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How To Do Our Best Work – The Work of Our Lives

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we work. How we do our best work. How we find our way to doing work we love and that makes a profound difference in our own lives and the lives of others. And how we setup our lives to do that kind of work.

(It’s also worth asking how many of us really get to do that work and how does the not doing of that kind of work shape the way we live? And the work we do instead? Something far deeper for another post.)

I continue to be inspired by the painter Hilma af Klint and how she took on a project that she didn’t fully know the contours of because she felt led to do so. That project — that work she took on without knowing what it would be — changed the trajectory of her life in a profound way.

Whenever I’m working on a project that I’m energized by, led to, but don’t quite know the full contours of yet, I think of Hilma. I think of her and I lean all the way into the not knowing until I eventually know.

It requires you to trust yourself during the not-knowing. It requires you to trust that you WILL sort it. You will know. There is no need for force.

All of the work I’m most proud of, the products I feel so good about creating or launching, have come from this process of allowing the not known to reveal itself without forcing it.

The big idea always comes.
The path through always appears.
You must TRUST.

If you ever get stuck while dreaming up something big, observe other people dreaming big. Artists, writers, entrepreneurs, athletes performing at their peak level. Anyone who is trying to do their best work – the work of their lives – can teach you something about what it looks like to be in that moment just before the whole thing snaps into place if you study them.

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Thoughtful & Sustainable Business Growth

sustainable business growth

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hyper growth in businesses that most modern investors expect and what kind of pressure that places on the leaders within those businesses. I’ve been a part of many different kinds of companies – start-ups that grew big and ran profitably and happily for years, start-ups that grew too big and had to scale down, CPGs that were grossly bloated and needed to slim down to return shareholder profits, small companies that pivoted again and again until the right product/market/capital fit revealed itself.

In my 20+ years in this business, I’ve seen a lot of companies make bad decisions because investors wanted returns that weren’t naturally possible. I’ve seen every trick to bump quarterly revenue. I’ve seen how that artificial uptick in quarterly revenue can be misconstrued (or misrepresented to investors) as sustainable. I’ve seen that artificial uptick become part of the plan for the rest of the year. I’ve seen teams struggle to meet those artificial goals. I’ve seen people lose their jobs in trying to meet those artificial goals. Goals that were never real. Goals that were never possible. Goals that — in order to be met — would require damaging whole sections of the business.

A dear friend and I were chatting about this the other day and he shared the same perspective from the wine industry: whether it’s fine wine sales for a boutique distributor or big box sales for large spirits CPGs, your sales for a quarter or a year were always expected to rise year over year. Even if that one quarter last year you did something extraordinary. Even if that one quarter last year a huge new hotel chain opened and filled their cellars with wine for years to come and won’t ever do that again. Even if that one quarter last year saw a trend in rose sales that has never happened again.

We are always chasing more. More revenue. More profits. Greater margins. Bigger sales. More and more and more. And we want our “more” successive. Showing a very clear increase month over month, year over year. Ever chasing the chart that looks great in every deck, every investor pitch — the ever holy trend line up and up and up. Doesn’t matter that nearly every business has a seasonal cycle. Doesn’t matter that every year or crop or season is different. Or that trends may change. Or that we may be R&Ding something revolutionary but that it will take time.

I no longer believe there’s much courage in chasing MOM and YOY profits at all costs. I’m far more interested in building businesses that are intentional, growing naturally with their customers over time. Moving in unison with the ebbs and flows of the market, of trends, of the seasons.

Do we want profitable women-led businesses that allow their founders and their employees to thrive? Of course. Yes. Always. But I’m not convinced that profit at all costs is the answer. I’ve been working with several businesses who have taken a different approach. Who did not start their businesses to become rich and free — but who started their companies to be part of something greater and to have that something greater be sustained over a long period of time. Not just for an investor, a liquidation event or a single season.

A restaurant owner client of mine has it right: she has a thriving tapas restaurant that she opened 20 years ago. Her restaurant has seasons where business is slow and she not only plans for it, she relishes it. The summer and winter are her time to travel the world with her family. When she buys wine from her reps, she knows exactly what she can spend and doesn’t go over, even as her love of fine French wine has only increased with all her travel. She has resisted the calls to open more locations. To expand the size of her space. To add more programming, more menu options, more events to lift business during off-peak times. She makes enough money to have a beautiful home, put her girls through college and take several trips a year to far flung places. Could she make more if she expanded? Yes. Would she work a lot more hours of she expanded? Yes. Is she interested in taking all that on simply for the sake of more, more, more? No. She’s not. She knows who she is, she loves the business she created and she loves the life her business has allowed her to create for herself, her long-time employees and her family.

I firmly believe these are the businesses of the future. The businesses that are not built for big exits, but are built to sustain our souls and our communities. That are intentional, slow, meaningful and wise. Big profits and intentionality aren’t mutually exclusive. But I do believe artificial growth propped up month over month and year over year by yet more artificial growth is not sustainable and is not healthy for anyone involved except for investors.

How do we build businesses that allow us to expand as humans instead of shrinking beneath the weight of more, more, more?

How do we build businesses that earn enough to give owners and employees and communities greater freedom to do what inspires?

This is the work that matters most to me now.

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Brands That Feel Good

I’ve noticed a shift in what I want from a brand. How I want to be sold to from a brand. What endears me to a brand.

I’ve sold every kind of thing you can imagine online: running shoes, houses, luxury cars, yoga classes, weight loss programs, organic salads, concert tickets, hotel rooms and more. I’ve tried every strategy. Employed every tactic. I’ve created every kind of funnel that you hate but that I know works. And as you might imagine, none of those tricks really work on me because I know what they are doing. I’ve done it myself a thousand times. So I often wonder if I’m just tired of the sell, sell, sell or if everyone else is too.

I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about pull selling vs. push selling. About having your customers engage with you as a brand, love what you are all about and buy anyway. No funnels needed. No big launches. No flash sales. No crazy discounts. This all sounds good and fine. But my marketer brain is always running: “if they did just these two things they’d sell more, if they had this in a funnel they’d do better.”

One thing I know for sure: if you as a business owner feel really uncomfortable doing a thing, your customers will notice and feel that too. You can’t run a big sale you don’t believe in. You can’t create content for a funnel you feel crummy about. You can’t launch Facebook retargeting ads that make you feel icky. Your customers will know. They always know.

And so how do you create a marketing plan and generate significant sales and revenue in a way that feels good to you and to your customers? You have to get back to the core of you. Of why you started your business. Why your customers matter to you. What you truly believe they need. You have to start with how you want them to feel at every touchpoint with you. This isn’t easy to do but it is the necessary thing for you to build a brand and a business that your customers resonate with on such a deep level that they will support you and buy your products and services no matter the price, no matter the season, no matter the trends.

A few businesses I’ve been thinking a lot about lately because they just make me feel good at every touchpoint:

    • Cuyana – This brand has such a beautiful philosophy that they extend to every customer and that permeates every item they sell and how they sell it: The Lean Closet. The founders truly believe that the path to a sustainable planet and a healthy, non-stressful way to acquire and get dressed each day starts with owning far less things but owning things of great quality that will stand the test of time. Think about that for a moment. A clothing company that actively wants you to buy less clothing. And really means it. Their goal of fewer, better things really resonates with me right now and they do such a great job of making sure this philosophy is part of every interaction you have with their company. Every page of their site, every email sent, every social interaction is spare, quiet, intentional.
    • CAP Beauty – The founders of CAP Beauty created the company to spread the power of natural skincare and supplements to as many people as possible and they do it in such a personal and powerful way. Their instastories alone offer a masters in natural beauty for anyone who follows along. Through those stories you can see how passionate and knowledgeable about their products they are and it’s infectious. You can tell how much they care and their care makes you care. They are joyful, vibrant, full of knowledge and they offer such a beautiful blend of products that you can’t help but dive in and try for yourself. This is a very different approach than Cuyana but it works for them and pulls customers into their world in such an engaging and informative way.
    • Everlane – You know what they’re all about from your first interaction with the brand: “Exceptional quality. Ethical Factories. Radical Transparency.” Their approach to cutting out the middle players in the fashion food chain and working directly with factories who employ practices up to Everlane standards immediately endears me to this brand. But that same philosophy is carried through all of their marketing materials. Every email for a new product focuses  on the little details that make each piece unique, special. You will never see flashing gifs and huge discount percentages and promo codes and Gap Cash and all the tricks that other clothing brands use to get you to buy. They believe their product and their approach — beautiful photography, lovely copy that highlights detail and quality and ethical fashion — will win. And they deliver it again and again. Consistently. And it works beautifully.

What businesses are making you feel ever so good these days with every interaction?

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