Founder’s Corner #2: Five Things I Can Do Right Now

By Max Thomas

Building a business or accomplishing anything takes focus. It also takes ongoing work. Sometimes the reality of ongoing work can take over and we lose focus. Personally, I know this has happened when I find myself in bed at night thinking about all the things I “could do” and then I start to feel overwhelmed. When this happens, I know it’s past the tipping point and I have lost my focus.

Work on your business, not in your business.

This is an old expression. It’s a common reminder for small business owners (really, any business owner). The first time I heard it was in graduate school in an introductory class to operations. The “lesson” was dubbed “Bob the Butcher” and went something like this:

Bob worked in the kitchen of a restaurant and was a great butcher. Everyone relied on Bob to have all the meat cuts ready for every meal. One day the restaurant owner decides to make Bob the manager, after all he is 100% reliable. Bob is psyched; he’s been promoted! Now he’s known as “Bob The Manager.” At first, everything works great: Bob gets the meat cuts ready (he’s got his end covered), customers come and go happy. Then one day the restaurant gets slammed AND a waiter calls in sick. As a result, food orders get delayed, meals get served late, the kitchen gets backed up (oooh nooo!!). But wait! No need to worry. Bob The Manager knows exactly what do to — cut meat! That’s right, in this crisis Bob leaves his front post and goes to the back of the restaurant to do what he knows best – to butcher. He does this because he “knows” that without the meat, then nothing else happens. Meanwhile, server stations, food orders, wait staff, and other things continue to back up faster and faster. It’s a disaster…and Bob doesn’t understand what went wrong.

There are multiple ways to tell (and interpret) this story. Here the point is that in some sticky situations we will default to doing what we know how to do best (e.g., Bob The Butcher). This is in contrast to stepping back, assessing the situation in its entirety, and responding to what needs attention now, as well as what to change for the future (e.g., Bob The Manager).

In my own experience, I can count many times when I’ve “hunkered down” to bang out SEO reports, site audits or keyword research because we have a backlog of work to be done. While this helped in the short term to provide the services our clients paid for, it also came at a cost to the long-term growth and development of Thunder. This is so vitally important because while those tasks needed to be done, when I did them I was not helping to move Thunder forward. In effect, I was working “in my business,” rather than “on my business.”

So does that mean ‘Don’t do the work’?

Great question. While it helped get needed tasks accomplished, I was acting like Bob The Butcher more than Bob The Manager. I don’t mind jumping in and supporting client work, but every time I do that it means I’m not working on initiatives or new opportunities that can help move Thunder forward. I think Bob Parsons (yes, the Bob Parsons® of fame with a registered trademark after his name) says it best in his 16 Rules For Success In Business And Life In General:

#5 Always be moving forward.

Never stop investing. Never stop improving. Never stop doing something new. The moment you stop improving your organization, it starts to die. Make it your goal to be better each and every day, in some small way. Remember the Japanese concept of Kaizen. Small daily improvements eventually result in huge advantages.

In fact, I can easily argue that whenever I spend too much time on doing client work, and not working “on Thunder,” I impede the company from moving forward.


Not moving forward means stagnation.

This is huge. I can’t stress it enough. Here’s another way to illustrate this concept, which came out of working with Karie Kaufmann (an awesome business coach in San Diego, CA) who helped Thunder identify and articulate the company’s Vision and Mission.

Similar to the story of Bob The Butcher, she explained how many business owners believe that their primary responsibilities are to (1) the clients, then (2) the revenue and then (3) the employees. While this sounds logical, it spreads the business owner’s focus too thinly across all segments, never really accomplishing greatness in any of them. In addition, espousing no clear priority, this approach can keep the business from moving forward as strongly and quickly as it could.

The work-around is for the business owner to focus on supporting the employees, who then support the clients, who then provide the revenue, which then supports the owner. This was a big “Aha!” moment for me. So much so that it shifted my entire perspective to the degree that employees and the structures to support them have become my number 1 priority.

Phoebe helped visualize this concept with her illustration above. Notice that on the “Invest” version, “Owner” has been changed to “Business.” This reflects the transition that happens when a business owner starts to think of the business as an entity much larger than herself/himself. In fact, the owner starts to become a steward of a dynamic and growing organism. (Stay tuned for future posts about Thunder’s pending migration to employee-ownership.)

What if I don’t own a business?

Doesn’t matter. I’m sharing this through my own personal story but it applies to everyone no matter what we’re doing. Think about what you want to accomplish and the best investment of your time, effort and energy.

Making daily focus a reality.

Ah, the punch line. One Friday night in late January, I came home and my extraordinary spouse, Gabriel, said that I looked tired and asked “What’s up?”. I said, “Lots of work…blah, blah, blah,” to which he asked, “What did you do today to move Thunder forward?”. This has been a question he’s being asking from time to time over the years. In the past, he’s even suggested that I do “one thing for Thunder” each day, however off-the-wall that might be. It’s his way of getting me out of the “Bob The Butcher” mindset and into a more expansive and forward-moving perspective.

On this particular Friday I feebly responded that I’m not sure if I did anything to move Thunder forward since there was so much other stuff to do (Get it? Clearly I was “cutting meat” all day). He then suggested that I write down five things I could do today (meaning, “right now”) that would move Thunder forward. He stressed that these need to be things that I can do easily. Not really dreams or hopes or plans or visions, but really simple things that I can do immediately.

Surprisingly, it was harder for me to come up with “things” than I thought it would be. First, I got hung up on identifying small doable tasks that I could do right away. Second, once I wrote out some doable tasks, I started worrying about the what ifs (you know those what ifs….like what if someone doesn’t agree, or what if it doesn’t work, or what if the sky falls…). Third, I wrote out more than 5. Where to start?

In the end, I was able to whittle it down to what I felt were 5 things I could do right way. They were:

  1. Talk about what I envision for Thunder to everyone
  2. Email Marty about presenting at Draft FCB
  3. Increase Thunder prices by 25%
  4. Blog weekly – build up my online presence as Thunder’s CEO
  5. Start biz plan for CRO and Agency Expansion Services

Not bad for a first attempt. Here’s a shot of the first one I wrote out. The paper is all crinkled now (I keep it my trusty moleskin) and it’s still a great reminder of the importance of staying focused.

Has it worked?

The short answer is “yes”. I think the longer answer merits looking at what makes an exercise like this successful or not. I’ll use my first list as an example.

#1 is ongoing, and I still keep it as a great reminder. #2 was easily done. #3 actually turned out to be a 50% increase (wahoo!). #4 is a great one but still a bit too large; I’ve found that it’s better to make it more actionable, like maybe “write a blog post this week.” Even so, it got the ball rolling for me on blogging again (which had taken an unintentional hiatus). #5 was (like #4) a bit too large. In fact, I haven’t moved forward yet on this one. Clearly it’s time to cut it down to doable steps.

As of late, my “5 things to do now” are more doable and have immediate impact. While the biggest win has been increasing prices 50%, other accomplishments have included moving forward on the redesign for (an “ongoing to-do” for nearly a year now), moving toward an employee-owned organization and determining our actual costs associated with our clients and operations (Did someone say Productivity?).

Keeping it real.

To give it even more credence, I started posting my “5 Things” lists on Instagram. In case my own conviction ever warbles, I’ve decided to make it public so everyone can see. This may or may not be your cup of tea, but I’ve found it very motivating…including the supportive comments other folks offer. Here’s some screen shots of ones I’ve posted recently. They’re easily found via the hashtag #thundermove.

The elegance of prioritizing.

Probably the longest-lasting benefit of prioritizing in any form is that life is a little less stressful when we know what matters most. With some priorities defined, then all the tasks, emails and thoughts become just “noise” that can be ignored just a little more easily while we focus on doing the small things that can move mountains (love the song, can’t vouch for the video).

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Max Thomas

By Max Thomas

Max is a nationally recognized digital marketing specialist who is an expert on search engine optimization and data-driven digital marketing who has spoken at SMX and SMX Advanced, LMA Southeast, LMA Tech in San Francisco, WordCamp and other industry recognized conferences. As the founder and CEO of ThunderActive, Max has lead his team (with offices in San Diego and New York City) to success for clients in legal, real estate, life sciences, consumer goods and new tech. A Columbia undergraduate with a Yale MBA, Max is an Impact Circle Member for The Trevor Project and is an advisor to start-up companies and angel investment networks, including Gaingels and Serval Ventures in New York.

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