An ex-colleague of mine, the least entrepreneurial person I have ever met, gave me the best piece of entrepreneurial advice I have ever received. She told me just as I was starting mag nation that my most important job would be having a coffee with five random people every week. I smiled politely and filed this one in the back pocket. She was right, though. When I have lived by this rule, my business has progressed. When I have ignored it, we have stagnated.
I do a lot of varied things in my day-to-day job. I am, amongst other things, responsible for the mag nation brand, our marketing strategy and execution, our finances and funding. I am CEO, but at times play CFO, COO, CTO, CMO, and every other C something O that has ever been conceived. My business partner would say exactly the same thing. And every genuine entrepreneur reading this should be saying the same thing.
That’s what entrepreneurs do, isn’t it? At various times, we take on every role imaginable, and if you are running a start up and you haven’t yet taken on the role of CTC (Chief Toilet Cleaner), then I would say that you are not the real deal! (More about this in my next post.)
Yet none of these roles are as important as Chief Coffee Drinker.
Five random meetings a week with people who will probably not have an immediate impact on my business.
This is what has driven our progress. The hardest thing about doing this is maintaining the faith. Ninety-five percent of these meetings are useless and lead to nothing. When I am working that hard, and spending so little time with the family, it is hard to justify the hours required to keep this up. The productivity gurus out there would probably count the lost time and put a monetary value on what this costs my business. I want to see them put a monetary value on survival and the fact that we are still here. I put that down to my five cups a week.
Every single advance and development that we have made has been sparked by a conversation or a personal relationship. Not one has come out of an excel model or looking internally.
Now please don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that taking a good hard look at yourself and what you do and how you do it does not hold a bunch of potential lessons. However, most of these lessons have been incremental for my business. Useful, yes, but not game-changing. It has taken external perspectives, often from people I would class as idiots, to help me create real step change.
No one is as smart as me!
I used the word “idiots” on purpose. Am I trying to be controversial? Perhaps, but I am also trying to make a point. “No one knows my business like I do.” “My business is special.” “My industry is different.” “No, this geographic market is different to where you operate.” “It’s more complicated than that.” Most entrepreneurs have either said or, at the very least, thought these things. If 95 percent of my five coffees a week are useless, then I end up with one good meeting a month. The others are supposedly a waste of time with people who give useless advice and say stupid things. Wrong.
The problem with many entrepreneurs is that we are often, by definition, an overconfident bunch. When this turns to arrogance, we lose the plot. Ninety-five percent of my coffees may turn out not to have a direct impact on my business but, at very worst, they are data points. A business exists to serve people or some need, and naval gazing is the easiest way to lose track of why we exist as entrepreneurs.
So I try to meet with people every week who I don’t really know. They may or may not know my business or industry, but this is irrelevant. They may turn out to give stupid advice or end up wanting to push their product on me to sell in store, or try to sell me their SEO abilities, but the one gem among the crap makes it all worthwhile. The five-cups-a-week advice was given to me by someone who knows nothing about starting a business and nothing about magazines or retail. Yet, it has made a marked difference on my business.
How do I manage these meetings?
At first I had to cultivate all of these meetings, and I am really glad that I did. Our Elizabeth St location can be put down to a random meeting (we signed the lease before it was publically on the market). Our direct supply relationships? All due to cups of coffee. Getting into t-shirts, books and stationery? Again, it was a bunch of meetings with various people that sparked ideas that got us to question our basic assumptions. Our biggest investor? A colleague of a colleague of a friend who I met for a coffee to just have a chat.
Now, I could easily fill my coffee quota with the people calling me. This is not a good thing. When I was more of a nobody than I am today (perhaps more accurate to say when mag nation was still a concept rather than a real brand), I had to beg, borrow and cajole just to get people to talk to me. On the basis of a virtual cold call, I now have the CEO of a publically-listed company with close to a billion dollars in revenue as an informal advisor/mentor. He was one of my five cups of coffee a week. I sought him out and we connected.
The healthiest balance for me is when some meetings come to me and when I have to seek out the rest. Learning how to say no and not take the easy route to filling my weekly quota was a big learning for me. I could now easily fill up over 10 meetings a week from people who want my take on what they are doing or who have some other agenda in relation to mag nation. I will take some of these, but I have had to limit them. My colleague said five cups a week, not caffeine addiction.
Reality gets challenged from the outside.
I haven’t always succeeded in maintaining this coffee rhythm. Like the rest of us, I too get consumed by the average entrepreneurial challenges, such as running out of money, staffing issues, running out of money, technology setbacks, developing the growth pipeline and running out of money.
Yet, it has slowly dawned upon me that when consumed by these issues, there is no more valuable time than to get external perspectives. Conversations lead to more conversations. Most people are more than happy to recommend other people for you to speak to. And it is only through speaking to other people that we can elevate ourselves out of our reality and use the clear air to challenge it.
It took a bald headed kid in the Matrix to tell Neo:
Do not try to bend the spoon; that’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon.
Five cups of coffee a week with random people. There is no spoon.