Podcast: Why You Should Not Be So Quick To Abandon Your Specialty
June 5, 2019

Notes from the Show

In this episode, eCommerce Consultant Curt Anderson talks about the importance of having a specialty, including:

  • Why it’s critical for manufacturers to scale their proprietary process into a proprietary product

  • Using eCommerce to take that proprietary product and engage with the end user

  • Engaging in what is applicable to your strengths and core

Transcript

CURT ANDERSON & SUSAN TATUM

Susan: Welcome back. I’m Susan Tatum and today I’m talking with ecommerce consultant, Curt Anderson. Welcome to the show, Curt.

Curt: Hey Susan. Thank you so much. This is a tremendous honor and privilege and I thank you for this opportunity.

Susan: Thank you for being here. So Curt, before we dig in to give our audience some context, can you just tell us a little bit about what you’re up to?

Curt: Sure, absolutely. The segue in how you and I connected on Linkedin and what really resonated with me with you is on your website. The two words that I just absolutely love are “build trust”. And so I love your focus on building trust with your prospects. So that really resonated with me and again this is a great opportunity. So thank you. So, my background is in ecommerce and so what I do is I consult with businesses that need help with ecommerce. A lot of folks are been in business for many, many years. They’re widget experts or they’re authorities on their particular product. Unfortunately, the whole digital wave, it’s kind of passed them by. I work with a lot of what I call digital immigrants. You know those of us born before 1980, are all digital immigrants. And so that’s really what I focused on and just trying to help people create a better presence from an ecommerce standpoint.

Susan: I think before when we talked you were saying that much of your work has been in the manufacturing industry, is that right?

Curt: Yeah. Cool. A great question. So my previous life I had a wholesale distributor business and in 1995, the internet and ecommerce was kind of coming alive. I was a little younger and uh, jumped into ecommerce. And then I ended up selling that business and I kind of drifted towards consulting primarily with manufacturers.

Susan: Okay. So we’re here today to talk about specialization and the benefits and challenges that businesses run across when they try to differentiate. And I think you have a very unique angle on specialization. At least it’s new to me. And that is, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you talked about the need to stick to your specialty through changes in the marketplace, not be too fast to abandon what you know. And I think that’s great. So let’s talk about that.

Curt: If I can bore you with a quick little story. So I’ll do a background of where I got to that point. So I ended up, took over a failing family business three days after college graduation. I got thrown right into the entrepreneurial fire and, uh, got into a family business and you know, we came into some really hard times and unfortunately was in bankruptcy. When people say they started from scratch, I’m like, boy, I would have loved that. Started from scratch. We started in a real bad, bad situation and um, built the business, got it back on track, built it up. And like I said, in 1995, you know, America Online and for those of us, you know, old enough to remember Netscape and some of the early days of ecommerce.

Curt: And what was funny is I was focused on ecommerce and, I had a turning point in my career. In 2000 from the time I took it over, took over the unfortunately, you know, bankrupt family business, we increased it about five or six fold. So we got it back on track and I was decent at getting sales before, but I was not great at making money. And what was funny, I was about 30, so little experience, a little cocky and you know, trying to grow the business and I was diversified and I was doing five different things with the business cause I didn’t want to get caught with one or two parts of the business – all your eggs in one basket if you will. And so I was diversified and unfortunately that year, that fourth quarter, like 1999, we were bleeding pretty bad all of a sudden.

Curt: And I’m like, Gosh this hit me pretty quick what happened? And so I brought in a consultant and this consultant came in and I’m like, okay, let’s see how this goes. And she immediately started asking me questions. Well tell me about your business. And I said, well hey man, I’m diversified. I’m doing this, this. And I had laid out and explained the five different aspects of the business. And she listened and she was like, okay, well what’s your core, like what are you guys best at? I’m like, well this is our core. And she’s like, all right, well where’s your future? You know, in hindsight it sounds easy, easy answer, but in 2000 you know this is pre Google, there was no social media, no Facebook. I just really had my eyes set on ecommerce and then I was doing three other things and then paying the business cause I felt that was what you do. You diversify.

Curt: And within 30 minutes she looked at me, she goes, you know what, let me tell you what your problem is. You’re doing five things horribly instead of doing one or two things exceptionally. Get rid of the other three things, focus on your core. Or give everything you’ve got to ecommerce since that’s where you feel the money’s at and go for it. And sure enough took her advice. And I was kidding around with her. I’m like, well look how good you are. In 30 minutes you just solved all my problems. I don’t need you again. If you’re a really good consultant, you don’t last long. And so she really was actually, I wish I had kept track of her, she really was a turning point from me. The company ended up, we made it on the Internet Retailer, top 1000 companies three years in a row.

Curt: And then I ended up selling the business. So from that, what I found is, is when you just really razor focus on one or two things as I became a consultant, I would kid around when I’d be doing workshops or presentations, I’m like my number one focus and my number one goal is helping my clients meet their goal. My number two process is I want to have a blast every day. That’s it. I’m like I’m going to help my clients, number one. Number two have fun. I don’t even walk and chew gum anymore. That’s my focus. And I would try to encourage my clients to do the same thing. And what we talked a little bit about prior was getting too diversified as I was.

Curt: And quick story that you and I talked about a little bit was, uh, you know, I’m a little bit of a history buff and I would call it for clients of mine, you know, when sales get soft, when sales go down, or you’re getting like these digital immigrants, they don’t have a strong online presence, maybe they have a website. It’s really just a business card online. There’s not much, there’s no content, there’s not much to their website. And so they’re sitting on a whiteboard or sitting in the office time to determine what does somebody want, what does somebody need, what are customers wanting for? And so they’re guessing. And so they start finding themselves drifting into markets that really aren’t necessary. They fall out of their wheelhouse. They’re not doing things that apply to their strengths. And I call it going to Russia and meaning of course history like, uh, you know, when Napoleon was dominating Europe, what stopped Napoleon? The Russian winter. When Hitler was dominating Europe, what stopped Hitler? Of course, Americans would like to say we did, but you know, the Russian winter.

Curt: So when a client when a client comes to me and says hey, I’m thinking about doing this or doing that. I like to ask those hard questions of, you know, does that make sense? Is it applicable to your strengths or your core. And the most important question is not, do you think that the market wants this? It’s do you know that they need it? And that’s the hard, you know, there’s never the right answer. I don’t want to say never the right answer. But that’s always a tough question to answer because you don’t know until you get into it. That’s what I tried to focus on with my clients is like, stay focused on your core strengths. What are you absolutely best at? What passion drives you where you put in a 12 hour day and you blink and the day just flew by. Or you can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. What really drives you? And a lot of times your passion and what you’re best will help apply, you know, what direction the market’s going to pull you in.

Susan: Is that part of the work that you do with your clients is to help get, help them identify what that passion is and where their focus should be?

Curt: That’s a great question. Yes. The short answer is yes. And the reason being is I’ll explain it like this. So the clients I’ve worked with over the years with ecommerce, so here’s an example. I had a client say like in 2012. So this client was a distributor of products; they didn’t manufacture the product, actually like GE Motors and that type of thing. So the concept and the product was already proven. So they didn’t have that challenge that things essentially have to deal with. They’re just trying to crack the market. They’re more of a marketer. And so they were selling products within a hundred mile radius of their market. They’d been in business since 1919, third generation, but the business got stale. The great recession was still lingering and they were just kind of stuck. And so they were dabbling in this and getting into that.

Curt: And again, kind of like my, my goofy expression, like going to Russia and when I talked to him about ecommerce, I’m like, you know, like, what’s your core? Why don’t you pick what you know best and let’s get it online. So we worked together, I don’t do websites so I connected them with a web designer. They took a couple months and for about five grand, put up a website. And within that first week they landed a $9,000 order for their business. They’d been around for almost a hundred years and for the first time this was a digital order. And the cool thing was the order was from New Zealand. So that single order now because they stuck with their core and stuck with what they know. It opened them up to go international and they had great success with that afterward. Landed a six figure order to a company in Mexico and just started selling their product on ecommerce. So again, ecommerce is almost secondary. It’s more of the strategic focus on what products that you go sell on ecommerce. Does that make sense?

Susan: Yeah, yeah. I think, just to confirm that I’m understanding, I think what I hear you saying is it’s really important to stick with what you know and what that specialty is that you have and see what else you can do or how you can adapt to bring that specialty into today. I mean, is it technology that’s an issue? Is it competition that’s coming in? But it sounds like that in your work, you see a tendency to, you used the word, be diversified and try a bunch of different things and to quickly let go of what you’re really good at when you might actually be sitting on the opportunity. But you’re not stopping long enough to realize that.

Curt: That’s exactly right. And you know, it’s almost like that book, The Alchemist, you know, where, great story not to ruin it, but you know, but it’s like you go through a great search trying to find what the next great thing is when, you know, the entire time it’s sitting right in your lap. You know, I think the challenge is, and again the folks that I’m primarily, that I’ve been working with over the years, and again, they’re baby boomers and Gen X, I call it Sacred Cow-itis. You know, I’m actually doing like a little blog post on sacred cow-itis. This is how we’ve done it. This is how we’ve always done it. And you know, we hate chance and so and so …. and this is how we’re going to keep doing that. And almost to the point where like sales are stagnant, the business is diminishing and but yet I’m more comfortable in my “know” than getting out of my comfort zone to explore and try something new.

Curt: And the new is how can I still keep doing what I’ve always been doing but in a different element. And I guess that’s where ecommerce comes in is a lot of folks I’ve dealt with trade shows, word of mouth, maybe a sales rep. But in their same office when they need something – a new product, new services – first thing they’re doing is they’re going to Amazon, they’re going to Google. And yet somehow they missed that. You know what, their customers are doing the exact same thing. And maybe that’s why phone’s not ringing, emails are not coming through is because they just don’t have the digital footprint. You know? And it might sound crazy for, you know, some other folks where, well of course you have to. Somehow these folks were like kind of laggards where they got by without it. But now it’s really catching up with them and uh, they may need to make that change. That’s where that comes in.

Susan: I would say there’s a parallel to that, to that ecommerce and that is, you know, you mentioned just sort of social media and being online and I know with, I mean manufacturing is a good example. There’s a lot of resistance or just unwillingness on the part of, even younger people I see, to accept, to understand that Linkedin in particular is an online network where it’s like going to a live networking event, but you’re doing it online and it vastly expands how many people you can be exposed to, how many people you can meet that you would never get to see if it all had to be done locally and live. And you’re right. There’s just a mental, a mental block with it I think.

Curt: Yeah, you’re hitting it right on the head. And that’s the thing is there’s rituals. There’s rules within, you know, little even mom and pop businesses. And what’s, fascinating, I did a blog on that I posted on Linkedin just this past weekend and I called it the title was “Dying to enter the ECOMMERCE graveyard, please don’t be next”. And what I do is I talked a little bit about like Sears and Toys R Us, but I’m like, you know, hey, when did this start? And so I did three different profiles, on Circuit City, Blockbuster Video and, what was the third, Borders Bookstore. Again for those old enough to even remember those. So the thing is those three were just killing it. Just wiping out little mom and pops in the 90s. They were called the category killers and just wiping out every little bookstore and every little video rental shop in the country. And yet they had no idea that they were running right off a cliff.

Curt: So now it’s funny that you know, with this conversation, I’m talking about [?], but it’s still hitting retail hard. And, um, I found when doing this little research, there’s a term called retail apocalypse and it actually has a Wikipedia page called retail apocalypse. And it defines how, like right now they’re predicting I think it’s 75,000 stores are predicted to close and everybody knew Blockbuster went out of business. Everybody knew that Circuit City and Borders failed. So why is it taking everybody so long? How did this happen to Sears? You know, how does this happen to Toys R Us when all this information exists? Circuit City was actually featured in the book, Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, right?

Curt: Great Company in the year 2000. By 2008 they were, they were out of business and the son of the founder wrote a book called Good to Great to Gone. And he talked about there was an internal arrogance that, you know, it wouldn’t happen to them. Borders bookstore were, um, they were, they were delegating their book business to Amazon so they can focus on their brick and mortar. I mean, it sounds crazy now, but that’s what was happening. And so that’s again, the world that I’m in trying to help those manufacturers where like, you know, don’t be a Borders bookstore. Don’t be the next Blockbuster Video. You know, the challenges for these manufacturers are 50 to 60% of their business frequently will come from one or two or three customers. So they’re very vulnerable. So it’s really, it’s critical. You know, one customer goes away and it can devastate the whole business.

Curt: So, so it’s critical that they diversify now. Not the way I did, but definitely new channels to sell their product. And that’s this, this new theory that I’m working on is how can helping these companies scale their proprietary process A, or B, turn that proprietary process into a proprietary product. And what it’s doing now with ecommerce is now you can put that finished good or that proprietary product and now you can engage with the consumer. You can engage with the end user and so that’s the newness. That’s the new opportunity that people are excited about.

Susan: Well, that’s the major or I guess it would be a bit of a shift – you’re still not talking necessarily business to consumer, but the shift to selling direct. There’s a new channel, a new-to-them channel.

Curt: It’s a different concept because sometimes it is a consumer, sometimes the consumer might be another business, maybe it’s government. So you know, when you look at all the acronyms, the, you know, B2B, B2G meaning government, B2 end user, there’s a whole slew of them. So the goal is for the manufacturer is somebody was going to end up with that widget. Well let’s have it be yours. And cause the person’s paying with a credit card. And it’s really just a great opportunity. It’s a one, you know, I could ramble on and go on and on about the benefits, but what is it? It’s shortening that supply chain. It’s manufacturer now direct to the person that’s physically going to use that widget. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a consumer or who the end user is.

Susan: Yeah. When you’re working with these people, do you see them having difficulty in understanding where they should specialize and what their core competency is?

Curt: I do. And that’s a great question. Susan. And the funny thing is I’m a big Peter Drucker fan and so I’ll answer that question two ways. What’s fascinating is in a lot of clients, the business owner might be excited or there’s somebody internally that’s excited but, and I’m sure you find this frequently with your practice, is getting the buy-in. And Peter Drucker refers to it as the infant, the infant coming in to the business where you know, so-and-so down the hall is super busy and they’re swamped taking care of this product and this process and this is how we’ve done it forever. And now all of sudden you’re going to bring in something new, a new process. Where we’re used to shipping pallet loads and we do a bill of lading and a packing list and we do this and that and we’re going to do a receivable. And this is how we’ve always done it. And now all of a sudden you want me to sign, you know, $100 worth of goods on a credit card to someone you know, to Joe Smith Montana. Like you’re, you’re breaking, you’re bucking my system, you know?

Susan: And that’s a major change, isn’t it?

Curt: It’s a major change and it sounds foolish, but when you’re in that system and, and again, dealing with those of us that are you know maybe a little more mature or more experienced.

Susan: I like the experienced part.

Curt: We’re reluctant to change. So it is trying to get the buy in and the excitement and the newness. And you know what, there’s no guarantee that this is going to work. We might experiment with this for six months or a year. And I, and that frustration that I, you know, that boss or owner puts you through

Curt: might not pay the dividends that we’re hoping for. The focus. I’ve had many situations. One situation that I’ve been in for, uh, several years ago, I got involved with a little turn around and we were trying to apply it to, uh, uh, they had a proprietary product and we tried to put it into a custom manufacturer. And at the time it seemed like a good fit, but it just wasn’t a great fit. And you and I talked a little bit about, I have a goofy expression called the right knee guy and if I can just, I’ll just share that. I’ll make that real, real short. So years ago, I used to do Linkedin workshops and so I did a Linkedin workshop and the gentleman was in my, my class one time and we, you know, we had a great time and uh, he wanted to meet up one on one afterwards.

Curt: And so we meet up and he is a, a theory of constraints consultant. And you’re familiar with theory of constraints. And I, embarrassingly enough, it was new to me. I was actually a logistics major at college a hundred years ago and I should have been familiar with it, but I was not. And it’s based on a book called The Goal, which was written by Dr Eliyahu Goldratt in 1984 and it’s all about processes and efficiency. And if any of your listeners haven’t read that book, it is, I can’t recommend it enough. Great book; it’s actually a story. It’s a fictional book applied with theory, and the theory is how can you make your organization as efficient as possible? The book example and typically the theory of constraints is applicable to manufacturing. How do raw materials come into a building and uh, an operation and organization and flow? Where are the constraints?

Curt: Where are the bottlenecks? It could be a restaurant. Why? Why aren’t we getting our burritos out fast enough? It could be a dental office. Why aren’t we turning our chairs? You know, the chair fast enough? With manufacturing, is there a machine that’s slowing us down? What’s bogging down inventory, that type of thing. Getting it through fast as possible. So the gentleman is sitting there, he’s in my office and he’s a theory of constraint consultant. And he looks at me and he says, well, I want to, uh, I’m like, well, tell me about your business. Tell me, you know, what’s your goal? What’s your future? Where are you trying to get to? And he looks at me and he says, well, you know, I want to be the right knee guy of theory of constraints. And he just kept on going.

Curt: And I’m like, wait a minute, what’d you just say? And he goes, I, you know, I want to be the right knee guy of theory constraints. I’m like, what on earth is the right knee guy? He goes, well, you know, if you hurt your right knee, who are you going to go to? Are you just going to go to the doctor that’s in an emergency room or you gonna go to your general practitioner? He goes, no. He goes, I want to go to the best. I want to go to the guy who takes care of the local NFL football team. I want to take care of. I’m going to go the guy, whatever professional sports team is, they’re like, I want to go to the world renowned authority that’s gonna fix my right knee. That’s what I want to be with theory of constraints. I want to be the right knee guy. I want to be world renowned for theory of constraints.

Curt: And what’s fascinating is a project that I’m working on, we needed some photos of some products, so I’m on Linkedin and I see an old client of mine from years ago who was actually he, he was a fitness guy. He ran like a fitness business. He was killing it on social media, got married, had a couple of children and of course took a pivot in his career, needed something a little bit more stable and more secure. So we got into photography. So I connect with him on Linkedin. I’m like, Hey Joe, I need some photos, I see you’re in photography now, are you interested in this project. Absolutely. We meet up. First thing, I’m like, Hey Joe, how’s everything going? Family kids, blah, blah, blah, how’s business? He goes, well, you know Curt, he goes, I’m trying to be the right knee guy, but now I’m just doing it in photography.

Curt: So here it was five years later and he still remembered and I can’t tell you how many clients, it’s just such a simplistic analogy. And I can’t tell you how many clients of mine that I would run into down the road or connect with and they would look at me like, well you know Curt, I’m trying to be the right knee girl, I’m trying to be the right knee guy. And it was just a simplistic analogy of just laser focus and you can build wealth, you can build authority, you can build a success, whatever your measure of success is by being an expert in your field. And so that’s my diatribe and that’s what I try to encourage clients is like focus on what you’re best at.

Susan: So it doesn’t matter if it’s say a personal brand. There’s say an individual subject matter expert or it’s a company that is sort of wrapped around that expert. It seems like it would be the same. Same things would be true.

Curt: That’s, you know, and I’ll be first, you know, I don’t, I don’t declare myself an expert in that theory. It just, it seems to be a consistent theory that works. And you know, when you’re active on Linkedin and you see, you know, there’s a lot of cliches, you know, everybody always uses like Apple as an example or when it comes to social media like Gary V, you know, there are certain people that just, you know, Amazon, but when you get on Linkedin and you see the people there, you know, on a lower level, that are very successful, it’s like they are focusing on what they’re best at. They’re not world renowned per se, but they’re building a nice rapport and a nice audience. And again, you know, with our conversation, like what I really admire about your approach, what really resonated with me, you know, like no spray and pray approach. Like I just, I love that line. Like you help folks build their personal brand and it’s safe. You know, I just, I just really loved how, how you approach would you, with your clients

Susan: Well, you know, and I, I’m thinking back to what you said the consultant told you early on about when you were running a diversified company and, she said, it looks to me like you’re doing five things horribly. Why don’t you do one thing really well?

Curt: Isn’t that great?

Susan: Yeah, yeah. I, you know, that’s so true. With our LinkedIn programs, we make clients focus on one, one product, one service, one market at a time. Otherwise things start going right or going wrong and you don’t know why because you, you haven’t been able to keep up with all of it. So I think that’s a great, great thing to live by. Do you have any advice, Curt, that you might give to listeners that are in a situation where they may be being tempted to try other things?

Curt: Yeah, that’s another great question. So what I have found, I thought if I could be a consultant for, I’m 50 so if I could be a consultant for the next 40 years, if I could perfect one thing, it would be asking really good questions. And I’m like, the day that I finally perfect really good questions, I’ll know that I can retire. Because as an advisor, I used to kid around and say, you know what the irony was I hated giving advice. I was an advisor and I hate giving advice. But I found if I could just ask questions. And back to the Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. He has a chapter that really, so like that consultant there, you know, when you look back in your career, there’s certain things that were turning points for that change for you. And what I found is like when that consultant called me out.

Curt: Every time that I put somebody in my life that really got me put me out of my comfort zone or really we call it like confronting the brutal facts. Can you really look in the mirror and take a hard core look of like, you know what, I’m really not good at this and it causes me angst, um, you know, or what have you. And can I just focus on my core? And the more questions that you can ask of yourself or whether a consultant, trusted advisor like yourself, accountability buddy, your significant other, somebody that’s willing to tell you the tough facts of what am I good at and what am I just not really that great at; and cut it, just get out of it. And a lot of organizations really struggle at getting, it’s those sacred cows, it’s that sacred cow-itis. You know, I’m blockbuster video. How can I get rid of my corner stores and compete with, with Netflix? The founder of Netflix, his first name escapes me, Reid. He started Netflix because he had a $40 late fee at, at Blockbuster video. Think about that. He had a $40 late fee from blockbuster video gets an a Netflix blockbuster could have bought Netflix for $50 million. I think. Last last I looked at her evaluation was what a hundred, a hundred billion. They could have bought it for $1 million. Isn’t that crazy?

Susan: Yes it is. It is. Well, Curt, thank you. I appreciate you sharing your experience with me and I know that um, people in the audience are going to get some good value out of what you had to say. If anybody listening to stay connected with you or learn more, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Curt: Yeah, I would absolutely love to connect with any of your listeners. I’m very active on Linkedin. I would love to connect. I have a couple of things on linkedin. I need to spice it up. I have anybody wants you to get in the ECOMMERCE. I have like a little ecommerce checklist. I’d be more than happy to just pass that along. I have like a little Linkedin cheat sheet, but definitely go to Susan. I’m not the Linkedin expert or guru, but I would love to connect with anybody on Linkedin. That’d be the best place to find me.

Susan: Okay, great. Well that about wraps it up. Thanks again, Curt. I really appreciate it and you take care,

Curt: Susan, I can’t thank you enough. Thank you. This is great.

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