Have you ever wondered about handshakes: Respected business owners stand with their backs straight, looking each other in the eye while they compete to crush each other’s fingers?
The handshake may be a time-honored tradition that’s here to stay. But, contrary to many business beliefs, not all traditions should stand the test of time. In my time founding and running TalkLocal — a local services marketplace that helps small businesses connect with consumers searching online — I’ve worked with many clients who run family businesses steeped in generations of tradition that are slow to change. They don’t have websites, spend little to nothing on digital marketing and prefer to connect the old-fashioned way — by phone.
In an economy where tech-savvy entrepreneurs and national chains are exploiting the technology gap to crush the competition, fusing old and new technology so that these small businesses can better adapt to the digital era is critical. Still, it’s only a first step. Startup founders like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are the new captains of industry, and they’re succeeding while breaking all the rules — illustrating that innovation, not tradition, is how to get ahead.
So here are four respected character traits which, although still cherished by most small business owners, are being rendered obsolete by startup culture.
1. Following your intuition.
Following our guts is obsolete; these days, always make sure your data supports your strategy. At TalkLocal, our guts told us that marketing spend targeting a wide range of service categories would be most effective at driving leads. After reviewing the metrics, we realized that a handful of key jobs were driving the bulk of our revenue. Armed with that data, we reduced our marketing spend, focusing it on the key services. Our revenue soared while spending decreased.
Claiming to follow your gut may have scored political points in the past, but it’s foolish during a time when so much data is at our disposal, able to help inform our business choices. So rather than trust your gut, track your metrics. Use Google Analytics to see how your website is performing, track lead sources, calculate return on investment and use split-test comparisons to make sure that your favorite marketing strategy does better than an alternative.
2. Honoring tradition.
Blindly honoring tradition is now obsolete as well. You should instead always look for new solutions and ideas. This is, in part, the result of data analytics that has the ability to change rapidly. For example, knowing that the smartphone causes more people to call local professionals rather than find them online inspired us to innovate on the phone call itself. It was a unique move at a time when our competitors were turning to the new social media model to transform local search, leaving the phone untouched. So create an innovative business environment, use data analytics to find under-performing areas in need of change, be as inclusive as possible when seeking solutions and find the latest ideas in industry publications and at conferences.
3. Deferring to authority.
Today we need to encourage collaborative problem solving, rather than automatically deferring to authority. If “yes, sir”or “yes, ma’am” is the only response coming from your so-called subordinates during discussions, then chances are you’re missing out on some of the innovative ideas that fuel business success. It’s not uncommon for people on my team to brainstorm on our shared dry erase board, or send out mass emails requesting feedback or ideas regarding a critical issue. There have been times when I’ve personally pondered an issue for 45 minutes only to send out an email and get at least one viable solution in 15. There have also been times when we’ve changed a course of action because a team member raised a serious objection or offered a superior alternative.
To get team members comfortable coming up with and sharing ideas, use tactics that relieve pressure. For example, pose the challenge in a mass email or group brainstorming session rather than making a single person responsible for finding a solution alone. Also, let your appreciation for all ideas outweigh your critique of any particular thought.
4. Staying entirely independent.
The days of rugged independence are done: Network and get the best help your reciprocity can buy.
My company looked at the market last year and saw that our potential was greater as a technology partner for the biggest brands rather than as a competitor to them. The change led to more interest from investors and analysts, and may pay off big in partnership deals and wider distribution. The partnership talks would not have been possible without introductions and referrals from investors, mentors and people I’ve met through networking. In fact, I believe the image of the lone cowboy pulling himself up by the bootstraps was never an honest depiction of success. To get the best results, attend networking events, use LinkedIn to see your connections and ask for help frequently.
I’ve learned to live with the handshake. Yet, no business owner should live with traditions that undermine their ability to run a successful business. To thrive, entrepreneurs of every level should embrace the only tradition that will never go out of fashion: the time-honored tradition of change itself.