My biggest business mistake?

Well, it may not turn out to be my biggest ever in the fullness of time, but it’s certainly the most expensive to date in terms of time invested and lack of earnings. And I see entrepreneurs making their own version of it all the time, day in, day out…

As many of you know, my background is in sales & marketing communications in the broadest sense: telephone sales and face to face sales, sales training, market and marketing research, brand, product and service positioning and development, and so on.

As my story unfolds some of you will undoubtedly ask yourselves “Why didn’t she see that coming?” The short answer is that, left to our own devices and sometimes the input of well meaning but usually insufficiently qualified friends and loved ones (that’s if we even listen to anyone), our perspective is that we’re too close to see the wood for the trees and will not allow us to do what an eagle does: constantly switch from the panoramic ‘big picture’, zoom in to the detail and back again.

The Big Idea

What do most individuals do when they cut loose from corporate land and set up their own stall as a brand new entrepreneur? They do what they enjoy, they’re good at and what comes easily to them: their own Big Idea.

But, I reasoned, very few if any would have acquired the skills of the composite sales & marketing background that I had. So, unless they’d been planning and transitioning gradually from employment into doing their own thing – whether that’s setting themselves up in a job where they are the boss or starting a business that they intend to grow, franchise and/ or sell – this is where the cracks often start appearing: They’re open for business but where are the customers who should be beating down the door to get at them and their fabulous offerings?

Now I don’t claim to know loads about how to build a business into an empire – the idea had never occurred to me – but I do know that I’m very good at helping others get the clarity and necessary skills to communicate the value and uniqueness of what they have to offer, and build their own businesses, so what better than to create a course dedicated to that? One that would:

  • Teach them skills that would easily enable them to win business that would recoup their investment many times over in double quick time
  • That they could fit their learning in and around their business
  • That enabled pinpoint their specific needs
  • That allowed them to design their unique route through the course with their own coach/ trainer
  • That provided exercises that let them safely test out their new learnings…
  • And worksheets to complete that enabled me to measure their understanding and use of their new learnings

I even began to think that maybe I could could grow this into a business that could be franchised at some point… oh, heady stuff, indeed! 😉

A little aside

It’s not long ago, only beginning of the noughties, that the Internet was young, as was online social and business networking. The creation, hosting and optimization of websites was in the hands of a select few self styled experts – the first release of WordPress was not until May 2003… It happened to be in this era that I created the course so you could argue that the need was greater then for interactive sales & marketing communication skills because there were fewer affordable routes to market for start ups and small businesses. Yet to offset that, I’d venture that the economy was more buoyant and there wasn’t a trend of corporates ousting employees wholesale, effectively to make their own way any way they could…

Back to the main plot…

So I had a tremendous time designing the course: By the time it emerged many months later onto the unsuspecting world it was indeed my beloved, treasured, beautiful, clever baby.

What I discovered then was that I could find very few business owners who would commit themselves to doing the course. Did they not trust the course and me to deliver? Did they not trust themselves to step up?

I was chatting to a member of a business brainstorming group I ran and it was the first time he really understood the scope of what the course covered and helped businesses to achieve. His comments were along the lines of:

“Brilliant concept. Fantastic service. Utterly wrong market. They’ll never appreciate its true value or pay you what it’s worth.”

I was flattened

In hindsight he was absolute right, of course. For ages I went around muttering and bewailing the fact that most owners of small businesses – the very ones who most needed the help I was offering them – would rather complain about the ‘sad state of things’ (i.e. not enough profitable customers) than do something to alter that state.

So what could I do?

Two things.

The first was to take the sales skills parts of the course – telephone and face to face – and target owners of businesses that had a dedicated (or even semi dedicated) sales person or persons who were under performing. I found that they would pay the money for the employee to go through the training and learning far more happily than if they themselves had to do the work.

The second, and this came later, was to fully take on board the realization that you can’t sell what you think people need – especially when that seems to them to be so huge it’s everything strong>including the kitchen sink.

I just counted the Modules in the original business owners course – 29 of them (15 on soft skills training and 14 on sales training)! :-(

Understandably, people will only intend to buy what they believe is necessary to get the desired solution. I’ve discovered that can be either a bit more than they think or a lot less! So it took a while we now have a range of solution based offerings as opposed to “look-what-I-know-and-can-help-you-learn” process-based offerings…

To paraphrase something I heard recently:

“Concentrate on the destination not the method of transport”

What clangers of your own would you be prepared to share?


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13 Responses to “My biggest business mistake?”

  1. Hi Sally

    Interesting that you and Jill have raised the aspect of timing – from slightly different yet complementary angles – and, of course, you’re both right: it’s a vital aspect of the whole picture.

    The sale of the course in chunked down modules might well do fine – I can see how that would work – I didn’t mention in the post that I gave that a go – but maybe the time wasn’t right back then and may be now…

    I know that the results of those going through the majority of modules without a trainer to help them make the best use of them in their world and their individual circumstances would probably be patchy at best because you’re talking about changing (often ingrained) habits and replacing them with new ones and new skills that take time to get to grips with, let alone master.

    You’ve certainly given me food for thought :-)

  2. Hi Jane

    This is brilliant of you to share that obviously painful experience with us – thank you.

    I can see how the route your company took, on more than just the face of it, seemed like a sure winner.

    I’d wager that if more of us were willing to pool our mistakes as well as ‘wins’ we’d help each other a heck of lot more and, in so doing, learn from others and save ourselves from expensive mistakes!

  3. Hi Jill, and welcome!

    I think you’re offering something that may well be of benefit to a number of our clan here so happy to provide an extra platform in the form of a guest post 😉

  4. sally says:

    Weirdly Linda, you may find that timing is of essence.

    These days, people are now more hungry for paid, downloadable info-products in small chunks. So if you digitised the course and sold each module in an individual fashion through an online shopping cart on this site to your email list, it would probably do very well now.

    Promoting how each module would help the reader enables a much more focused (and easier choice).

  5. Lots of clangers from me too – but clangers are how we learn and grow, a necessary part of life. As long as we do learn from them, all will eventually be well.

  6. Jane Hatton says:

    Oh yes, this sounds a very familiar feeling! I had a brilliant idea once (one of many that eventually crashed around my ears). My training company offered management development programmes (amongst other things) which sold moderately well, but there were some tenders we couldn’t go for because they wanted the courses to be ILM (Institute of Leadership and Management) accredited. No big deal – we just went for the bespoke courses we could deliver. Then a member of staff was clearly not enjoying her current role (writing tenders for new business) and she had helped a number of organisations become accredited to run ILM programmes previously. It seemed a no-brainer (sorry – I know we hate that term!).

    So, 6 month’s worth of her salary later, plus a few thousand in accrediation fees etc, we became a fully fledged ILM centre. We underestimated the additional admin work required to run such a programme. Another member of staff worked pretty much full time on doing this. In the end we ran two ILM programmes, both of which were very successful for the clients. And on which we made a loss of probably £30,000 – £40,000 between the two of them.

    This would have worked well if we were a college running multiple programmes with hundreds of students because we could have spread the costs much further. As it was it was a complete disaster, which had seemed to make a lot of sense at the time. Many clients who came to us for ILM courses ended up wanting bespoke courses anyway so we could include just what they wanted without all the hassle of assignments and projects and moderating and goodness knows what.

    It’s not the only reason that company failed, but it was a big contributory factor.

  7. jill Poet says:

    A great article and fabulous responses.

    Another thing to add to the mix though: it’s often about timing. What’s current and what’s sexy. And that changes so quickly.

    That’s where I am at the moment. I’m first to market with a new concept that some business people already understand, but many see as soft fluffy stuff that doesn’t relate to running a business. But the tide is turning and businesses need to be ready to shout not just about their products and services, but authentically show they are ethical and value driven.

    An interesting position to be in: both our biggest challenge and our biggest opportunity.

  8. Hi Sarah

    If I understand you correctly,…

    I think the problem here is that the person who IS coughing up and “paying the premium” probably doesn’t have enough experience or knowledge to judge whether what’s on offer is regurgitated fluff or real life experience and knowledge. :-(

    The one who steps back to question the offer probably already recognizes it as based on phoney foundations. So the courage there might be: “Okay, their stuff may be inferior to what I could provide but at least they’re out there offering it – I guess I put up or shut up”… 😉

  9. Hi Suze

    Do you think that there’s a chance SOME who read this will learn from the mistakes we’re sharing BEFORE they commit the time and energy to the wrong half of the equation? 😉

  10. Sarah Arrow says:

    To many to list Linda :) The main one being not having the courage to stand up and say another persons teachings are not based on experience but regurgitated fluff, that their knowledge that you are paying a premium for has no depth and no substance.

  11. I think we’ve all been there and got the T-shirt, Linda … I sweated blood and tears writing a book called “Powerwriting: the hidden skills you need to transform your business writing” years ago and got paid a large advance by a well-known business books publisher for it. It received lots of praise – especially from fellow professional writers – but it bombed. Why? It was about the theory behind business and marketing writing – and business people can’t be bothered learning the theory: they just want a quick fix and the shortest possible route to that “destination.” My subsequent offerings are much more practical/hands-on “here’s how you do it, never mind why,” and they are much more successful. Lesson learned…

  12. Oh, that hurts, doesn’t it, Mary!

    The other BIG boxes the would-be recipients need to tick is that achieving whatever solution/ outcome is really important to THEM – or they often just won’t stay the course (no pun intended!)

    Thanks for being so open and honest :-)

  13. Linda, this highlights a principle I’ve been grappling with too: selling people on the results, not how they will be achieved.

    Not long ago I took a course on how to create and deliver e-courses. I came up with what I thought was a pretty good concept and devoted a lot of time to fleshing it out. Then the teacher of the course–a very well-known coach in the States–published a blog post that flogged all of her students’ new courses, including mine. This post would have been read by thousands.

    And I got zero response. Not one person indicated an interest in my offering. I know the content would have been useful . . . but I was selling features (the method of transport), not the destination.

    It was a useful lesson!

    Thanks for a great post.

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"I was very impressed by Linda's determination to help and the constructive, but persistent, manner in which she identified issues and then tried to resolve them. After recent progress I was again reaching a stage where I seemed to be spinning my wheels, and she has given me fresh impetus to start moving forward again."