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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Aesop’s The Fox And The Grapes Fable

The best competitive advantage you can give your business is a solutions-orientated mindset.

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An old tale with a new take

What Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes can teach us about strategic growth in business.


The Fox and the Grapes

A famished fox saw some clusters of ripe black grapes hanging from a trellised vine. She resorted to all her tricks to get at them, but wearied herself in vain, for she could not reach them. At last she turned away, hiding her disappointment and saying: “The grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought.”

The lesson

People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.

Successful entrepreneurs don’t complain, they find solutions.


Related: 8 Telltale Signs Your Company Is Going Under

Putting key lessons into practice

Not every opportunity is suitable for every entrepreneur, no matter how famished they might be for new ideas — it’s sometimes better not to act on impulse and wait for more strategic positioning before chasing a new opportunity.

It doesn’t mean giving up, it means learning to look at a problem from different perspectives.

Hastiness and impatience lead to loss of clarity when making strategic decisions, and increase the risk of making decisions based on false assumptions. Patience, flexibility, methodology and good timing are important strategic elements of success in an entrepreneur’s toolbox; especially as problems become more complex and often involve many different areas and levels of professional knowledge and experience — passion isn’t everything.

Just because she wants the grapes doesn’t mean it’s in the old fox’s interests to have them in this manner and at this precise time. If she’s a successful entrepreneur, she might consider herself lucky she can’t reach the grapes, this doesn’t mean she’s going to give up; instead, she’s going to take a step back and approach the problem from a different perspective.

Finding a different angle

different-angle-fox

One entrepreneur’s opportunity is another’s complication and risk — they should pick their projects carefully and wisely. To a given problem, there are given solutions, depending on experience and levels of maturity. There was a time when the famished fox would have found a way to reach such low hanging fruit.

Instinctively, she may be disappointed she failed, but did she really give it her all? Her pride, sense of self-efficacy, curiosity and drive nags at her — there was a time when her emotions would have got the better of her — thinking the problem wasn’t with the grapes but with her attitude.

But over the years, she’s become more measured, her motivations shifting to new interests and areas of expertise.

She now has a different understanding of herself and her capabilities — she knows how to take a step back, and view the problem from a different angle. She has new skills and a mindset better adapted to visualising the big picture and thinking strategically.

The benefits of experience

After years as an entrepreneur she now has other strengths to take her projects to a new level. Her strengths lie in bringing together the different elements of her business model. Being unable to reach the grapes is a temporary setback. She knows she can’t completely eliminate risks; her aim is to reduce them to a level she can manage.

She’s done the research and has a great business idea and plan for how to process the grapes and add value by commercialising a consumer product for which she has a clear vision and a distinct market segment. She didn’t come to this spot by accident; these grapes are of the Fragolino varietal and a perfect match for her strategic needs and objectives.

She’s been working on her business model for weeks, and tried many different ways to ensure differentiation of her product in the market. According to her evaluation, backed by solid scientific and market research, the Fragolino grape is the key resource she needs for her product value proposition.

Entrepreneurs are risk management specialists, problem solvers. She needs to figure out how to harvest the raw materials she needs — a key activity in her business model — and which are currently out of reach.

Related: The Single Most Important Skill You Need To Succeed

A solution would be a key partner to help her secure the Fragolino grapes. A partner for whom this low hanging fruit isn’t too high; who can organise the crucial supply chain to bring the raw material to the processing plant, to be bottled, labelled, boxed and shipped to distributors.

A partner with the passion and drive to accomplish this key activity in her business model; and who could benefit from her strengths as a strategically minded experienced entrepreneur.

Leveraging partners for growth

Along comes younger fox, an aspiring entrepreneur, who spots the grapes. The older fox explains how she’s too old to take advantage of the opportunity, but has a lot of business experience and a great idea for exploiting the resource, if he’s interested in taking care of that key activity — thus turning the entire operation into a profitable business.

He certainly would love to get involved in the wine business, but he’s unsure, nervous, fearful and thinks entrepreneurship is too risky, preferring a steady job. However, she motivates him, explaining that risk is relative and requires a solid plan to mitigate its negative effects.

With her plan and his efforts and resolve they can reduce any risks to a lower level than a steady job could offer. Plus, there’s the upside benefit of much bigger financial gains, quality of life, and doing something for which he has a passion.

Combining knowledge to become a success

She offers to be his business partner and mentor; he’ll learn about the wine business, research, strategy, negotiation, how to effectively communicate with people, develop products, marketing, sales.

In her new role as mentor and partner, the old fox isn’t full of herself, thinking she knows everything. Rather, she sees the role as a great challenge and responsibility. This will be her first time as a mentor and she’s sure to learn a lot too.

They’re ready for business. This is exactly the sort of challenge the older fox loves and for which she has a passion. She knows these grapes are a special type with a unique strawberry-like taste, and perfect for small niche premium production runs targeted at luxury restaurants and fine food shops.

The younger fox benefits from her expertise and strategic planning vision, and she from his energy and resourcefulness. They are different types of entrepreneurs, each fulfilling a different function in the running of the business, contrasted yet complementary all at once.

Together they are stronger, than they would have been apart

As a partnership they stand a better chance of succeeding where alone they would have failed. At first, the old fox may have failed, but she failed fast, and quickly pivoted to find a better solution by looking at the problem from different angles.

Reframing the questions, she sought a better fit, seeking answers according to realistic facts on the ground, personal desires, strategic intents and motivations, business model experience, maturity and needs required for bringing about a successful start-up launch.

By taking her time, and a step back, thinking more methodically and strategically, she was able to take several steps forward, make smarter decisions, and a better plan — thus creating the environment for a more efficient and profitable way of working.

Related: 3 Ways To Stop Taking Your Most Loyal Customers For Granted

With the big picture in mind, she was able to zoom in on specific problems and find the ideal strategic partner to help her fulfil the needs of her business model. All preparation for the final launch action are falling into place, increasing her chances of not failing, and reducing risks to a manageable level.

If all goes according to plan, she’s already thinking about the next growth phase — to scale the business by raising capital, thanks to a carefully prepared business plan.

Moving forward

Famished for ideas, the old fox was determined not to quit until she’d discovered the right strategy. She would not act merely on a whim, but instead took a step back to properly calculate the risks and rewards to secure a higher probability of success — and by mentoring the younger foxes, took her game to a whole new level of personal growth and fulfilment.

For the old fox, it is better to have 50% of a business than 100% of sour grapes; or wait 50% longer for a 100% better chance of reducing risks and avoiding failure.

The younger fox thinks it’s better to have 100% of an experienced crafty fox as a mentor and actual hands-on learning-by-doing experience, than a 50% chance his office job will be unfulfiling, and teach him few practical skills with lower potential financial rewards. It’s a win/win.

Alexander F. Goldsborough previously researched entrepreneurship at OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and was an Associate Professor of Practice at the China campus of Liverpool University (XJTLU). He is now the creator of Aesop For Entrepreneurs and the author of Creativity, Strategy and Leadership for Entrepreneurs. Visit www.aesopforentrepreneurs.com for more information.

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Performance & Growth

17 Most Important Performance Management Decisions Leaders Will Need To Make

Is your organisation geared to handle its own growth strategies? Are you sure?

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Roadmap to success

The 17 most important performance management decisions you need to make as a leadership team to build a high-growth organisation. Understand what they are, make them, and your business will thrive.

If you’re awesome, you’ll succeed. If you succeed, you’ll grow. As you grow, the scale will change everything and, then, you won’t be awesome anymore — unless you change a lot of what made you awesome in the first place. This is known as the scale up paradox. In a nutshell, what got you here, won’t get you there! The ability to recognise this and change yourself and your business is what separates great businesses from brands that have faded into obscurity.

Knowing what to change, when to change and how to change is the very essence of scaling up.

Take as an example the way we manage performance. A start-up can run everything on ‘check-ins’. Through frequent check-ins you can zero in on who’s doing what, by when and how. You can keep on top of how things are going and whether you need a course correction. The check-in system is awesome. Until it’s not.

Because you can’t run everything on check-ins when there are 30 people around. The ‘check-in’ system basically means that you are the system. You, the founders, keep everything together. This means you’re the bottleneck. Your personal bandwidth is the ultimate ceiling on your growth. And that is bad news for your health — and your business.

If you’re awesome, and you succeed, and grow, it won’t be long until you can’t sleep because of the many loose threads in your brain: Tasks you need to assign headspace to, projects and people you’re not ‘on top of’, discussions to be had that you can’t get to.

So, to get some sleep, you’ll be forced to take delegation to another level. This is not simply a question of giving away tasks or projects; it means giving away responsibility for entire parts of the business. That’s scary. But if you have great people, it’s also liberating.

Related: 3 Ways To Promote Business Growth In A Troubled Economy

Performance architecture

Now you’re sleeping again. For a while. Because if your people are awesome, you’ll succeed, and you’ll grow, and pretty soon the balls will be dropping again. You’ll realise that what you assumed people were doing, they’re not doing, just because they assumed they should be doing other things. And you’ll long for the days of the ‘check-in’ system when you could be on top of everything through enough ‘check-ins’. But there’s no going back now. You’re too big. You simply can’t check-in with everyone when you’re at or beyond the 30-person mark.

Maybe you’re having a conversation with someone at that point, and they tell you about OKR: Objectives and Key Results. Now there’s a system you can hang your keys on! A rhythm to align on key priorities and targets every two or four weeks (or every month or quarter, if you’re a bit more mature).

Liberation! Suddenly you can be on top of everything without the check-in overwhelm. It’s a thing of beauty, really. Until it’s not.

Because if you’re awesome, and you succeed, and you grow, the day will come when those balls will once again drop. And it won’t be because the senior team aren’t doing what you agreed when you set your quarterly OKRs. It will be because the business is too complex now for OKRs. OKRs still rely on a lot of manual alignment through collaboration and regular ‘check-ins’ at the operating level. Even simpler than that, the balls are dropping because, suddenly, there are a whole lot of new people issues you have never had to deal with before at this level:

  • Accountability vacuums: A rising tendency for important things to fall into ‘no man’s land’ with nobody accountable for them
  • Major differences in contribution: A rising number of people in cruise mode while the rest of the team do all the work
  • Performance politics: Lots of high performers are unhappy because people aren’t being treated fairly. Slackers are getting good reviews and rewards just because their managers are lenient; high performers, on the other hand, are getting the same as them because their team has higher standards
  • Compensation politics: People aren’t satisfied that bonuses and increase decisions are being made fairly
  • High Performance Culture slide: All of this is causing relational friction and culture issues that are impacting performance.

So, right now, there’s way too much going on for OKRs and ‘check-ins’ to work. Things need more alignment and coordination than you’re going to get through your team interactions. You need a new way of aligning the different parts of the business without falling into ‘check-in overwhelm’.

You need a performance architecture with more processes and systems that maintain alignment across teams. Big words. Corporate words, which we know entrepreneurs tend to dislike. But let’s understand them.

Basically what they mean is that, around about this time, performance management needs a major upgrade. Why? And how should you do performance management? Isn’t it an awful relic of industrial-age corporate management, which is why so many top employers are moving to something new?

True enough. The dilemma is that a lot of the new age buzz about liberating talent to thrive without backward-looking performance reviews don’t work in most contexts; most often, it will break things even more than a frustrating, antiquated performance management system would.

The reality is that performance management is much more complex than an annual review and, furthermore, is definitely not a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.

Related: 3 Strategies To Implement A Culture Of Innovation In Your Business (Without Blowing Billions)

If you’re scaling up and keen to build a scalable performance management system that works in your context (and at the same time reinforces your greatest culture assets), here are 17 of the most important performance management decisions you will need to make as a leadership team.

Performance management intent: What is the main goal of our performance management system? Accountability for performance, coaching for development and improved performance, or both? Harvard Business Review says this is a 70-year old debate. Don’t assume your other leaders see this the same way you do.

Individual appraisals: Do we believe that focusing on individual appraisals would result in better — or worse — business performance? Does it adversely affect team work and a ‘looking beyond my scorecard’ mentality?

Standardisation: Given that various parts of the business are so different, should we be doing the same thing across the business? How do we do performance management differently (if we even should) in areas as different as engineering, sales and customer service?

Target setting processes: Should targets be set from the top down, bottom up, or some combination of the two?

Nature of targets: Should performance targets be activity targets, behaviour targets, intermediate outcome targets (closest to ultimate outcome, that are fully within control) or ultimate outcome targets (even if not within our control)?

Bonuses: Should we link rewards to personal performance ratings? Some say that you should just pay really well and bake everything into a fixed bonus, or into basic compensation, and fire the non-performers. Which works best?

Bonus pool formula: Which proportion of an individual’s bonus should be determined by either individual contribution versus the performance of their team or division, or the business as a whole?

Long-term incentives: What percentage of variable incentive remuneration (VIR) should be long term, and which should be deferred to future years/long term (LTIR)?

Increases: How should performance ratings affect salary increases?

Formal or informal feedback: What is the right balance between formal appraisal and informal continuous feedback?

Feedback sources: Are there objective measures? If not, who gives input to the appraisal? If there are multiple parties, how are their inputs weighted? Is a line manager’s feedback more important than multiple, non-line individuals or ‘bosses’?

Performance appraisal scale: How do we summarise individual performance assessments?

Appraisal frequency: How often do we appraise performance and give feedback? Would this be per assignment or based on time, such as weekly, monthly, quarterly, bi-annually or annually?

Bonuses versus career investment and opportunity: How do we decide which individuals to prioritise for investment in growth and promotions? How do we balance bonuses versus investment in learning, development and promotions?

Dealing with high performance that doesn’t produce results: What do we do when people perform well, but don’t deliver the business results due to issues outside their control?

Performance management roles: Who does what in the performance management process? What belongs to HR? What belongs to line managers?

Performance management software: When do we move from Excel (or similar) to software products that streamline this process? What are the best packages for our business? (Small Improvements and Engagedly are our top recommendations).

Related: Has Your Business Stopped Growing? Here’s How To Turn Things Around

Walter Penfold, MD Everlytic

walter-penfold

  • Fire faster. Bad performers are toxic for the culture. Use the three-month probation period brutally. The culture impact of firing fast is much superior to that of firing slow.
  • Attune to sentiment. Many poor performers are great at upward management. They can look like performers to you, but people around them know the truth. Stay attuned to, and respond to grumblings.
  • Give immediate, direct feedback on any performance issues. This should never wait for a formal performance review. We do a formal 360-review once a year.
  • Keep it super simple to start — we definitely over-complicated it.
  • Centre on weekly one-on-one meetings. Then performance management becomes the way you work, not a chat between strangers once a quarter.

Stuart Townsend, Edge Growth

stuart-townsend

Be realistic. Our training budgets are not realistic enough to enable people to build the competencies we need them to have to deliver the outcomes we expect.

Brad Magrath, Co-founder, Zoona

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  • Invest in growing your managers. We over-estimated the ability of young, inexperienced managers to have honest candid constructive conversations. If they suck at having good performance management discussions, the whole system breaks down.
  • Non-performers weren’t scored as non-performers, leading to ugly train smashes down the line.
  • Bad managers give good ratings to bad performers.
  • Invest in creating role clarity. Performance management didn’t work well initially because we lacked role clarity and agreed metrics.
  • Focus on behaviours, not just outputs.
  • Ensure managers are deliberate around context of feedback: Is it coaching, is it performance, is it brainstorming? Be clear on why the conversation is happening so the message is not mixed.
  • Get huge buy in from the beginning — we didn’t do enough of this. Then people don’t actually do appraisals well and the whole system breaks down again.
  • What you measure is what you get — A-players like the idea of being performance measured objectively. Make sure the metrics are totally objective and have integrity.

The reality

The ability to recognise that what got you here won’t get you there is the first step towards building a high-impact, significant business.

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Performance & Growth

Why You Should Do Things That Won’t Scale In Your Early Start-Up Days

Unless you want to be a small-business owner with a lifestyle business, you’re probably looking for an idea that scales – something that allows you to 10x your customers and profits in record time – but how do you accomplish this? Here’s some counterintuitive advice.

GG van Rooyen

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In the early days of Airbnb, when the site had just a handful of hosts in its website, the founders of the company did something surprising: They offered to have the accommodation hosts were offering professionally photographed for free. As they didn’t have the money to actually pay professional photographers, they did this themselves. They showed up, introduced themselves and took some pictures.

In the world of Silicon Valley, this seemed absurd. Silicon Valley is all about scaling. You want an idea that’s easy to expand exponentially. For instance, the marginal cost of adding a single user to Facebook or Dropbox is small, which makes these companies extremely scalable.

Service businesses, meanwhile, are typically not very scalable, since they are limited by the time and energy you can physically put in. Every new client brings more complexity and demands more time and resources.

Related: Has Your Business Stopped Growing? Here’s How To Turn Things Around

With their free photography, the Airbnb founders had turned an Internet start-up into a service business. There was no way you could scale this kind of behaviour, so, according to the dominant Silicon Valley philosophy, this was not worth doing. If this was what was required to sign up people on Airbnb, it could never be a success.

The manual approach

So, why did the founders do it? Because Paul Graham at the famous Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator suggested that they do it.

Y Combinator has funded many, many successful start-ups (including Airbnb and Dropbox), and one of its most common pieces of advice to new start-ups is to do things that don’t scale. Recruiting users manually is not a failure or proof that your concept won’t scale. Most of the time, it’s simply a necessity.

“The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all start-ups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them,” says Graham.

“This can’t be how the big, famous start-ups got started, they think. The mistake they make is to underestimate the power of compound growth. We encourage every start-up to measure their progress by a weekly growth rate. If you have 100 users, you need to get ten more next week to grow 10% a week. And while 110 may not seem much better than 100, if you keep growing at 10% a week you’ll be surprised how big the numbers get. After a year, you’ll have 14 000 users, and after two years you’ll have two million.”

Surprise and delight

Another reason, according to Graham, why the manual approach is important, is because it allows you to really know and understand your customers. By visiting all those Airbnb hosts, the founders quickly learnt what they loved and hated about the service.

Related: SME Leaders: How You Can Manage Growth

By doing things that don’t scale, you get a much greater understanding of your customer, which comes in handy once you’re ready to flip the switch and grow quickly.

“You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy. Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made. And you in turn should be racking your brains to think of new ways to delight them,” says Graham.

Lighting the fire

The only opportunity you’ll ever have to thoroughly engage with all your customers on a personal level is when your business is still small. That’s why it’s important to do things that don’t scale early on. It creates the foundation for successful scaling.

“Sometimes the right unscalable trick is to focus on a deliberately narrow market. It’s like keeping a fire contained at first to get it really hot before adding more logs. It’s always worth asking if there’s a subset of the market in which you can get a critical mass of users quickly,” says Graham.

“Most start-ups that use the contained fire strategy do it unconsciously. They build something for themselves and their friends, who happen to be the early adopters, and only realise later that they could offer it to a broader market.”

You can read Graham’s entire blog post, Do Things That Don’t Scale, on his blog www.paulgraham.com.

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Performance & Growth

3 Ways To Promote Business Growth In A Troubled Economy

If you’re running a small business, here are three things you can do to survive and thrive in this tough economic climate.

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It’s a complicated time for South African business owners. According to Xero’s State of SA Small Business 2017 report, 62% have seen a reduction in consumer demand over the past year, and 68% describe economic instability as their most significant challenge. Of course, these problems that entrepreneurs face are not of their making, but they must face them nonetheless.

There is a degree of optimism amongst entrepreneurs which is encouraging: 45% anticipate that business will stay the same over the next year, and 40% expect growth. While this positivity is a good thing, it must be tempered with pragmatism and proactivity.

Related: 3 Strategies To Implement A Culture Of Innovation In Your Business (Without Blowing Billions)

If you’re running a small business, here are three things you can do to survive and thrive in this tough economic climate. 

1Look for cost savings

This is very obvious, but it’s worth repeating. When your business is contending with an ailing economy, it will be forced to make certain choices. Those choices can become more or less difficult depending on how you manage your incomings and outgoings.

Developing the firmest possible handle on your finances is the best defence against external turmoil.

Look for cost savings wherever you might find them. What subscriptions are you still paying for that you no longer need? Which supplier relationships need to be terminated? Are you spending too much on stationery? Aim to eliminate all unnecessary costs: Even if they’re small, they’ll often add up to a larger cumulative saving.

Technology can often help with this process. For instance, cloud accounting software like Xero can take care of financial administration and cash flow related tasks – identifying any areas of discrepancy or waste and ensuring that your resources are being used efficiently. Taking advantage of it is likely prudent. 

2Automate everything

automation

And we mean everything.

Businesses that waste time, waste money. The more energy expended on manual processes and tasks, the less time you have available for vital business or operationally critical processes and tasks. It’s very hard to grow if you’re spending inordinate amounts of your day on repetitive, time-consuming work.

Related: How You Can Profit From Constrained Consumption

When it comes to things like report preparation, data entry, and accounts payable and receivable, it’s worth investigating your automation options. Things like pursuing invoices can now be done with a click of a button and a few strokes of the keyboard. What’s more, they can be handled safely, legally, and efficiently.

Don’t stop there. See what other tasks can also be automated. When you have more time, you have more headspace for the things that really matter to you and your company. 

3Spend wisely

Although it shouldn’t be a rule during trying economic times, it becomes substantially more important during times of unrest. It’s easy to spend money on hires and gadgets in a blind panic, but it’s also dangerous – and can deepen any financial troubles you may have.

Any investment you have, no matter how trivial, should be thoroughly audited for potential profitability. If it won’t help you make money or become more efficient, it shouldn’t be pursued. If there’s a greater than acceptable chance of making losses, save the risk for a time when your business is more profitable.

Related: Has Your Business Stopped Growing? Here’s How To Turn Things Around

Knowing what is and isn’t a sensible investment isn’t always easy. Cloud technology can again be of use here. if you’re considering investing in service desk software, it can generally let you know if the number of resolved queries will result in meaningful cost savings. If you invest in a marketing automation tool, it will let you know if your campaign ROI is likely to exceed the expense.

Navigating the choppy waters of the modern South African economy won’t be easy, but by implementing the above, it will be more than manageable. With financial prudence, process automation, and strategic investment, you can come out the other side even stronger than before.

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