Bob the Ostrich

05.18.20 10:01 AM

The truth can be unpleasant, but is an important fact of business to face.

Meet Bob. Bob is a 42-year-old business owner in downtown Nowheresville. He has a loving wife, Sally, and 2 children, Lil' Timmy and Lil' Carol. Bob leaves his house to go to work, Monday through Friday, around 7:25 AM to arrive at his shop around 8 AM. He leaves early so he can take an extra minute to stop at his favorite coffee shop, StarDunks, and indulge himself a coffee with 2 creams and 3 sugars, and a glazed donut. Bob's business has been steadily growing for years, a result of his hard work, long hours, and excellent customer service. Sally doesn't like that Bob spends so many late nights at the shop, but she understands that it is those long hours that has afforded them their nice house and comfortable lifestyle. She does, however, remain adamant that Bob does not spend enough time with the kids; after all, Bob is rarely home before they are off to bed, and he uses the weekends to recharge from his long hours during the work week, leaving him with little energy to do much. They argue about it on occasion, but ultimately, Bob thinks that if he isn't at the shop personally, working hard and making sure everything is perfect, their lifestyle won't be as secure. Bob might be called a bit old-fashioned, but he takes great pride in providing for his family; it is, after all, the man's job, as he was told by his father, and grandfather. So, day by day, he toils away at what he believes is the best path to success, re-doubling his efforts whenever he has self-doubt, perpetually burning the proverbial midnight oil.

  

Bob is an ostrich. Both figuratively, in his attitude towards his priorities and work, and, in this story, literally. Bob is an ostrich. His tie fits a little funny around his long neck, and instead of driving to work he runs, but otherwise, Bob is your average business owner, despite his feathers. As it turns out, most customers Bob deals with on a daily basis don't mind, or even really notice at all, that he is a giant bird. This is true of most customers across most businesses, and Bob's existence as an ostrich stands to point out the first uncomfortable business truth: customers tend not to place too much weight on the smiling face behind the cash register. Of course, if you ask Bob's customers, they will rave about how they love to shop at Bob's, he has incredible customer service, the best groomed feathers, and so on. But, if Bob is struck by a bus on the highway, and Bob's shop is suddenly forced to close, those same raving customers will not suddenly have their needs cease to be. They will go to the next widget shop in town they can find, and have their needs fulfilled there. Bob has made himself into the shop's competitive advantage, which is a common tactic, but is, if examined from a bird's eye view (pun intended), not a solid long-term strategy. Besides the fact that Bob must continue to disproportionately dedicate himself to work over his other priorities in order to keep his customers' loyalty, Bob has a hard limit on how much he can grow his shop. There is a hard limit on how many customers Bob can greet in a day, how many hands he can shake with his wing, how many cute, albeit pointless, stories he can swap with each client as they make small talk. He has 24 hours a day, just like everyone else, and even with his ostrich brain only requiring 6 hours of sleep, he cannot take on more customers than he personally has time for.

Bob has chosen to ignore one of the two important truths of business: the scalability of his competitive advantage. Bob is not alone in his mistake, though. It is a common mistake, an easy logical pitfall to fall victim to. In order to pull Bob's head out of the sand, as ostrich heads often are, Bob's shop must begin to take a long, hard look at what they are providing to their customers, and how they can pivot their competitive advantage into something scalable. In fact, Bob has a phenomenal advantage over his competition that he had never once considered: having run the roads of Nowheresville every day for several years, Bob has an impeccable (pun, again, intended) knowledge of the fastest route to get from anywhere to, well, anywhere. Instead of being the smiling face that customers love to see, Bob can begin to teach his staff the best methods for traversing the city, and offer the fastest delivery of anyone in the industry. Note that Bob himself is not the one doing the deliveries himself. That would simply be a pivot from one hard limit of time to another. No, Bob has leveraged his knowledge, and decentralized a core process of his business, so that any of his staff can be the best - or, at least, better than the competition. And, as Bob's ostrich instincts have taught him well, he knows that when you are outrunning a predator, you needn't be the fastest; you just can't be the slowest.

 

A few months have passed, and Bob's shop is running (pun not intended, as Bob is not the one running his goods, remember) smoothly. Of course, his customers still love to come and see his smiling beak, and shake hand-wings, but not nearly as much. As it turns out, most of his customers would much rather sit at home and have Bob's widgets delivered. The sheer convenience of how fast Bob's delivery is makes stopping at the store to immediately lay hands on said widgets a very rare occurrence for most. They would rather order and move on with their day, spending the time they would have sank into the trip to Bob's on other tasks. Everyone wins, and everyone is happier! Or, are they? As it turns out, Bob is an ostrich. He still has his head in the sand about the other important truth of business. You see, Bob has not lowered the amount of time he is spending at work. He is still leaving the house around 7:25 AM, and working far too late. His pivot to delivery has left him with more 'free' time at work, but that time does not feel free to Bob. There is always something more to do, something else to fix, some other problem to worry about. And despite the sudden spike of growth Bob's shop has experienced, and his proportional increase in pay, Sally is still unhappy. Bob is ignoring the fact that the very definition of business is providing solutions to others, in exchange for money. There will always be another problem to solve; the minute there are no more problems, Bob's shop goes out of business! Bob must recognize that fact, and take another hard introspective look at himself, and his priorities.

Bob is not stupid, of course. He understands that he is sacrificing his family time for the shop, but he cannot help it. It is not stupid, he is scared. Scared that, if he takes his hoof off the gas, if he relinquishes any control of the shop, if he starts spending time away from the shop, everything will fall apart. He loves his wife and children, and couldn't stand the idea of losing the shop. The trade-off, in Bob's head, is that he must guarantee his family's comfort and financial stability, even if that means missing Lil' Carol's dance recitals. His family will understand, he knows. He is partially right, but realistically, Bob is setting himself up for another hard limit, and ultimately, failure. Bob must again recognize this limit that he has imposed upon himself, and make plans to remove himself from the equation. Bob's newfound success actually provides the solution. He can decentralize his authority to different staff members, and align their objectives with the shop's to make sure everyone is working on the same goals. By removing his need to quality control every step, and instead delegating a piece of each step to a different member of his team, Bob can free up his time to spend on his actual priorities: brainstorming the next big innovation for his shop, and spending time with his family. He can rest easy that his staff will not cut corners, as in the alignment of objectives, it does not behoove (last pun, I swear) them to do so. In fact, the staff are perhaps bonused with extra time off or higher financial incentives, something that achieves their goals, while achieving the goals of the shop, and vicariously, Bob. That is not to say that Bob will not have to quality control his staff, as a good manager knows that things will always get off track, eventually, but he does not have to be scared that if he does not watch every minute of every day, things will not be done correctly. This relief on his mind finally gives Bob the peace of mind to let go of some control of the business, and refocus his priorities.

 

Bob is an ostrich. While ostriches don't actually stick their heads into the sand, as I learned while researching them for this, and now you as the reader knows too, the common misconception that they do fits perfectly. No business owner goes into work, day by day, believing that his head is in the sand. It takes incredible courage to pull one's head out, and look at the truths objectively. It is said that ignorance is bliss, but in the world of business, ignorance is death. Take the time to reflect on Bob's struggles, hardships, and what he had to face; and in the end, trust that facing the truth will hurt, but be best for your business long-term. Be like Bob.

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