TinyMBA — A quick read full of profound strategic ideas

I’ve been in business since 1995. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. When I speak with other people who have been in business, I find that I’m not alone; we’ve all make a lot of mistakes along the way.

It’s not because I didn’t seek out advice. Heck, I asked for advice from everyone I knew, and sometimes that advice was really useful. Other times, the advice was … well, let’s just say that it was less than useful. For example, when I was just starting up, someone told me to never say “no,” no matter what a client was asking me to do. This was probably the worst advice I have ever gotten, but it took many years to realize just how profoundly wrong it was.

Some of the advice I got was excellent, but tactical: Here’s how to submit a proposal. Here’s how you should approach a meeting. Here’s how to invoice your clients. All of this was interesting and useful, but it wasn’t enough.

What really changed my business, and my life, for the better was strategic advice. Such advice doesn’t pay off right away, but it does pay off over the long term — and I’m living proof of it. Strategic thinking means considering what you do, what sorts of clients you want to attract, and how you present yourself to them. It means thinking about the types of products and services that you can offer, making sure that they align with market needs, and then making sure that potential clients find you are are delighted to pay you to service those needs.

It’s still somewhat humbling and amazing to find myself e-mailing with the training managers at Fortune 100 companies, filling my schedule with courses many months in advance. But I credit it all to a change in my strategic thinking.

Alex Hillman is well known not just for his own successful businesses, but for helping many other people to create and sustain successful businesses. In his new e-book, “The Tiny MBA,” Hillman gives you tons of useful strategic advice for building your business. Each of these nuggets of wisdom is written in one or two sentences, making the book a very quick read.

Anyone who knows about Hillman and his products won’t be surprised to hear that he tells you to look for customers rather than investors, that the feast/famine cycle an indication of problems in your business, rather than inevitable, and that you should look in the mirror when trying to figure out why all of your clients are cheapskates and difficult to deal with. At the end of the book, he gives advice that is counter to everything we hear from Silicon Valley and investors: It’s OK to own and run a profitable business for a long time. You don’t need to sell. You don’t need to go public. It’s not a shame to do this — on the contrary, it’s something to enjoy and be proud of.

He says things that seem so obvious to me now, at the age of 50 and after having run a business for a while, which I would have thought were bonkers way-back-when. For example, I’m a programmer, and have thus come to believe that the more I can automate my business, the better. And indeed, I have automated many processes in my business, and I’ve benefited as a result. But when you’re releasing a new product, or you’re trying something new, it’s just not worth investing the time to automate everything. First do things manually, a process that he calls “Flintstoning,” referencing an article by his business partner (and powerhouse writer) Amy Hoy.

And his pricing advice? Completely spot on. Pricing products and services based on your personal budget and willingness to spend is as foolish as it is common. As he writes, “Odds are that you will underprice yourself because you set prices based on what you would pay, not what they already spend.” As someone who provides corporate training services, I know that what I charge is par for the course at big companies — but far beyond what most individuals would spend.

But of course, there’s a reason for that. As Hillman writes later on, “They aren’t buying your time so much as they are buying back their own time, which again, they perceive as finite and valuable.” When people hire me to teach Python to their engineers, they’re not hiring me by the hour. Rather, they’re making their engineers more efficient — something that is very much worth a five-figure investment.

Just about everything I read in the book seems obvious to me now, but was far from obvious to me years ago. If you’re starting a business, then you would be wise to follow this advice, or at least have a plan in place to follow it — and the sooner, the better. In many cases, Hillman points you to articles and references that explain topics in greater detail; I would have liked to see more of these, but perhaps the point of “The Tiny MBA” was to distill things down to the minimum, not to give you a semester-long reading list. That said, a longer list of articles and resources would have been welcome.

My biggest concern about this book is that the people who need to read it — people in the early stages of running their own business — will not appreciate the truth or depth of the short statements Hillman makes on every page of the book. They’ll second guess what he writes, or will think that these ideas are applicable only to someone who is already successful, not to someone who is only starting out. It’s also so easy to get sucked into the seemingly glamorous world of VCs, startups, and “growth hacking,” when it’s both satisfying and profitable to have a small business that makes money by doing things that help others.

The Tiny MBA” is indeed short, but its message and ideas pack a wallop. Read it, enjoy it, and take its advice to heart. And if you’re only starting your business, know that many of us took years to figure out the truth in what Hillman writes here.

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