SMB Ownership: Balancing Innovation With Sustained Growth

SMB Ownership: Balancing Innovation With Sustained Growth

When I left the corporate world to co-launch Nine Lives Media Inc. with Amy Katz, one of our goals was to innovate. Constantly. Amy and I also wanted creative freedom and business freedom. But as a business grows, you suddenly discover that you're really busy managing what you have -- rather than breaking new ground. I suspect many MSPs and small business entrepreneurs face similar challenges. So how can you continue to innovate even as you maintain what you have? Here are six ways to break free from the very business walls you helped to build.

They include:

1. Go Back to Your Roots

To move forward, look back to the very beginning of your business. Chances are your original business plan had several great ideas that you never pursued. Dust off those plans. Adjust them for modern times. And take one to market.

2. Think In Quarters

I can't recall who told me this, but during a recent managed services conference some pundit told me to take at least one great idea to market per quarter, or four new ideas per year. (If you're the pundit who told me that quarterly rule, please raise your hand, take credit and post a comment.)

As an MSP, what new services do you plan to launch in Q4 2010? And what will you introduce in Q1 2011... and beyond? Figure out your launch pipeline. If you don't set launch goals and deadlines you'll never find the time to innovate.

  • What if Cisco had stopped at routers?
  • What if Apple had stopped at Macs?
  • Your business's greatest product or service may yet to be launched.

3. Delegate and Interview Talent Weekly

At some point, you can't run your entire business . At Nine Lives, we're fortunate. On the business development side of the house, senior sales consultant Kim Daniels joined our team about a year ago. On the content side, contributing associate bloggers Matt Weinberger and David Courbanou continue to scale their contributions across our sites, as do  contributors like John Moore, Charlene O'Hanlon and Christopher Tozzi.

But it's time to delegate more and scale higher. I can't make a guarantee, but I think it's safe to say Nine Lives Media Inc.'s team of editorial contributors and Web talent will expand in Q4 2010.

The same trend seems to be under way in the managed services market. Check the MSPmentor Career Center, and you'll notice Do IT Smarter's Lane Smith seeking to fill at least two key positions. Check in with Nimsoft CEO Gary Read, and he'll tell you his greatest challenge right now is finding and hiring the right talent.

If you've got the same challenge then take the time to meet at least one job candidate per week, even if you don't have a position open at the moment. That way you're ready to pull the trigger -- fast -- as positions open up in your company.

4. Mix Experience with Youth

Over the years, Amy and I have spent a lot of time listening to media industry veterans who helped to build companies like CMP Media and Ziff Davis Media in the 1980s and 1990s. They've given us some great advice. But we also leverage ideas from Generation Y.

Here's a prime example: Quite a few media companies are launching "TV" channels. We haven't. And I suspect we never will. Based on feedback from our own Gen Y bloggers, we've avoided green screens and online "TV" shows. Instead, we focused on rough, authentic online videos. More than 50,000 views later, readers seem to be warming up to the video service.

My key point: Anyone 40 and older (myself included) tends to think in "classic" media formats like TV and Sunday Morning's Meet the Press. But my kids -- ages 11 through 4 -- spend considerable time video chatting with friends. Video Chat rules. Long-format coffee table interviews are dead.

How can MSPs profit from this trend? Go hang out on a college campus. Sit down with your kids' friends. Ask them which online applications they're using. Chances are, they consider FaceBook a legacy application. Those kids will tell you what's next. Just take the time to ask, then see if the application has a potential business use.

5. Don't Build From Scratch

Generally speaking, it's possible to launch a high-quality media site in as little as four weeks. The secret to such rapid deployment: We leverage about 50 different open source components and blend them into a single, customized solution.

The best MSPs use a similar tactic. All the tools are out their for you to leverage -- online storage, managed security, hosted Exchange. The trick is blending everything into your own branded managed service. As I pointed out in tip 2, you should have at least one new product or service under development each quarter. But you'll never achieve that goal if you build everything from scratch.

6. Ignore Your Critics (Sometimes)

We spend a lot of time listening to feedback from readers, mentors and pundits. In most cases we thrive on that feedback. It helps us to polish our products and services. But in a few cases we completely ignore the feedback.

A case in point: When Amy and I decided to launch the MSPmentor 100, a few of our most trusted advisors said we were crazy.
  • Would 100 MSPs even fill out the survey?
  • Would they share their data?
Instead of researching those two questions for months and months, we made an educated guess. And over the past three years, thousands of MSPs participated in the annual global survey.

Some other examples of bucking conventional wisdom:
  • In the early 1990s, Wall Street wanted CEO Lou Gerstner to break up IBM into multiple companies. Instead, Gerstner ignored the "experts" and rallied the company around services.
  • Throughout the 1990s, critics called on Apple to license Mac OS to third-party hardware companies. Instead, Steve Jobs ignored the experts, shut down the Mac cloning business, and focused on digital media and mobility.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

Over the next couple of months, I plan to re-read the list above. Will we follow our own advice? Will the Nine Lives management team delegate where appropriate? Will we find the right new talent? And will we spend more time innovating rather than managing our existing operations?

In the weeks and months ahead, we plan to get back to basics. I hope you find the time to do the same. Innovating, after all, never feels like hard work...

As Red Hat's Michael Tiemann once told me: Try your best to come to work every day, blow up everything you've built and start over. In my mind, that's nearly impossible. But it's fun to try.

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TAGS: Leadership
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