Giving it Away

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I’ve had two conversations recently, about the same topic, that are bothering me.  In the first a new friend in our industry observed that sales people in general, and insurance people don’t like to share.  And by that, he meant share ideas.  In the other, a colleague wondered why I don’t sell some of my ideas to others and instead give them away.

The first conversation was bothersome because I recognize that my friend is right.  In fact, I frequently encounter agency owners who view everything they do as a secret, that if others copied, they would lose opportunity or business.

The second conversation is a concern because it implies that not being greedy, or not always seeking to profit from my ideas, is foolish, short sighted or somehow contributes to a smaller degree of success.

For the last couple of years, I’ve read and listened to Peter Diamandis, the author of “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think” and the developer of the Abundance 360 conference. One of the things Peter talks about is the demonetization of products and ideas.  The other is how truly abundant almost everything of value in the world is.

Peter’s teaching, along with my own personal philosophy of casting bread on the water has caused me to share increasingly those things that others might call “trade secrets” or some other appellation of value.  My thinking, as it has evolved, is that there is more business available to me than I can ever possibly garner and what little I know of is probably already known anyway – so what is the harm in sharing? I also have discovered that the more I am willing to share, the more I am shared with.

In fact, while it isn’t the primary motivator for me, I’ve had the interesting experience that the more I give away the more I receive.  I’ve written before about Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success” and about how powerful, in terms of human interaction, relationship and ultimate achievement giving is.  In contrast, my own personal observation is selfishness is often the root of failure.

Selfishness and greed are born of a mindset of scarcity Diamandis tells us.  And these characteristics repel while generosity and giving attract according to Grant.

As a practical matter, I cannot possibly sell every prospect in my market nor could I take care of them if I did.  If sharing with others means they can, so what?  But what if sharing opens me to the gifts of others?  In my experience, it has and that has led, in business, financial and satisfaction terms to more success than I ever dreamed of.

So, who is the fool?  The one who shares or the one who secrets away?  We all get to make this distinction ourselves, and in our own business the decision.

Tuition for Something Else

diceI recently read an article by a well-known business leader who listed seven things which he believes separates highly effective, successful people from ordinary ones.  One of those seven things was a willingness to risk failure.

In our business we talk about failing a lot.  We do this because I believe that if you don’t risk failing you can’t make progress.  You can’t push your own envelope.  In fact, I tell team members that if they never fail, they aren’t doing the work I expect them to.

Among other things, failure is a wonderful teacher.  We don’t just learn what not to do when we fail, we also learn how to do things better.  A few years ago I decided that we should try an experiment and see if we could teach two complete insurance neophytes how to be successful agency owners.  This was way beyond our company’s skill set and my team was dead set against it.  I understood their reservations, admitted that we would likely fail, but also believed we’d learn a lot that would help us with the core of our business: developing successful agencies.

We put a lot of effort into teaching these two people and mentoring them.  Today, a bit over two years later, one of them is out of the business and the other one is still struggling.  Clearly, this wasn’t a runaway success on its face. But, there is much more to the story.  What we learned from the process has been invaluable in the teaching, training and mentoring of several dozen new agency owners since then.  Our “failure” taught us a great deal that has been very useful.

In business, experimenting, taking risks and facing potential failure pays tuition for an education in something besides the experiment.  We’re paying tuition for something else.  Looked at in this way, the routine of taking risks becomes in some ways easier, or more normal.  Certainly it helps us see the value of doing it.  As business leaders, if we wish to be really effective, this risk-taking skill is incredibly valuable.

 

Why You Must Have Video

video-iphoneWebsites have come a long way in just the last two years.  Two years ago, content was king.  No new content meant no one cared, and two years ago, the buzz was all about mobile.  Now, if you’re not mobile, you’re simply not relevant.

Today, websites without video are just not very effective compared to those with.

Insurance agencies may feel a bit overwhelmed with what is needed to keep up with all of this.  After all, we’re insurance people not internet marketers!  Or are we?  The truth lies somewhere in the middle.  The fact is that almost all commerce, including insurance purchases, takes place either directly on the web or is influenced by it.

So, like it or not, keeping up with what consumers expect in their web experiences isn’t an option, at least for today’s winners.

With that said, are there some best practices for video that can be adopted by anyone?  Yes, to begin with, web videos should be short.  The stats seem to indicate that past 30 seconds you begin to steadily lose viewership, although interestingly people will currently watch videos longer on their mobile devices.  Go figure.

Of course, videos need to be interesting.  That can be a challenge if you only think of insurance in policy terms.  But think about Progressive’s, State Farm’s, and Farmer’s ads on TV.  They manage to convey a message, with humor, in 30 seconds.  You can do the same thing with web video if you flex your creative muscles.  Or, you can put some of the videos your carriers have created on your site.  That saves time, money, and creative brain cells and leverages their brands with yours.

Make it personal.  This goes a bit against the last paragraph but where local agencies have a real opportunity is to personalize their offerings.  This is especially valuable when you share the video beyond your site into your social media posting.  You’re posting on social media, right?

Be topical.  What makes videoes go viral isn’t production values, its interest.

Turn it over frequently.  Change things up every few weeks.  Anything on your site that is a year old is, well, old.

Being a 21st century marketer is challenging, but so was being a 19th century marketer.  Try things.  Fail.  Get better.  But try.  Video is where it’s at in website marketing for now.  Who knows what will be hot and required in another two years.  Virtual reality anyone?

Websites

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As consumers continue to move online for virtually all their shopping needs, it has been stated countless times how critical it is for an insurance agency to have a website.  By now, there are few agents who can possibly survive without one.  Chances are, you have a website up and running – but have you rebuilt it in the last 24 months or so?

If you have not, you may want to take a look at your competitors, so as to understand whether or not your website is keeping up with them.  Better yet, take a look at those you frequent and ask yourself if your website is as engaging and easy to use.

Are you using video at all?  Estimates show consumers spend 88% more time on sites with video.  What is more, video increases organic search engine traffic over 150% and 300% more monthly website visitors.  Video doesn’t have to be difficult to produce.  In fact, at OAA, we have even used our iPhones to create compelling and engaging videos.  Start with something, watch your analytics to see what improvements you get, and go from there.

Get rid of as much text as you can.  We are all so busy and distracted; truthfully, we don’t want to read a lot on websites.  It is wise to go through your website and get ruthless with words.  Consider replacing words with image.

Optimize for mobile.  About 25% of Americans only access the web on mobile devices.  If one out of four of your prospects and customers have to scroll around your pages trying to read itty- bitty type, they’re not coming back!

I remember ten years ago, when we thought websites were just brochures in cyberspace we could print once and forget.  Then a few years ago, new and fresh content regularly became important. We learned that in order to be effective, regular attention must be paid to them.  Also a few years ago, we realized that we needed to create websites from scratch every two or three years.  In the same period, we learned that we needed to link them to all the online social media outlets.  Now, they need video, less writing, and mobile optimization.

I don’t know what’s next, but I do know it will come fast and that keeping up is even more important to attract and retain today’s increasingly demanding consumers.

Get To!

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One of the coaches I have at Strategic Coach is Lee Brawer.  Lee is a very philosophic guy and also a deep thinker.  I so appreciate the insight that he brings to business and to life as it has been a great stimulant to my own thinking about how to grow a company over the last several years.

A pillar of the OAA way is gratitude.  Lee has been instrumental in helping me think about what it means to be grateful “in” something and not just “for” something.  Recently, our Vice President of Corporate Communications LeAnn Sanderson was asked to speak about the reasons OAA has grown nearly 300 per cent in four years.  I asked her what she thought and she said “I think it’s our culture of gratitude and celebration”.   Of course she’s right.  Thank you Lee, we are grateful for your guidance in this!

Recently I was interview a candidate to head a new business we are developing and she said something incredibly profound to me.  This young lady had just spent a year battling cancer in a very real struggle for survival.  She said what she’s learned is to be grateful and to think about the things she “gets to” do instead of those that she “has to” do.   I was immediately alert and attentive because this is something I’ve heard Lee say a number of times.  The difference was the power of this candidate’s story that drove home the impact of the words.

All of us are incredibly blessed with opportunity.  Sometimes we just don’t see it.  Thinking about “getting to” instead of “having to” and even actually changing the way we talk about things to reflect this change of expression is incredibly powerful and leads to victory and success in so many ways.  It is certainly true in the life of our business, and the life of this young lady.  Try this little change of expression and see if it helps you see opportunity instead of problems!

I know you’re wondering how the interview went.  She starts Tuesday!

 

Cash Flow

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I am lucky to be able to spend time around other entrepreneurs, which is both inspiring and a reality check.  Recently, I was visiting with a group of talented, ambitious business owners at a dinner when the subject of managing cash flow came up.  The reality check for all of us, who are in a wide variety of businesses and business development phases, was that we all have experienced cash flow management issues throughout our careers.  The inspiring part was seeing how gutsy, determined business builders always seem to come through.

In thinking about my own story, as a serial entrepreneur with a number of businesses over several decades, I realized that I can’t really remember when managing cash flow wasn’t important and sometimes critical.  I’ve learned a few things along the way, and I thought I’d share them here.

  1. There will always be a cash crisis. There always is at some point.  Know it, believe it, and plan for it.  That all helps when the crisis comes.
  2. Get prepared. Having a Plan B and C really helps.  For me, part of planning is a great banking relationship.  I have found setting up lines of credit when you don’t need it is pretty easy.  Keeping your banker informed of your progress is appreciated.  Remembering that bankers make money only when they lend is useful and borrowing even when you don’t need to builds a relationship.  Always ask for more than you need.
  3. Pay the business first. One of my partners taught me this many years ago.  Set a “required” profit level and pay the business at least that much in profits before paying yourself.  This creates discipline and it builds working capital against the day you need it.
  4. Don’t squander money in good times. Just look at what oil and gas companies do when oil is $100 a barrel.  Never do that!
  5. Always remember profits and cash aren’t the same thing.
  6. Don’t make business decisions for tax reasons. You get to pay the tax eventually, and later may really not be better.  Make good decisions because they make business sense, not tax sense.
  7. When you borrow, try to borrow against assets not cash flow. You get better terms.
  8. Conserve cash. Make it a habit.  Pay bills in time – just.  Rent instead of buy when cash is needed for operations.  Don’t take money out of the business just to put it in your personal account.  Keep it where you can use it.
  9. Collect your receivables on time all the time not just when cash is tight. Then, it probably won’t get that way.  Don’t be your customer’s banker or you’ll need one, and his terms won’t be as generous as yours.
  10. Don’t sit on inventory. If you’re getting fewer turns than you should, slash your prices, get cash, and get it invested in something you can make money on.

If you’re in business, you’ll have a cash crunch sooner or later.  When you do, here is my last tip:  don’t give up!  Sometimes things can be desperately bleak, but they can and do turn around.  Are you an entrepreneur?  Then, managing cash flow is just part of the never ending daily flow.

Flying

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I have been thinking for quite a while now that flying isn’t fun anymore.  Certainly, it’s challenging, and mastering challenges has its own rewards.  But reviewing weather, filing flight plans, flying higher, faster, into more complicated airspace, and for transportation across the country isn’t really fun.

Flying for business is a great tool, too, but, really, it’s just another part of work, especially when on a schedule and with lots of things on the mind.  I think I’m beginning to understand why some pilots who fly for a living don’t fly for recreation.

Last week, I was thinking about missing the airport, even though it is mostly deserted, not the FBO where passengers wait for pilots and where ground crews pull my plane and marshal me from the ramp.  The real airport where pilots hang out and shoot the real breeze instead of the electronic kind.  The airport where old planes live patiently in their hangars asleep but waiting for someone to fly them.

I miss flying a biplane and look at the ads from time to time.  I’m also a partner in a seldom flown Decathlon. I looked in my log the other day.  It’s been 7 months since I flew it, and then only for an hour.  I’ve been busy certainly, too busy in fact, and lining up a great VFR day with my schedule isn’t necessarily easy.

So, this weekend I promised myself I’d go flying in the Decathlon, and I did.  Two beautiful cloudless days with favorable winds and no work that couldn’t wait.  It is so unbelievably simple!  The preflight is personal.  Everything is slow including the taxi and takeoff. No programming. No clearances. No blasting through the altitudes so fast you never notice the ground.

I flew with a friend to breakfast yesterday at 1,000 AGL.  Feeling the wind as well as seeing, smelling, and hearing the plane.  Slow, leisurely. FUN!  Coming back, my friend flew, and I looked at the ground from the bird’s eye view I’d almost forgotten…

This morning, early, before anyone else was at the airport, I had the place to myself.  Practice maneuvers and air work first.  Yes, I still remember how to fly!  Then, pattern practice, going around and around squeaking it on, and leaping off the pavement again and again.  Simple.  Easy.  Not challenging, but Fun!

I remember now why I wanted to learn to fly in the first place.  Why I’ve hung around airports since I was little.  Why I always look up when I hear a plane.  Not to go somewhere but to be like a bird in the sky.  To be a pilot and fly.

The First Fifteen Per Cent

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How many times have you heard someone say “I’ve been meaning to?”  I hear it all the time.  “I’ve been meaning to:  start a new marking program, hire a CSR, take a vacation, create a cross marketing campaign, lose weight,” and so on.

In fact, there are things I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while.  How about you?

I think the reason we haven’t isn’t usually because of a shortage of time.  I think it’s either a shortage of commitment or a fear of not doing it well and consequently failing.  Successful entrepreneurs are skilled and disciplined with taking risks in spite of their fears.  They know that even if they don’t possess the means to do something well, they can develop it.  They understand getting started is the key.

I find the comment from Edward Deming, the management guru, who said that “85 per cent of the results of an enterprise depend on the first 15% of the work incredibly encouraging.”   I think his statement is supportive of both of the issues I named above.  It’s encouraging to think that if I can just start (15%) something, completing it will be relatively painless.  It’s also encouraging to know that if, after starting (15%), failure looks likely, I can stop without having invested a lot of time or money.

The key to conquering the malaise, guilt, and lack of progress that meaning to and not doing something is in getting started.  Start, and if it’s a worthwhile project, you will finish it successfully.  Try it for yourself.  What do you need to put 15% effort into?

 

May I Recommend Chris Burand to You?

captureChris Burand is an active consultant in the independent insurance industry specializing in financial analysis, sales, and marketing.  Chris writes a well-respected column in the “Insurance Journal,” and I find his writing to be entertaining, informative and thought provoking.  I frequently find myself quoting him to agents, or groups of agents, with whom I speak and work.

In a recent column, Chris has written one of the best defenses as well as criticisms of independent insurance agents!  Without attempting to summarize his writing here, I would just like to suggest that you read it.  If you’re not a subscriber, simply go to www.insurancejournal.com and select the April 3, 2017 issue.

Is There a Future for the Independent Agency?

jimOAA and its 135 member agencies, held our Annual Success Celebration last week where we gathered to celebrate our collective success in the past year.  That event was highlighted by the attendance, and remarks, of Jim Masiello the founder of SIAA, which OAA is a part of.

During one session with Jim I asked “how confident are you about the future of the independent agent?”  I pointed out that he has two 12 year old grandsons and I have to sons in college.  I asked “would you recommend that they consider the business for their careers?”  Without reservation Jim’s answer was yes!

Interestingly, the current issue of the Insurance Journal contains the results from the “2017 Young Agents Survey”.  The results indicate that young agents agree with Jim.  According to the survey 58.1% are very optimistic about their career while 29.2% are optimistic.  Thirty seven point nine of these same agents are very optimistic about the future of the independent agency system while 41.5% are optimistic.

Overwhelmingly, those in whose hands the future of our industry rests, believe we have a bright future!  I agree with them.

Those who read my postings here will note I believe that our business will be changing over the next few years.  But I also believe we aren’t going away.  The independent agent’s fundamental value proposition of choice, advocacy and trusted relationship is more valued than ever, by more consumers than ever, as indicated in other surveys of consumer attitudes.

With all of this optimism it is certainly a privilege to participate in the creation of dozens of new agencies each year here at OAA!  How can we help you move forward with your business and career?