Visualize Your “Big Picture”

Often, success in business is very much about your ability to see the big picture, to be able to visualize the potential size, scope, and impact of a venture or invention.  Chester Carlson had an image in his mind of people communicating much faster and easier by allowing them to duplicate documents quickly without typesetting or using an expensive chemical process, so he developed the Xerox copier.  And we all know about Edison’s vision of the utility of safe, simple lights.  The big picture begins with an idea and then asking, “What if?”

What is the Big Picture vision you have for your business?  It could be as simple as selling it to the highest bidder or as complex as developing a multi-generational family empire.  Whatever your vision is, you should have it on paper and be able to explain it to anyone who needs to know, at any time.  You should be able to explain it to yourself in terms that psych you up and keep you motivated to work toward the goals you set! 

Imagine if Bill Gates had no vision of the impact the operating system would have on PCs.  Imagine if Steve Jobs had no vision of the impact of end-users owning their own computers and software.  Imagine if Henry Ford had no vision of mass production of the automobile at a low cost per owner.  Imagine what it will be like if you have no vision to fulfill.  If not, then where are you going?  Are you in business just to have a job or was there a point in time when you really had a vision of where your business could take you?

Ask yourself today if you are on the path to the success you expect or if you are on a path determined by the demands of your customers, your suppliers, and the day?  If you are no longer on your path to success, how will you get back on it?  What keeps you and your business from reaching the goals of your expectations?

Corporate Econ Disconnected From Society Econ

Large corporations continue to find ways to reduce overhead and sell enough to each other, distributors, and retail companies in order to raise earnings.  This is great for stock investors and does a lot for those employed by them.  At the same time we see that economic numbers in the real society which includes small business owners and employees continue to wane.

Housing is still sliding since many can’t borrow, charity accounts continue to receive smaller gifts, employment is lagging and falling behind corporate earnings, people are still finding ways to reduce spending, and overall the numbers leading into next year just don’t look good.  And we haven’t even seen the effect of higher taxes yet!  What will that be like?

The disconnect is really an important concept to understand because without understanding this, it’s easy for a business owner or investor to look at corporations as the lead indicator of whether to expand business and invest at higher risk levels.  The news media would have everyone believe that Citigroup’s earnings and the earnings of other companies mean the economy is getting better.  It just does not work like that.  If you own the stock of a company and it goes up on positive earnings news, then your economic outlook may be better, but this does not mean others who own no shares are doing better.

So which is it?  Is the country seeing a better economy in the very near future or not?  Ask around, talk to friends who own a business, ask family about their jobs, and you can get a better idea of what is really going on out there.

How do we overcome the duality of trends?  Invest in large corporations if you can, the better ones of course, and expand your business into areas which have been showing stable or growing demand.  Keep a cautious mindset and don’t let generalities like blue chip earnings numbers lead you into an overly optimistic strategy that could cost you more than you expect.  Down the road a few years, when we wise up a bit and let business owner/entrepreneurs do their thing which makes this country great, we will be able to afford optimism and the risk involved.

I’m not saying “Don’t invest, don’t expand business”, but on the contrary, I believe this is one of the best times to do so, but you better be extremely cautious!

Business Econ Warning and New Blog Topic

Currently I have been doing market research online to prepare for the launch of a business.  In doing so I have been startled to find that maybe (only a maybe), there is more trouble in Small and Midsize business than we realize.  In the coming weeks I will add blogs to update my findings.  The topic will be called BusinessScape.  I will be posting these blogs in the BusinessScape category and add a page/tab for the project.

I have noticed the dismal “scape” of the small business web in general.  As usual there are a lot of sites on the web, some new, some old, but what’s missing are freshness, content, and development of business ideas and concepts.  Everything seems very stale, surprisingly so.  As compared to large corporations like Yahoo, Caterpillar, Apple, and much more, the small and midsize web sites are just not keeping up.  At one point they led the way for web development.  If they slow down or stop now, that’s not a good sign!

This trend could simply be complacency or it could be a sign of lack of time and funding for web-based activity.  Looking today at http://foxnews.com and the lead story about damage from mortgage crisis, as well as other articles this past week regarding jobs, politics and much more, it seems that watching the largest corporations and their earnings reports is completely out of touch with over 50% of the population, the portion which represents small-midsize business.  Another issue could be the currently poor quality of web site design tools and the high cost of site design based on the need for multiple scripting languages, and more robust hardware to keep up with the bloat of web graphics, operating systems, and multi-platform software.  I feel web design tools have not kept up with their potential at all, it’s a mess, and large companies now have the advantage in cost point for development of good quality web sites.

This past week I noticed a company I am very familiar with had filed Chapter 11.  The company was in a unique space with great opportunity and little could have slowed it down except for a prolonged flat to down market.  This company provided patented products to very large companies, most of which had little alternative but to purchase these products and services in order to expand at a reasonable cost.  Knowing the business as I do, this particular failure bothers me in the sense that if they can’t make it, then who can on the development and opportunity side?  In other words, if they can’t expand then maybe nobody really can for now.  Only low-priced consumer markets can expand.  This isn’t entirely shocking.

Have we seen the end of the downturn or have we only seen the end of the beginning of it?  Time will tell.  So far, with the current trend to follow poor economic policy it is fairly certain that this downturn will last a while longer.  Our economists like to say an event ends as the bottom of a cycle, like hitting the low on the Dow, but really a downturn isn’t over until we return to previous market levels and standards of living.  By then the Dow may be well above previous highs but the standard of living may not reach its previous level for many more years.  To make my point, imagine that you purchased a stock at its high several years ago.  It lost 80% and now is only half-way back to its high.  Would you feel you are doing good just because it isn’t at the low, or would you still feel it will not be good until it reaches the point where you purchased it?

I will be interviewing business owners this week to get their take on the BusinessScape and will write as I feel I have relevant information.  Keep in mind that this study will be mostly in the Kansas City area but will also cover some other parts of the country as time permits.

The Mental Downgrading of AOL

AOL used to be it, the big dog of ISPs.  Now AOL has become a joke, providing the most intrusive landing pages I’ve ever seen.  They took a step back in time to the days of banner ad dialup where everyone knew they were getting online for free because they had to see ads.  But these are now the days of Google and paid broadband.

AOL used to be the service that meant something.  If someone gave me their email address and it ended in @aol.com then I knew they could afford internet, that they were willing to pay for it, that they were keeping up with the times.  Times have changed very much indeed.  Now if someone gives me that same @aol.com ending I think “Where have you been!”  I wonder how they can afford that junk, how often do they read their email, and why are they so far behind? 

AOL stinks.  The splash artwork is terrible, like a trip back to the 70’s to view graffiti and the abusive style in-your-face ads are even worse.  Going to the email online page is like revisiting their home page that I just clicked on as quickly as possible to get out of before another stupid ad fly-by. 

None of us can afford to waste our time on these intrusive ads, unreadable home pages, and bulk that takes forever to load and strains the computer’s memory.  How do you solve this problem?  Here’s how:

1. Change your home page to either a good news site like FoxNews.com or to Google where you can start off with your mind still on work instead of the next rag story.

2. Get your own email service.  Yahoo is still great, Google of course, or some other platform you can get to without being pick-pocketed on the way.

3. Make a mental commitment to avoid bad landing pages like AOL and Yahoo, and many others.

4. Switch to FireFox and load the ad-ons for NoScript and Adblock.  Your business life will increase in time value by a measurable amount.

5. Do it now! Stop wasting your time and your brain power.

Is Goldman Sachs Window Dressing?

Today’s news from Goldman Sachs ($GS) is interesting in more ways than just the negatives they predict for the economy.  I can’t help but wonder about the timing of their statements.

We just had a pretty good run from near Dow 10,000 to near 10,900.  Year to date Goldman Sachs had probably outperformed most of their peers and has had plenty of trading opportunity.  Not knowing what their current portfolios look like in their eyes, it does seem odd that in the midst of all the news and portfolio managers who have said “No double-dip recession”, that here comes Goldman with a big negative.  Who does this serve?

If we follow the money a little bit maybe it serves Goldman more than investors.  Many investors have only recently added exposure to their portfolios.  If Goldman made enough in trading so that their portfolio return is somewhat irrelevant, then maybe helping the markets prepare for a harsh economy also helps Goldman window dress some accounts and funds prior to year end, and also can help them move to better positions for the coming year, and an eventual positive market.  How should we take this?

As business owners we must take it with a grain of salt, maybe a whole pound of salt!  I don’t think investing in private accounts is necessarily effected by this, but should we view it as a short term negative and in reality a buy signal?  To me it almost seems like they are saying the poker players at the table all hold bad hands except Goldman, and now they are waiting for everyone to fold.  They may have a full house or they may be bluffing but if everyone else is holding a bad hand it doesn’t matter.  So how do we follow this lead?  Don’t be the last one out and don’t be the first one out!  This hand may be played over the next 2-3 quarters but it is going to end way before the night is over.

In other words, keep playing, don’t bet to high for now, but realize the next hand may deal you some good cards, as long as you still have something left to bet.  Is business investing a poker game?  Only some of the time.  In the short term it really can look like gambling more than investing.

So when should we be willing to deploy new ventures, take risks in marketing, and put hedge money back to work?  If you have long term goals you must continue to work forward toward them, at the same time you may want to adjust your timing for anything that increases overhead.  To me it seems like the best time may be after the first of the year.

Today’s article on Goldman Sachs from Bloomberg: http://bit.ly/c0XgJx

Tiny Bits of Positive News

The markets love the little tiny bits of positive news and quickly turn them into giant mountains of positive expectations.  It’s fun to watch the markets move on little blips of hope.  This isn’t Bullishness that’s affecting the markets, it’s outright hope for relief from despair.  The problem is that hope doesn’t float the markets for long, and neither do earnings based on accounting practices and return on cash holdings.  At some point businesses must make real money, real earnings from real productivity of sales increases, like Apple does.  Not every company can do that right now since they are all held hostage by the little tiny people in Washington who are made up by the media to be great big world leaders and economic wizards. 

The markets have to come to the realization of all this and eventually price in the reality of the much higher cost of doing business.  Goldman Sachs and their Small Business effort isn’t likely to turn the markets around.  It takes freedom of cash flow and credit to do good business.  How will we have that if the Government keeps absorbing jobs and paying out cheaper dollars?