June 11, 2019 · Business

Don't Eat Your Seed Corn

I just watched this great short interview with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

On quarterly results and focus:

"We would all like our numbers to be smooth lines up and to the right, and that would be terrific, but that's not how it works."

"Those numbers are outputs. You could try to manage them precisely, but that would be a mistake."

"Most of the work that we put into any particular quarter happened years ago."

"There aren't that many knobs you can turn during a quarter [to manage the results]. You can, but you're eating your seed corn if you turn those knobs. You don't want to do that."

This interview stood out to me because one of the hardest parts of my job is advising architecture directors who are going through a stressful patch: worried about their short-term project pipeline, worried whether the phone will ring when they need it to, worried about controlling the uncontrollable.

What should you do when the phone isn't ringing?

It's a super common scenario. Projects finishing up on site without new jobs to replace them, so the director turns to their marketing advisor (me) to ask "what can we do right now to get clients in the next 4-8 weeks."

I don't mind saying it: it's just about impossible to make clients appear out of the ether in the space of four weeks.

As much as we want to try and turn those knobs, it's really hard (and expensive and dangerous) to turn those knobs.

Sure, the marketing world seduces us with the promise of low-hanging fruit - tricks and hacks that will give us a short-term boost and make us rich quick, but they aren't sustainable, and most of the time, they don't work.

Jason Fried had a great quote about low-hanging fruit tactics and why they rarely work the way you expect them to.

"The problem, as we've learned over time, is that the further away you are from the fruit, the lower it looks. Once you get up close, you see that it's quite a bit higher than you thought. We assume that picking it will be easy only because we've never tried to do it before."

That is really the simplest explanation for why the spontaneous marketing tactics you try when you're panicking don't work. The easy shortcuts, little sweat for a lot of reward, an easy opportunity waiting to be seized - are just a mirage in the desert.

Architecture is just a slow flywheel kind of business. There's no shortcuts. It takes years of meaningful effort and really smart choices to get that lead-generation wheel to budge, then grind a little bit, then rotate freely.

The flywheel doesn't have a gas pedal hidden behind "break glass in case of emergency". That's not how it works. People don't hire you because you've decided that you need them to.

Bezos is spot-on when he observes that "most of the work that we put into any particular quarter happened years ago". We all need to be more patient and trust that our past-selves made the right calls and put in the work to see us through in the present.

Is "be patient" seriously my recommendation? Yes! I honestly believe the best strategy during these little dips is to do nothing. Really. Don't change anything about your marketing strategy. Here's why.

John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard and inventor of the ETF said it best - "time is your friend, impulse is your enemy".

He was talking about the importance of patience in successful long-term investing.

The reason so many people underperform the market over the years isn't picking bad stocks, or not having the right plan. It's much simpler than that. Their chronic under-performance stems from their nervous impulses and bad decisions during a market dip.

When investors panic, they sell their investments at the bottom. They change their investment strategy on the fly. They fire their advisor. They take risky, dangerous gambles. They basically start doing crazy, impulsive stuff.

Architects are also their own worst enemies when the phone hasn't rung for a little while.

When architects yell "fire", they don't calmly make their way to the exits: they stampede!

Stop the blog! Stop the media outreach! Stop Instagram! Stop the newsletters! Stop the website changes! Reverse the website changes! Broaden our positioning!

Every part of the long-term plan goes out the window to focus every available resource on the short-term.

We want to do something, do anything to turn things around. It's just normal human behaviour. Everyone is rational, calm and self-directed until the phone stops ringing.

The role of an advisor in helping a client to stick to a plan through thick and thin is more art than science - but I've learned how much it matters.

Sticking to the plan is a lot more important than the individual elements of the plan: the dry, tactical this-or-that marketing decisions like "should we use five, or fifteen hashtags on our Instagram posts?"

Does any of that really matter if you stop posting when you're busy, and stop again when you're quiet?

We all need to make a plan, and figure out ways to tenaciously adhere to it when we face a 'market dip'.

Famous hunter, cook and New York Times writer Steven Rinella wrote this great passage about developing patience.

"I began trying to hunt bull elk in the mountains with a bow, which pushed my tolerance for waiting to an extreme. I had to become accustomed to the idea that success might come once every few years instead of every few nights — and then only if you tried your absolute hardest."

"I worked for a long time to bring this level of patience and tenacity to writing. I recall the silent, lonely and  uncomfortable days that I’ve endured in the woods. I imagine that the idea I’m trying to put into words is an elk that’s out of sight but, perhaps, slowly headed my way."

"Ultimately, I found that success for [hunting and writing] often came down to my ability to endure discomfort and boredom long enough for the desired result to happen along, magically, on its own."

A quiet patch doesn't mean your strategy is wrong, or that your marketing is failing.

That scary few weeks of not knowing when and if the phone will ring happens to nearly all of my clients, big and small, at some point during the year.

You should plan and prepare mentally for volatility: because it's either happening to you right now, happened recently, or will happen soon.

Eventually the phone rings. Then you're busy again. Then you're too busy to spend time on your marketing. The beautiful, painful cycle of running an architecture practice.



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