Thoughts on the genesis of new ideas

Columbus’ The Topiary Park is the only known topiary interpretation of a painting — in the world. Let me say that again, in the world. So, why has it only been done once and what did it take?

First of all, it’s a lot of work to keep up. It takes all summer to trim the shrubs, even now, after the park has been around for more than 20 years.

But more importantly, it took both vision and talent to get it created in the first place. The drive came from Elaine Mason, the skill from James Mason.

This got me thinking: How often do ideas fall because they lack either execution or innovation?

Even with Topiary Park, the subject of this month’s Uniquely Columbus, the execution and innovation weren’t found in the same person.

Is this another case of the chicken and the egg? Does the drive or the talent come first? Or, maybe I’m mixing up my metaphors. Is it a matter of “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Well, it’s not going anywhere without both innovation and execution.

Find the weak spot

In the business world, it often seems like companies are better at one or the other. More mature organizations can be whizzes at execution, but they’ve lost the spark that helped them grow in the first place.

In other cases, small companies are full of innovation but haven’t made the leap up in scale that a more controlled and accountable operation needs.

An idea — or successful business — needs both parts to come together, so I think the first step is figuring out which area is the one where you or your company is naturally weaker.

I know personally, execution can be my downfall — and that’s probably why I do better when a deadline is breathing down my neck. But once I realize that, I can come up with ways to bolster my weakness, such as creating an artificial deadline and holding myself to a penalty if I don’t make it.

No one person or organization is going to be equally strong in execution and innovation without a little planning and work.

One more hurdle — time

The other key to Topiary Park is something that’s out of your control — yes, I know that’s a scary thought for many business leaders — timing.

The space was abandoned, and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department was looking to do something special with it to set Columbus apart. The Masons were ready with their idea at the right time.

Often, companies create a product or service that it is too far ahead of its time so there’s no customer base. Or, they jump into a hypercompetitive market and get lost in the noise.

Yes, it’s daunting to think you could have conquered both the vision and talent, but still go nowhere because the timing is poor. But when all three come together, you can create something that’s unique and one-of-a-kind — like Topiary Park.

It starts with a little face-to-face contact

The idea of sustainable building has certainly gained ground over the past few years as companies, schools and homeowners become more and more interested in creating spaces that run more efficiently.

From geothermal wells and solar panels to compact fluorescent light bulbs or just turning off computers when not in use, everyone can do something to save energy.

And that’s why the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is so fascinating. It received all four of the most rigorous green building certifications and employs some of the best-of-the-best measures for building sustainably.

This office building, which is featured in this month’s Uniquely Pittsburgh, operates on net zero energy and water. And it serves as a case study for people throughout the region, U.S. and even the world. But, it wasn’t easy to create.

Put the players in the same room

In order to design a super high performance green building, everything that happens must be maximized, with no compromises, says Richard Piacentini, executive director of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

He says it took about two years to design the Center for Sustainable Landscapes.

“One of the most important things we did was we followed what’s called an integrated design process —from the very first day we got the entire design team together, along with a number of staff that were going to be working in the building, and we started to design the building together,” Piacentini says.

By getting all the players to sit in the same room, they were able to smartly design the building and find the best solutions.

Personal connection

This reminds me how important face-to-face contact is even in today’s mobile, high-tech society.

When Smart Business hosts events throughout the year, one of the things we hear over and over again is how valuable the networking is. Standing in front of people, looking them in the eye and connecting is still critical.

It doesn’t matter how many emails you send or phone calls you make, building relationships or working on a problem means connecting — and so often you need to be in the same room to do that.

I think sometimes we tend to forget that, especially the younger generation who can easily be found sitting at a table together, all looking at their phones. (I have, on occasion, been guilty of this, but I don’t even usually notice until I realize how nervous I get when I don’t have my phone with me.)

Businesses will always face obstacles. They will always need to work with customers or partners. And there will always be areas that can be improved upon.

But when the task seems daunting, perhaps the best way to get started is just a matter of sitting down at the same table.

What your company sells shouldn’t be a surprise

How often are people surprised by how many services or products your organization provides? Has someone ever asked “What do you do?” and when you give your quick synopsis, he or she says, “Wow, I didn’t know your company did all that.”

We always hear about branding and content marketing, but I think half the battle is making sure everyone is aware of all the pieces that make up your company.

Take Scioto Mile, the subject of this month’s Uniquely Columbus, where a misconception exists about the extent of the mile.

“When you say Scioto Mile right now, I think people immediately think of Bicentennial Park, and probably the Promenade or part of the Promenade — the part that’s focused right there between two of the downtown bridges,” says Karen Wiser, program and festival director of the Scioto Mile and the Jazz & Rib Fest.

The Scioto Mile — which, as its name suggests, is a mile long — encompasses at lot more than that central hub of activity, such as the Cultural Arts Center, the North Bank Park and the Scioto Audubon Park.

Get the word out

It takes time to have a product or service become part of the public’s consciousness. But just like when you try to learn something new, repetition is key.

There are varying opinions about whether people need to hear something seven, 10 or 20 times to remember.

What they can agree on is that people remember what they do most of all, followed by what they see and then what they hear. So if you’re trying to get the word out about a product or service you offer, it’s important to make sure you’re spreading the word visually with videos and photos.

But beyond that, you need to tell everyone. Cross-promote across your organization to existing customers. Post information around the office where clients might see it.

Instruct all your employees, even if they aren’t in sales, that they should mention your product or service when they talk to friends, family or prospective customers.

Just keep mentioning it, until it’s no longer a surprise.

Marketing is more than a department

As the leader — and often the face — of the company, marketing is part of your job description. It’s something you should work on daily, weekly and monthly, and it’s too important to leave to the marketing department.

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business,” according to a famous quote by management consultant Peter Drucker.

Every member of your executive team should be acting as a marketer. If that’s not something that they are comfortable with, then provide them training.

What your company sells shouldn’t be a surprise. Your customers — who may not have identified themselves yet — need to understand everything you offer in order to make truly informed decisions.

An artist’s perspective

You might not consider art projects and business to be similar — I certainly didn’t. But the two work together at Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen, which is a combination restaurant/public art project and the subject of this month’s Uniquely Pittsburgh.

Co-director Dawn Weleski says she balances being able to pay the staff and keep the lights on with whether the Conflict Kitchen creatively engages its audience.

“What makes a successful business and what makes a successful art project is the malleability of the enterprise — to build in a certain level of flexibility,” she says.

She and her Co-director Jon Rubin run the restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries the U.S. is in conflict with.

They also seek to spark debate and discussion. For example, during the Iranian iteration, the Conflict Kitchen asked Iranians all over the world to write part of a speech they would like President Barack Obama to deliver. Everything was complied into a final speech that was delivered by an Obama look-alike in several performances.

Don’t go too big

Over their five years in business, Weleski says they’ve learned some lessons along the way.

There are artists who try to sustain their art through a retail model or by providing a service, she says. What often happens — and this is also what happens in business — is that they think too big, too quickly.

“They have this huge idea of something that’s actually going to happen five years down the road, and they want it to magically appear,” Weleski says.

If you have a business, or if you’re depending on customers or patrons — and artists depend on patrons — pick a tool and then be responsive to your audience, she says.

If something doesn’t quite work, build in a period of time where that shifts to something else.

Weleski says the Conflict Kitchen started with a very small menu of only one or two items. That gave them the ability to shift those pieces quickly and efficiently.

“As we saw how Pittsburgh responded, then we made the menu a little larger, staffed up a little bit, maybe moved to a new location,” she says.

They implemented incremental changes as they went, which allowed the restaurant to build on its success.

Make it relevant

Another problem for artists, Weleski says, is they can overthink things. This is particularly true for socially engaged artists, which is the genre of the Conflict Kitchen.

People want to have discussions with sociologists, community planners and politicians all day to figure out how to satisfy the art project’s mission.

“The truth of the matter is that you can talk for as long as you want, and you’re going to present something, and it’s not going to be satisfactory in a lot of ways,” she says.

Instead, come up with a forum. Then, inject it in a small way and see how people respond.

Weleski says that can ensure your product is relevant to the customer — whether they are in the business world or art world. Otherwise it’s only going to be relevant to you, not to the public.

Lessons from Nicaragua

Are your prospects hunting for the perfect piece of pottery?

I recently had the opportunity to take a family trip to Nicaragua. During our travels, we visited a small village known for its pottery. Every family in the village has a studio attached to their home where the entire family works the pottery trade.

We had the privilege of visiting a private home to learn about making pottery. After watching their amazing talent, we visited their store. It was filled with pots of all different shapes, sizes and colors. Many had unusual shapes with small mouths at the top. Some were planter sized. Others had no visible function other than as art.

My challenge was that I wanted to buy a pot that had a purpose and didn’t just look pretty.

As my frustration grew, it reminded me of the mistake I see so many companies make. Have you ever been with a prospect and fanned out a stack of collateral showcasing every product or service you offer? Well, I was that prospect.

I decided that a pencil holder would be a perfectly useful item. I scoured the store and the hundreds, if not thousands, of handmade pots. Nothing looked right.

Your prospects are looking for a vendor because they have a specific need or pain point. They are searching for the perfect solution. Will you make them scour your store or will you identify their pain point and then guide them down the path of how your business can help?

I walked around the store using my broken Spanish and wild hand motions trying to describe what I wanted and why. There were so many pots that I was overwhelmed. All of the pots were beautiful, but they had very little function.

How often have you talked to a prospect using industry lingo and then rattled off a list of features your company has to offer? Are you overwhelming your prospects with a list of options and leaving it up to them to decipher what is a fit?

Finally, I reached into my fanny pack and dug out two pens. My son and I went from pot to pot searching for something that was the right size. The store owner saw what we were doing and started holding up pots for us to consider.

If you start by understanding your prospect’s needs, you can more effectively communicate how you can help. Through the use of case studies, testimonials or pilot programs, you can offer specific examples of how your company has solved a similar problem for others.

Eventually, we found a pot that could be used as a pencil holder. It wasn’t perfect — it still had an unusual shape — but it would work.

Do you think your customers’ feel that your product is good enough but maybe isn’t perfect? Have you asked them what they really want or need?

Does your company turn prospects loose in a store full of pottery? Or, do you work to understand their needs and magically display the one that is the perfect fit?

 

Kristy Amy is the managing director of Client Services & Strategy at SBN Interactive, a full-service marketing agency dedicated to producing measurable business results for its clients through comprehensive digital and content strategies.

The biggest winners in business today are the ones bringing buyers and sellers together

Excess capacity is just wasted money.

Manufacturers have always known this, but recently, the concept is being applied in innovative ways. By now, you’ve probably heard of the car-sharing service called Uber. Everyday people sign up to be the equivalent of a taxi driver to take strangers to their destinations for a fee.

But what is Uber at its heart? It’s a marketplace for excess capacity. People with excess time and cars that would otherwise sit idle are paired up with people who need rides. Uber matches up buyers (riders) and sellers (people with cars that aren’t being fully utilized).

The concept is simple, but the results are impressive — the company is heading for a $50 billion valuation — and it isn’t just limited to car sharing. Companies such as eaHelp are matching executive assistants looking for part-time work with executives who only need occasional help. They have hundreds of assistants, some of whom are stay-at-home moms looking to stay in the workforce, and the company has many more qualified people looking for a flexible schedule. Then there’s Airbnb, which matches people who have space in their homes with worldwide travelers looking for an experience outside of the normal hotel stay. The list of these “marketplace” companies that bring buyers and sellers together is rapidly growing. They maximize efficiency and eliminate unused capacity, regardless of whether it’s the passenger seat in your car, the spare bedroom of your home or the 15 hours a week a stay-at-home mom has to dedicate to executive assistant duties.

The question is, are you sitting on a similar opportunity in your industry? Do you have the ability to serve as the intermediary, bringing buyers and sellers together? If you do, it’s imperative that you move now, because the first-to-market advantage is huge in this space. Critical mass is needed for any marketplace to function, and once the main player is established, it’s hard for others to do the same.

If you don’t see a way to create a marketplace, make sure you look at the key ingredient to these companies’ successes — utilizing excess capacity. Look at your company and examine where you have capacity. It might be with machines, or it might be with people, but there may be opportunities to explore new options that can supplement your revenue. Or, you might be able to use the excess capacity for the greater good, donating time to help local charities or someone in need.

Taking a closer look at unused capacity in your business might open your eyes to possibilities you hadn’t thought of before. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the Uber for your industry.

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc., the publisher of Smart Business Magazine and operates SBN Interactive, a content marketing firm.

Use your imagination to plan for the unexpected

At the offices of Smart Business, we recently lost power after a car hit a telephone pole (or so the rumor goes). Everyone was sent home early, and traffic was congested enough that clearly we weren’t alone in our plight.

A lack of technology brought us to a screeching halt.

Luckily, everyone was back in business the next day, but it made me wonder.

First of all, how did we exist without computers and cellphones, and why couldn’t I think of a single task I could do without technology?

Secondly — and more directly related to business insights, advice and strategy — where did we go wrong in our planning? Why didn’t we see that one little thing that could stop business operations for multiple companies up and down our street?

Time to think about the worst-case

It’s hard to find time to plan for the obstacles, hurdles or little blips like a power outage, even though we all know they are coming at some point.

I did have some contingency planning in place like setting up automatic saves in Microsoft Word so I didn’t lose what I was working on, but I still had to stop writing.

A friend of mine says that she has a tiny back-up generator at her desk that provides power for three hours. What a great idea, but like many great contingency plans, we don’t consider them until it’s too late.

Just think about how snow blowers, generators and snow shovels become scarce just before a winter storm hits. Or, like in my case, you’ve spent hours driving around trying to find batteries before a hurricane makes landfall.

Perhaps it’s a good exercise to schedule time once a year, or once a quarter, to doomsday plan. What are our worst-case — or even tiny-headache — scenarios, and what can we do about them right now?

Go one step further and strategize

Take this kind of planning a step further, and you’re in the realm of strategic planning that all successful businesses need to do. (And if you’re already strategically planning, then don’t make the mistake of forgetting to include some contingency plans.)

For example, when I spoke with Jack Lee-Harris of Green Lawn Cemetery for this month’s Uniquely Columbus, we got to talking about cremation trends. (Who knew?)

Cremation is on the rise. In Portland, Oregon, around 80 percent of people are cremated. Here in Ohio we are only at 20 percent, but the national percentage is 50 percent.

As a result, Green Lawn is making plans to get ahead of this trend. Lee-Harris says they know they need to change their offerings to better accommodate more inurnments, second rites of interment, scatterings or green burials, so they are developing those plans now.

Imagining what’s ahead, whether it’s industry related or an unexpected issue is something we all need to do on a regular basis. It is, after all, the only way you can try to be ready for what’s next.

Partnering isn’t as easy as it sounds

Partnering and collaboration are words that get thrown around in business a lot. Like many things, it sounds great; the trouble is the execution.

This theme came up as I worked on this month’s Uniquely Pittsburgh on the EQT Children’s Theater Festival.

It’s expensive to bring artists from around the world to Pittsburgh. That’s why Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Pamela Komar, who books these performances, tries to partner with other festivals and art centers.

For example, the festival’s most adult show “Hansel and Gretel” — it’s the original story — is from Komar’s favorite theater group, Teatret Gruppe 38, in Denmark. The show is not only stopping in Pittsburgh, but also swinging by the Ottawa International Children’s Festival in Canada.

It’s a similar story for many of the other shows. Collaboration and partnering is the name of the game. By sharing cost and making it worthwhile for the performance company to travel overseas, Pittsburgh is able to attract better acts.

Find the right partners

The problem in business, however, is that you can’t just decide overnight to partner and collaborate. It takes work.

First, it’s tricky to determine who are the right partners. Both parties need to benefit, if not equally then as close to equal as possible. Also, you need to make sure you have complementing skills. There’s no point in partnering with a copy of your own organization.

And it won’t be as cut and dry as working with other children’s festivals. You might need to look within the industry at companies who could be considered competitors or even far outside your industry to an organization that doesn’t even touch your field.

This is where service providers like your accountants, bankers and lawyers, or even local chambers of commerce or other business connectors, can help. These organizations talk to your colleagues all the time. They might know who would be a good fit, and it’s part of their job to facilitate connections.

Define the ground rules

The other thing I hear from business owners and service professionals is that, just like between business owners, when you form a partnership the terms and expectations need to be spelled out clearly from the beginning — in writing.

It sounds simple, but the more you define your goals upfront, the better chance you have of reaching them. By planning for worst-case scenarios, you limit the chances of those coming to fruition.

Once you’ve defined as many of the terms as possible, the lines of communication need to stay open as problems crop up — and they will crop up.

Regularly review whether the partnership is still benefitting both parties as intended. If not, then what can you do to fix it? The last resort is dissolving the partnership, so again it’s important to have systems in place upfront for what that procedure would look like.

When you’re used to working alone to outdo your competitors, it’s not always easy to open up to other organizations. But in today’s business world, many companies are finding that by working together they can get much further.

The power of recognition

 

If you have ever attended an award ceremony, surely there was some aspect of an honoree’s background or achievements that inspired you. Perhaps their story encouraged you to work harder in pursuing your goals, to gather advice for overcoming obstacles or to learn new strategies for becoming a better leader in your workplace or community.

On many occasions I have left award ceremonies feeling more rejuvenated and determined to keep pushing on.

Before an honoree steps on stage to accept an award, someone has to take time to either nominate or select them for the honor. It’s time well spent publically acknowledging respect for their hard work, ingenuity and impact. An award program is a powerful way to bring individuals together to focus on what is working to move businesses and their entire community ahead.

On Oct. 2, 2015, Smart Business will debut our first Smart Women event in Columbus, Ohio. One of the primary aspects of the event is a unique award program to recognize progressive individuals and organizations that have achieved professional success or have made great stride in advancing women.

The award categories include:

  • Progressive Woman Award: Recognizes female executives or managers who have risen through the ranks in their career and overcome significant challenges along the way.
  • Progressive Organization Award: Recognizes organizations that support or promote women based initiatives, develop specific programs that provide opportunities for advancement or create family-friendly workplaces.
  • Progressive Entrepreneur Award: Recognizes female entrepreneurs who have either founded or co-founded a for-profit business that has achieved substantial growth within the last two years due to an innovative product or service.
  • Guy Who Gets It Award: Recognizes male executives who “get it” when it comes to women-related issues, either by championing initiatives within his organization, supporting women’s issues or promoting women’s professional development opportunities.

 Take time today to nominate an individual or organization who deserves to be recognized. The deadline for Smart Women Award nominations is June 26, 2015.

Download a nomination form for the 2015 Smart Women Awards

Staying on top of industry, customer trends

Cartoons and comics have always been interconnected with business. It’s an art form that is very tied to commerce.

But like many other industries, cartoons and comics are changing with the times. More people are reading comics online. Also, through self-publishing, more creators are able to reach audiences on their own via minicomics.

I’ve learned all this and more working on this month’s Uniquely Columbus on the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. And it brings up an interesting question: What do you do when your industry and its customer base shifts beneath your feet?

I think the most important thing is to stay on top of the trend(s). If you ignore it, the problem only gets worse. It won’t go away.

You want to be on the cutting edge, not always reacting late.

Yet, how do you even know what the trends are, and more importantly know in time to do something about it?

Make the right connections

In many instances, you can actively gather intelligence. Usually the kinds of technology changes like the cartoon and comic industry are facing are further along with younger customers, so find ways to hear from them directly.

Use your connections in local universities and colleges. Pick the brains of your summer interns. Ask your children and their friends. Step into their world.

Last year I spoke with Greg Booth, the CEO of Zippo, about this very problem.

He said they needed to connect to younger consumers who didn’t have the iconic connection to the brand that their parents did. The company made a point of talking to a younger target audience and getting involved in something they enjoy by sponsoring concerts.

It’s all about making meaningful connections in the ways your customers want — that’s social media for the younger generation — and then using that connection to stay informed.

Your customers should feel like they are a part of your organization, and one way to do that is two-way communication — if they provide feedback, it actually builds loyalty.

Add outside research

Another useful tool is outside research. JWTIntelligence recently published its annual report, The Future 100: Trends and Change to Watch in 2015. You can find out more by reading Kelly Borth’s column.

I read over their report and it was very interesting. There were some things that I already knew — we are all strapped to our smartphones and are increasingly sophisticated consumers who expect so much more. But a few trends, especially the international ones, made me think. Who’s heard of a mipsterz? You know, a Muslim hipster.

I’m sure a number of organizations provide research like this, which you can add to your own intelligence gathering.

Only after you’ve wrapped your mind around what’s going on, can you determine what decision to make. Of course, you still might make the wrong decision. But you’ll definitely make the wrong decision if you don’t have a feel for where the industry is going.