I wish I had given myself this piece of advice when I started. It is a simple method for progressing from novice to expert and is especially useful for startups. It is not a shortcut, but a proper framework which you can apply to any important business procedure.
Unfortunately, when I started my first business I had forgotten all about it because I have never seen it described in this way before.
So, let me jump right in and explain what the method is.
I started my working life in the pharmaceutical industry as a chemist technician. And the company I worked at, excelled at providing technician training.
Every year the company churned out the top apprentices in chemistry, biology and pharmacy. They did an amazing job at training people from absolute novices to expert level technicians. I am not exaggerating.
When I look back at how the company achieved this, I realise they followed a plan to get to their goal. And the goal was to create technicians that were highly skilled and efficient. It was a German company so efficiency was in its DNA.
The 3-step-method to excel at anything
This is the three-step method they used to teach us EVERYTHING.
1. Learn a new skill and understand why you are doing it
So for example, we would learn how to purify a chemical compound. We learnt that there are several methods for solids and liquids. Then we had to practice the techniques over a period of many weeks and until we were competent at creating pure materials.
2. Improve what you do
This step was only introduced to us after our understanding of the basics was completely solid. We were then taught how to purify very complicated mixtures. This involved learning some new techniques, or variations of earlier methods. Sometimes we learnt that combining methods gave vastly improved results. The techniques were challenging at first, but with practice became much easier.
The important point was that we already understood the basics, which gave us an opportunity to concentrate on the improvements of the techniques.
3. Do it faster
After becoming experts at purifying the most complicated mixtures possible, we were then taught how to do it faster. In part this happened through repeatedly doing the same processes. Another part was using machines that were doing some of the jobs for us. A third part that led to us working faster was multitasking.
Because we had already mastered and perfected the basic skills, we were able to visualise the problems in chunks and simultaneously work on several projects. We also understood how to integrate machines to assist us.
How to apply it to a startup
In business, it’s very easy to keep yourself incredibly busy but achieve nothing. Finding the right things to do is hard and requires effort. As a startup, you can fool yourself into thinking something will come of it if you work hard. But the statistics on startup failure rates tell a different story. Businesses fail all the time and it’s not for a lack of trying. It’s the lack of doing the right things that cause even the best ideas to fail.
The mistake I made with my first business is to skip step 1 and 2. I read many books and articles on how to start a business. But I didn’t start with the fundamentals.
I thought I was clever and went for the expert advice straight away, skipping the basics. In my mind learning the most advanced techniques meant I was saving myself time, avoiding the boring stuff.
But that created massive problems. I tried to do too much, too fast. And I tried to automate things I did not fully understand. There is a huge temptation to use automated systems because you feel there is never enough time in an entrepreneur’s day to do everything.
But I soon realised, if you don’t understand the basics well, doing them fast and automating them gets you nowhere.
Connect with your customer
The most important skill you need to master in your business is to connect with your customers. You cannot skip that part. You need to build your foundation one customer at the time. It is not possible to connect with individuals in an automated way early in your startup. You first have to understand fully what your customer needs and how you can best fill that need. It involves listening to your customers and organising your thoughts into solutions that provide value.
Running a business successfully means finding many ways to communicate how you make your customers’ lives better. This takes practice and requires real understanding and empathy. I have written before about the importance of building a brand. It’s the best activity to start a business with.
Improve one piece at a time
You may not know at this point how to connect with your audience. The best place to begin is by trying to figure out what is holding you back. It could be that your website repels visitors. Maybe you are not being clear, maybe it’s poor writing. Maybe you haven’t found the right tone that your audience finds engaging. Whatever it is, prioritise what is most important, and grapple with one issue at the time.
Once you have the basics covered you can work on improving your offering. You can for example tweak your offer or create more suitable products. Or you can become better at targeting more suitable customers. You can increase or decrease the price to provide the right value. You can bundle offers or separate products into smaller more affordable parts.
It’s a process of trial and error. But if you understand the basics, why your first customers bought your product, you can concentrate on the improvements. The results of your experiments will be much closer to the target than if you were just trying random tactics.
Automate what is working
Once you have perfected your processes and you can reliably reach new customers and convert them into paying customers, you are ready to automate. This automation could include advertisement on social media to target new customers or automated emails which move the customer along in the buying process.
At that point you can also simultaneously run different projects. For example you could target specific niches in your market with tailored offers.
I learnt from my mistakes. It was only after things did not go well in my first business that I remembered my technician training.
I now realise there was a good reason why during our technician training we were not taught how to use purification machines straight away. We needed to do things by hand to gain a deep understanding first. This knowledge then helped us to put the machines to their best use. It also helped us to identify problems easily if the machines malfunctioned.
When you have done the work yourself by hand, you will realise what outcome you can expect from the automation. You understand that the machine carries out several steps simultaneously and from your understanding of each step, you will know where any error may have occurred.
Beware of automation experts
Trusting automation too early in your startup can cause problems. But the same also applies to outsourcing.
I used to think experts know what they are doing. But particularly in online marketing, many experts bamboozle new starters with tools they don’t understand. There are SEO experts with keyword search tools and social media managers with scheduling tools for every platform and writers that use content creation tools.
But these experts often skip the basics. They are masters at automation, and they are expecting you to provide the thought-out basics. Some of them are honest enough to explain that you need to figure those basics out first. But many will be glad to keep quiet and take your money. They will dazzle you with their performance, showing you how many tweets, pins and Facebook posts they posted every week. They will show you a fantastic increase in your Google search ranking through their amazing SEO efforts.
But you may find their efforts don’t translate into more sales for you. That’s because the basics are missing or wrong.
The basics are far more important than you think. They are the foundation that your business is built on.