so we went where we’ve always gone — the Smart Style at Walmart. You walk in, you ask for a haircut, and the next person who is free puts you in their chair. I did have a favorite — Lindsay, who I use if she was working, more because she liked work silently more than for her particular skills.

On this day, there was a new face, a young man. The place was busier than I’d ever seen it, but when Chris’s turn came, the new hairdresser called him over, introduced himself, and offered a handshake.

A haircut progressed normally; I guess there’s not much to discuss with the man’s haircut. He verified the length of the guards and explain the steps he was going to take. 10 minutes later, he was done and I stood up to wait by the door while Chris paid.

Then I started really paying attention, as the dude started practicing a level of salesmanship and never seen at this location. In his explanation for running the card reader, he slipped in a mention of the tip that was un-pushy. He restated his name — “Jareth, like Jared will but with a TH” and offered his card to Chris, saying that he hoped he’d ask for him again if he felt done a good job. And he called Chris by his name when he wished him a good day.

Break It Down

Let’s break this down, because it’s a great example of what Ramit Sethi calls “Craigslist Penis Effect”— the idea that because the competition does certain things so inadequately, you look like a rockstar by comparison even when you only clear a minimal bar.

It’s not that Jareth did anything special. It’s just that his ‘competition’, his fellow hairdressers, did NOTHING, so he scored by default.

This is basic stuff. It’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” stuff — nothing that hasn’t been understood for decades.

  • shake hands, make eye contact
  • make the other person feel comfortable (explaining the steps of the haircut)
  • repeat your name, so they don’t have to ask
  • remember their name

Most people are willing to do this, they just forget. Jareth did the other half though, the parts people often feel weird about. But this is the part that has a bigger impact on your bottom line; it’s the 20% of the 80/20 rule.

  • he brought up the issue of tipping in a non-pushy way
  • he suggested and facilitated an ongoing relationship by suggesting Chris ask for him and by giving him a card

This wasn’t pushy or in-your-face. It didn’t violate any social norms. But Chris gave him a larger tip than normal — probably completely unconsciously.

Also, let me remind you, the place was slammed. But Jareth did all of this anyway.

It’s the Simple Things

By doing these simple things, he:

  • got a ~10% better tip than normal
  • the possibility of a regular customer
  • who was already primed to tip well!

I figure this is worth about $25 a day to him, which is not nothing, especially if you’re working part-time. In fact, it’s probably an extra 25% or better on top of his take home.

I’ll bet if you think about it, there are some mildly uncomfortable things YOU could be doing to improve your bottom line. You probably don’t think about them because you have an existential horror of being pushy. But remember all Jareth did was some brutally basic stuff, and that was enough to outclasses counterparts.

It’s pretty easy to figure this out– just imagine what you’d tell someone younger or more experienced to do if they wanted to excel in your field. 😛

What’s your favorite way to use the Craigslist Penis Effect to your advantage?

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