Happiness is a Journey, and so is Profit.

I came across this little meme recently, reflecting the school of thought that says, in effect, that happiness cannot be achieved as an objective in and of itself.  This may challenge the American Declaration of Independence, by implying that the pursuit of happiness might be counterproductive but it does provide a simple explanation as to why, having been persuaded by advertisers that we should by the latest gadget/game/car/trinket in order that we are happy, we then find that we’re disappointed.

I was then struck that when we talk about not being happy, we often refer to a reason “I wasn’t happy about X”, but when we talk about actually being happy, we’re less likely to say that we’re happy because of something – rather we’d say that we’re happy with a certain result: “I worked really hard to get this right, and I’m really happy with it”.  So if we set an objective and achieve it, that’s where the happiness part comes in – but we don’t talk about setting out with happiness as the objective in the first place.

The reason that this daydream made it all the way to wordpress, was because of the parallels with John Kay’s very interesting “Obliquity” which I read recently.  He proposes that, like happiness, profit isn’t an objective you can seek directly, but rather one which happens as a by-product of seeking another objective – one centred around creating value for customers – and doing that really well.  There are indeed some great examples in that book of companies whose corporate objectives are re-aligned from one style to another and who can see a clear result in their fortunes directly following such a move.  This actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it – companies who focus on extracting profit might have the best sales people, the best lawyers, and the best accountants, but that doesn’t actually generate value for those companies’ customers.  On the other hand companies who set out to do important work, and who achieve it-especially if it’s difficult, are actually generating genuine value, capturing that into profit is then much more straightforward than trying to generate profit where there’s no intrinsic value.

So the takeaway from this for a small business? It feels good to know that whilst lawyers and accountants have their place, a business shouldn’t be driven by them, but instead by achieving important work that generates value for others.

What’s more, it might even make you happy.

DIY Employees

In recruiting, it’s often tempting to paint a glorious picture of what your small business has to offer to the potential employee, indeed as the employment market hots up – it’s likely you’ll be competing with companies with deeper pockets and swishy benefits.  But in putting together this “gold plated” experience for new members of the team, are you really going to find the right employees to make a real contribution to building your small business.

I advocate an alternative route, and it’s one which doesn’t meet with universal approval.  As a small business, we don’t have a corporate IT department, or facilities department, or a tea trolley for that matter, and so we need to recruit team members who are on the lookout for what needs to be done and who are prepared to get in and do it.  When interviewing candidates, I think it’s important to make it clear that the relaxed environment and informality of a successful small business are only possible if everyone’s willing to muck in and pick up the jobs that need doing.  This isn’t to everyone’s taste of course, and it’s a useful thought process for a “big company” employee to go through before deciding whether they really want to leave the cosy world of the well defined corporate job and venture into the exciting world of small business.

To bring this into the very sharpest focus, and help employees understand that we’re serious when we talk about self starters, our new starters are presented with a checklist on joining the team, and not too far down after the mandatory health and safety briefing comes the line: “Assemble furniture”

Observing what happens next will both tell your team a lot about your ethos as a company and also tell you a lot about your employees.  Whilst your interview process will have tried to screen candidates for how proactive they are, how they respond to new challenges, how able they are to follow unfamiliar instructions, how willing they are to ask for help, how they collaborate etc, the interview process is a notoriously difficult environment in which to assess these characteristics.

After a couple of hours with an Ikea desk, chair and pedestal drawer unit, however, you’ll have an excellent idea which new starters are going to get on well with life in a changing, growing small business.

Add to that the added sense of achievement when the team members walk up to their newly installed workstations, all made by their own hands, and you’ll see why I’ve been an enthusiastic advocate of DIY employees.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the desk at which I’m writing this was put together by yours truly.

Big Brother or Big Problems?

Great feature last week on BBC Radio 4’s Money Box Live about small businesses in general and with a discussion around “getting paid” in particular.  I was left wondering why some large businesses insist on very long credit terms from small businesses whereas others acknowledge the reality of working in a small business.

Leaving aside the dubious legality of deliberately paying late in breach of terms (and this from companies that use “fair trade” logos as a part of their business), I wonder if this tells us something about the companies in question.  If Fujitsu can deliver its margins and maintain its balance sheet whilst paying everyone on time, why should other companies which won’t (or can’t) claim the same numbers.  It’s a fair assumption that given free credit, many businesses would be performing better than they currently are, so businesses that pay late are telling us not only that they’re prepared to break their obligations to others, but also their own success is partly dependent on this bad practice.

For the full programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b047zrks