6 Ways to Save Your Business

The American Conservative recently wrote an article about 10 Ways to Save Barnes & Noble, which caught my eye for a couple of reasons. For one, I’ve not only made a lot of money from supporting the Nook ereader both online at Nook Share and offline with Geek Hand, but I also made money from buying and selling books from Barnes & Noble. Second, as a business consultant, I have my own ideas about how Barne’s & Noble could adapt to the new environment they find themselves in. One idea I had that was not mentioned in the article involves Barnes & Noble creating a nationwide coworking facility that promotes the idea of entrepreneurs using their facility as office space. To bring this idea full circle, the original idea behind Nook Share was to build a coworking facility with that name, but after Barne’s and Noble, Inc. registered “Nook” as a trademark on June 4, 2009, the site pivoted to sell Nook covers and accessories. But this article isn’t about me or even about Barnes & Noble – it’s about you and your business. Gracy Howard, the author of the “10 Ways to Save Barnes & Noble” article, summarizes her thoughts in a way that I felt was beneficial to more than just Barnes & Noble:

Maximize your strengths: build a comfortable, nostalgic ethos. Try making your stores more personalized and local—perhaps build a community library vibe with fun events. Hire people who actually read books, and who love talking about them.

  1. Maximize your Strengths – In the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton argue that instead of trying to repair our weaknesses, we should focus on improving our strengths. Unfortunately, not everyone knows what their strengths are so there is a Strengths Finder test to help you (or your business) with this. In 2009 I wrote about how to identify strengths and revenue streams, which has a mini-test of 10 questions that will help you find your strengths.
  2. Build a Comfortable, Nostalgic ethos – “Ethos” is a synonym of “character” and envokes, “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as seen in its beliefs and aspirations.” “Comfortable” is just another word for “familiar” – and since “consistency” breeds familiarity, one way to be more comfortable to customers is to be more consistent. Consistency is one of the 3 C’s of creating trust, which is the third leg in the buying cycle of “know, like, trust.” So the advice here is to have a consistent character to your company.
  3. Make your Business More Personalized – Personalization is changing the world and it’s one of the easiest ways to add margins to your bottom line and differentiate from the competition. When you can personalize a product, you make competition irrelevant. Even Nike and Lands End are getting in on this trend with “mass customization“, but there are other ways to personalize your business such as by remembering your customer’s name, asking them how they are doing, or just saying hello.
  4. Make your Business More Local – There are certainly SEO benefits to making your business more local, but the advice here is to tap into the advantages that a local, brick-and-mortar store has over a online presence. While Amazon has local distribution centers and Local Deals, they do not have local events. You cannot go have coffee at Amazon and you cannot use their bathroom.
  5. Host more Events – “Events” are one of the most underused, but most powerful ways to market your business. From hosting a local meetup to posting a party on Eventbrite, there is power in meeting people face-to-face as it builds the word-of-mouth marketing that is so powerful. On the flip side, going to conferences and trade shows is another great way to get in front of potential customers or to make relationships with other mutually-beneficial companies.
  6. Hire Good People – In the article they suggest hiring people who actually read books. What a novel idea. I have seen first hand how changes in the hiring process affects the overall success or failure of your business. It is a core part of everything you do. Almost every person in your organization has the ability to improve or decline your business so getting the right people on the bus is very important – and quite possibly the most important. It’s one that should be done before any process, technology, or marketing changes are done. Yes, it’s that important.

Is your business on the brink of collapse? Focus on your strengths. Examine your people, processes, technology, and marketing. Create a list of next action steps and do one of them. As Terry Lin likes to say:

One is better than none.

Dental Office Management Case Study

How I helped an Indianapolis dental office through 100% turnover and go from their worst month ever to their best month ever in 2012.

When I worked as a business analyst at First Merchants I would often be doing staffing models during the day and working on web sites and IT work at night. After I was went full-time as a business consultant I offered staffing model services to one of my web clients. They trusted me because I had already got them to be #1 on Google for the term “Indianapolis Dentist” and their site was listed as one of the best dental websites.

Systems in Place

Systems in Place

The business owner wasn’t as interested in tracking what each individual staff member was doing as much as finding out what each staff member does, ensuring it’s documented, and making sure there were “systems in place”. At that point he had recently converted his practice management software from Practiceworks to Dentrix and two staff members had already quit. There was real fear of losing all “tribal knowledge” of how his business was ran.


One of the first things I do when I start a staffing model is to simply observe what is going on in the office. For the first two weeks I would ask questions, watch processes, and document as much as I could. If there was a name for a process I would use that – otherwise I would create a new name for it. I started identifying positions and roles (they can be different) and then placing the newly quantified tasks into ‘piles’ under each type.


To document the process I setup the office with Google Apps and used the Google Sites portion of it to create an Intranet for the company. Each staff member was given their own company email address which they could use to login to the site as well as share calendars, documents, and email each other. Distribution groups were setup for different team members including the front office, clinical team, and the “everyone” group.

Employee Turnover

After a short while, a clear picture began to emerge. There weren’t just issues with cr0ss-training, there were issues with the staff themselves. It wasn’t long before there was more staff turnover. It was like they were “jumping ship”. The decision was made to get some new leadership into the organization so the long-time manager was fired in June. I became the interim manager and began to re-build the new staff.

Changes in Hiring Practices

One of the first things I focused on was “getting the right people on the bus”. We sought after and hired people who cared about people first and had a great personality. We had learned that those are two things that can’t be taught so those were the most important things we sought after. We didn’t settle for a person just because they filled the position and at some times were working with a crew of as small as 3 people while we continued to look.

Changes in Processes

Once we had the right people in place we began working on the proper processes. We started using checklists to ensure the critical morning and nightly procedures were completed. There were many times when they were not and the staff did not like using the checklists at first, but over time they learned to first appreciate them and then not need them as it became second-nature. This helped a brand new staff have consistency and learn faster.

Changes in Technology

While the old staff did not understand technology innately, the new staff embraced it. They began using email to communicate, began referencing the Intranet for critical information (the previous staff kept an old Rolodex on the front desk that contained all of the information they’d ever reference – this was typed up into one page on the Intranet affectionately titled, “Rolodex”). And a new wireless camera system was setup to take patient photos.

Changes in Marketing

We signed up for Demandforce and Angies List. We began using Google Adwords and revamped the website. We added more social proof, more testimonials, more web pages, and more blog posts. We added more social networks, posted more often, and were more engaged with our patients online. As a result, referrals from the Internet went up along with web site visitors. We used Google Analytics to track the progress.

The Result

By first focusing on the staff, then the process, then the technology, and finally the marketing – we had the right people who were given the right instructions for the best technology, which was supported by the best marketing techniques. The result was an initial boost of 116% the first month, followed by an average increase of 72% for the next five months compared to the five months prior. How can I help you get similar results?

What Happened to the Color App?

Why Did Instagram Succeed When the Color App Failed?

We hope you’ve enjoyed sharing your stories via real-time video. Regretfully, the [Color] app will no longer be available after 12/31/2012.

That was the message posted on Color.com [Update 7/15/2003: The site is no longer up.], the domain Color Labs paid $350,000 to acquire in 2011 almost a year after Instagram was founded. A year later their photo sharing app would be on the way out while Instagram was getting bought for a billion dollars. What went wrong? Why did Instagram succeed when Color failed?

Color vs. Instagram

What Happened to the Color AppColor Labs was a start-up based in Palo Alto, California whose main product was a social application for photos called Color. It allowed people to take and view photos matched to a location. Color grouped photos based on a user’s friends so that they are more likely to see those pictures that are most relevant. Like Color, Instagram is an online photo-sharing and social networking service that enables its users to take pictures and optionally tie them to a location. Unlike Color, users can apply digital filters to photos and share them on a variety of social networking services. It confines photos to a square shape, similar to Polaroid images, which along with the filters gave photos a retro look and feel.

A Difference in Startup Methodologies

Color Labs started after co-founders Bill Nguyen and Peter Pham received $41 million in funding between 2010 and 2011 from Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital, and Silicon Valley Bank before the app had a single user. Conversely, Instagram was started by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in October 2010 with $500,000 and teams of just a few people. As Instagram introduced successful products and attracted users, they slowly raised more money and hired engineers. Meanwhile, Color Labs spent $350,000 to buy the domain color.com (and an additional $75,000 to buy colour.com), rents an office in downtown Palo Alto, California, where it employs 38 people to work in, according to the New York Times, “a space with room for 160, amid beanbag chairs, tents for napping and a hand-built half-pipe skateboard ramp.”

Instagram’s $500,000 seed funding round came on March 5, 2010 from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz while Systrom was still working on Burbn. By February 2, 2011, it was announced that Instagram raised $7 million in Series A funding from a variety of investors, including Benchmark Capital, Jack Dorsey, Chris Sacca (through Capital fund), and Adam D’Angelo. The deal valued Instagram at around $25 million and later that month, Facebook made an offer to purchase Instagram and its 13 employees for approximately $1 billion in cash and stock. By May of 2012, the number of photos has exceeded one billion. Google offered to buy Color for $200 million in July of 2011, but Color Labs turned down the deal. They were later acquired by Apple (mostly for their patents and talent) in October 2012 for an undisclosed sum.

A Difference in Responses to the App

On March 24, 2011, Color Labs launched its first application “Color for Facebook” in Apple’s App Store and within a week released an update allowing users to see photos from events “Nearby”, a “Feed” of relevant photos, and a “History” of groups that users can participate in. In June 2011, less than three months after the company officially launched, Peter Pham left Color. When it first launched, the application had around 1 million downloads, but as of September 2011, the service had a little under 100,000 active users. The app was poorly recieved, attracting few users and many who did not understand what it was supposed to do. One reviewer in the Apple App Store wrote, “It would be pointless even if I managed to understand how it works.” Users were confused with the application’s user interface and purpose. Its initial rating in the App Store was 2 out of 5 stars.

For Instagram, the response was much different. It rapidly gained popularity, with over 100 million registered users as of January 2013. Support was originally available for only the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, but on April 3, 2012, support was added for Android phones. Instagram for Android was released[18] and it was downloaded more than one million times in less than one day. An app rating under 3.5 stars makes users considerably more reluctant to download the app. With an app rating of 2 out of 5 stars, the Color app was doomed. Once entered into the cycle of bad reviews it was nearly impossible to break out as there were wasn’t enough new downloads or positive press to bring the average back up and over the 3.5 stars mark. Meanwhile, as of this writing, Instagram has 4.5 stars ouf of 4 on the Apple App Store with over 62,000 reviews.

A Difference in Purpose

Color was first meant to help you find and share pictures related to your location, but Instagram was solving a different problem. They were making mobile camera photos look better. The Color app only worked if other people were using it (a chicken and egg problem), while Instagram solved a problem people had right away. This could have been because Kevin Systrom had already developed a check-in app called Burbn. Josh Williams of competitor check-in app, Gowalla, said, “Early user feedback, coupled with a desire to avoid the check-in battle…led them to drop everything to focus on one simple feature: photos. They made the act of taking and sharing photos (many of which just happened to be location-tagged) fast, simple, and fun.”

In Summary

Color was a company in search of a product. They didn’t have much more than a mountain of cash when they started, but it was spent on things like numerous employees, fancy offices, and marketing rather than product development, user feedback, and customer interviews. Color may become a PR lesson for the future as they may become legends for squandering one of the biggest and most covered product launches in app history. On the flip side, Instagram already had a product they were trying out, were listening to their users, and created a new company based on the results. They continued to listen to their users and made their product even better. They didn’t hire a bunch of people or spend a lot of time talking about their company. Their product solved a problem, people liked it, and they used it. Each company had a runaway effect, albeit in different directions. Once those directions were set in motion, it was hard to change them.

In closing, I’d like to quote from Color’s about page, which says a lot about how the company thought. If you have a different opinion about why Color app failed and Instagram succeeded, please let me and other readers know in the comments.

At Color, we believe in the opportunity that the new mobile era presents and are excited about developing products that transform the way people share the stories of their lives. We work collaboratively, iterate often, and enjoy problem solving. Color is a company of entrepreneurs and innovators, highly skilled in their respective specialties, constantly striving to learn and grow. We’ve cultivated a very relaxed and informal culture and enjoy our extra curricular activities, which include but are not limited to: ping pong tournaments, ball pit acrobatics and impromptu poker nights.

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