The Next Big Idea:
Growing Christmas Trees in the Desert
It does not need to be a tree specifically and the desert is not the only option, but if you want to build a sustainable business with unlimited growth potential, you do need to live on the Edge of Chaos.
The balancing act is finding the edge, getting as close as possible and not falling over. This is the Goldilocks Zone, where entrepreneurship thrives. Stand too far away from the edge and you simply will not be distinct enough to thrive without significantly deep pockets. Entrepreneurs venture to build something that others have not or cannot. It is this type of entrepreneur that needs to find the Edge of Chaos and be very comfortable operating there.
i would like to get this idea out in the world
I have an opinion on the definition of entrepreneurship; I believe it is being over applied. I see an entrepreneur as someone that builds something new and different.
That is not to say that becoming a franchise owner or purchasing a well-established business is any less significant and amazing. It is simply different than what fits my view of an entrepreneur. If you don’t buy that franchise or purchase that 30-year-old ice cream shop, someone else will.
Entrepreneurs venture to build something that others have not or cannot. It is this type of entrepreneur that needs to find the Edge of Chaos and be very comfortable operating there. This is disruption.
A business is far more akin to a biological entity than a mechanical one. In a biological environment the entities are impacted by the changing environment around them.
The Edge of Chaos is where conditions and circumstances overlap to allow the creation of a new product or service that others have not been able to produce. Operating successfully at the Edge of Chaos puts a business ahead of others and makes it difficult for others to catch up and replicate.
If you have a great business idea you are afraid to share because you think others would steal the idea and beat you to market, then you are not living on the Edge of Chaos. If you have a method and process to get evergreens to thrive on inexpensive desert soil, you’ve found the Edge of Chaos.
Finding Your Goldilocks Zone
Let's explore how you can find your edge of Chaos. Some entrepreneurs are naturals at spotting opportunities and gravitate toward the warm glow of chaos. Sometimes it is as simple as being in the right place at the right time. Bill Gates saw the opportunity for disruption and built a highly agile software company during a time when the industry was dominated by slow moving, cautious, corporations. Not all of us are this lucky.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, there are few reliable methodologies to find the elusive Goldilocks Zone - where entrepreneurship thrives.
the goldilocks zone
Subject matter experts, customer feedback, and crossbreeding winners are three very attainable and successful approaches. I should note, this NEEDS to be an intentional effort. Your organization needs to put a priority on this quest and allocate resources to pursue.
Solicit your SMEs and customers for feedback on your current products and services. This inquiry needs to go much deeper than your traditional satisfaction survey.
You need insights into what is missing, what works well, what goes unused, what excites them, and what enables them.
What problems do they have that you are not solving? What don’t they like about how you deliver service or product? You need to fully understand the emotion your service and product invokes and where you are missing opportunities to thrill your customers.
think Amazon Prime
Amazon already had a very successful business model and significantly disrupted the retail industry. They were founded standing with their toes on the Edge of Chaos. The environment around them continued to evolve. Other retailers added more and more features to their own eCommerce platforms to compete with Amazon.
Amazon responded to the growing number of big box stores entering the eCommerce space by launching Amazon Prime, which leverages capabilities and resources Amazon has that no other retailer has under one roof.
Walmart could beat Amazon at deliveries and returns, but is not positioned to serve up massive digital content and extend its accessibility through a smart speaker. Netflix and Hulu could beat Amazon at digital content, but no one considers Netflix or Hulu an authoritative source of which crock pot has the best consumer reviews. Amazon can fulfill all those consumer needs in one brand.
just do it
Once you find that opportunity you must put the plan into play. This might include modifications to existing services or products, creating new, or changing the way you deliver your services and products.
The key here is to make sure you are working within your capabilities and combining your resources in a way to create more value for your current and future customer base.
Remember, you are planning to move in snugly to the edge of chaos. One should not stand their very long without checking to make sure the right results are happening. Consider setting up a few focus groups or meet with current customers to get their feedback on this new offering.
If you are bold enough, you might even consider sharing your idea with a competitor to gauge their reaction. If you have truly found the edge, they will not able to quickly replicate it. Their reaction to your new product could offer valuable insight.
Amazon lives, quite successfully, at the edge of chaos. When something shifts in their environment, they adapt and move to a new Goldilocks Zone. Embrace feedback and be willing to make changes to stay at the edge. Keep in mind your business is more like a biological entity. To survive at the edge, you must be alert and swift in making decisions.
Crossbreeding the Winners
As I have discussed previously, we view businesses as more akin to a biological entity than a mechanical entity. Businesses do not exist in a vacuum and their success, or failure, is influenced by the environment around them. In order to thrive as a business, it is important to innovate. The most powerful innovations are ones that live at the edge of chaos. This is where the conditions and circumstances overlap that enable the creation of a new business offering that is difficult for others to replicate.
This approach is more powerful than the prior, as you are not limited to crossbreeding your own products and services. Rather you can pull for a nearly unlimited list of ideas and combine them in new ways that create offerings your business as the resources and capabilities to deliver. We do this regularly in our business and it has given rise to some of our most successful solutions. Here is how to get after it.
build the list
Brainstorm a list of winning products and services. I recommend looking both within and outside of your industry for ideas on highly successful solutions to add to your list. Do not slow down your process worrying about organizing or sorting this list. In fact, capturing the ideas in a random order or grouping will support this process. There really is no way to go wrong in this phase, the more ideas the better.
prepare for genetic modification
Break your list into two or three groups. Random selection is the preferred method, at least for your first attempt. You may find a grouping strategy you prefer after completing the process a few times. Invite a few team members to join you in this part of the process. Provide everyone a copy of the same information. Working independently, each person should select one item from each group and work on one hybrid at a time.
For example, let’s say we want to combine jalapeno poppers, hot sauce of the month club, and virtual reality. All three are successful business offerings, yet they are unrelated as products. The key is not to focus on combining the literal products, but rather bringing together the features and benefits that made them successful and then create a new offering based on those design goals. Following our example, you would create a chart something like this:
breeding the winners
The next step is to combine the features and use them as a guide to create a new idea. It is not mandatory to use all the features and creativity is strongly encouraged. In our example, we will use the following features: Now each person should brainstorm a list of new products or services that would have these features.
Let’s imagine our company provides door delivery of common grocery store items. Using this list, I might create a recipe of the month club that uses exotic spices. Each month we would send our customers a new recipe card and sample packs of the unique spices and a link to a pre-populated shopping cart containing the rest of the recipe ingredients.
This offering would encourage them to continue to use our grocery delivery service, generate additional revenue from the recipe membership, and introduce them to new unique spice products they might not otherwise purchase. This is just one of many new ideas that could be generated with the same list of features.
Continue this process independently until each person has 3 to 5 new ideas. Then each person should present their ideas to the group, take feedback and update their idea to incorporate others' ideas. Have each person pick one they like the most. Using this one idea each, create a short sales pitch, ad, or product sheet. Present and review the final selections with the team.
prioritizing and organizing the chaos
I prefer to start by evaluating the Degree of Difficulty for each idea, then take the top 3 on for further consideration. You could also add in a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). If you have the resources available, you may even consider doing focus groups or public surveys to help whittle down the list.
The two most critical factors are to ensure that you have an idea the market will want to buy and that your company has the resources and capabilities to produce this new product or deliver this new service.
I always recommend doing a pilot release of any new offering. Use feedback from pilot customers to refine and improve the offering before a full scale release. The frequency at which you create new offerings depends on your business model and the markets capacity to consume new offerings.
do not be afraid to be bold
Gather data and adjust your approach and frequency over time. Your new ideas are based on winning features that have been proven in the market. Add description If you continue to do the same things, you may not continue to get the same results - you may get left behind. Entrepreneurs venture to build something that others have not or cannot. It is this type of entrepreneur that needs to find the Edge of Chaos and be very comfortable operating there. This is disruption.
Fortinet completed a case study about the technology solutions Batteries + Bulbs chose on Leeward Business Advisors advice.
Today, the IT team consists of around 75 people, providing development, service desk, and infrastructure services to headquarters and to the corporate and franchised stores. Given the unique needs of its market niche, the company has built its own custom applications for its eCommerce site and point-of-sale infrastructure as well as a sophisticated cross-reference tool that shows which batteries fit which devices.
While in-house development is a key part of Batteries Plus Bulbs’ strategy, Lehman’s team does not hesitate to use third parties to perform specific functions or to supplement the internal team during specific projects. Cybersecurity is one area where the company has relied on service providers for close to a decade. “Franchisees want secure and compliant systems, and we do not want to pretend that we have the in-house expertise to make that happen,” Lehman contends.
Two years ago, Batteries Plus Bulbs’ contract with its managed security service provider (MSSP) was coming up for renewal, and the team knew they needed to update the way they approached security.
“We engaged our legacy provider eight years ago, at a time when retail organizations were scrambling to meet new security requirements,” Lehman recalls. Specifically, versions 2.0 and 3.0 of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), released in 2010 and 2014, introduced new, more stringent standards for merchants.
provider over another vendor. To manage this relationship, the company selected Fortinet Partner Leeward Business Advisors, a Wisconsin-based consultancy that takes a broad, strategic approach to designing technology solutions for businesses of all sizes.
LeewardBA won the contract for a number of reasons. “They took the time to understand our business and put together a thoughtful proposal that was a value add for us,” Lehman relates. “They also provided a superior solution at a really good price.”
Specifically, Batteries Plus Bulbs appreciated the fact that LeewardBA has both security operations center (SOC) and network operations center (NOC) capabilities and uses the fully integrated security solutions of the Fortinet Security Fabric. “The Batteries Plus Bulbs team saw the value in our broad capabilities,” says Michael Polzin, CEO at LeewardBA. “Our ability to dynamically support the desktop infrastructure, switching, and the wireless infrastructure in addition to the SOC was a huge advantage.”
deploying comprehensive security
The LeewardBA solution is built on FortiGate next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) installed at each store. The FortiOS operating system underlying the NGFW technology also enables all other Fortinet Security Fabric solutions—including third-party solutions developed by Fabric Partners—to be seamlessly integrated. All Fortinet solutions are backed by comprehensive, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled threat intelligence from FortiGuard Labs. And LeewardBA has access to other sources of threat intelligence that have also been integrated into the Security Fabric.
One welcome feature of the FortiGate NGFWs is FortiGate Secure SD-WAN functionality, which the company uses to connect its 740 stores to the headquarters. This robust software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) technology enables the company to safely use the public internet to scale network traffic, rather than relying solely on expensive multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) circuits. “Managing this part of the solution enables LeewardBA to ensure network performance as well as security,” says Jason Klein, CTO for LeewardBA.
Another feature of FortiGate NGFWs that Batteries Plus Bulbs is taking advantage of is intent-based segmentation. “For PCI compliance reasons, our register network is separated from the rest of the infrastructure,” Lehman explains. “Being able to take advantage of the dynamic trust models in the FortiGate makes this segmentation even more robust.”
LeewardBA also manages instances of FortiManager VM and FortiAnalyzer on behalf of Batteries Plus Bulbs. “These tools enable us to provide centralized management from a single pane of glass, detailed reporting, workflow automation, and trends analysis,” says Klein. “This enables the in-house team to get a complete picture of their security posture at a glance, at any time.”
company access to security services like advanced malware protection, web filtering, IPS, and application control—enabling the company to retire several point products. “They are using just about every element of their UTM package, and they love that it is all visible from one place,” Klein reports.
In addition to the consolidation accomplished to date, the FortiOS platform and the Fortinet Security Fabric provide the flexibility to add myriad additional security features in the future—all seamlessly integrated with centralized visibility and control. “The flexibility and scalability of the solution was a big selling point for Batteries Plus Bulbs,” says Peter Van Opens, a client success manager at LeewardBA.
starting to see tangible benefits
The deployment was rather complex, given the number of point products being retired and the number of separate franchise groups Lehman’s team supports. Batteries Plus Bulbs and LeewardBA moved at a deliberate pace and recently completed the rollout. “We are now working on final fine-tuning for this project and planning for next steps,” Klein says. And while specific results are not available yet, the company is beginning to see benefits.
Perhaps the most visible benefit to Lehman’s staff was a greatly increased level of visibility of the company’s security posture and infrastructure. “We were often in the dark with our prior solution,” Lehman remembers. “Our prior MSSP did not provide us with actionable insights about what risks we faced or what we could do about them.”
“Now we have security information by glancing at a screen, and we can drill down to any level of detail we need,” says Dan Dugan, vice president of IT for Batteries Plus Bulbs. “We can take a more proactive stance to managing security. This gives us confidence that we are equipped to manage security threats for the next 5 to 7 years.”
Another benefit is the flexibility of the Fortinet solution. “I was pleased with the many ports the Fortinet devices have,” Lehman says. “This gives us the flexibility to add services in the future without having to rearrange the infrastructure.”
One example of this flexibility is that stores have been able to set up a separate wireless protocol specifically for testing smartphones and tablets that are brought in for repair. “We need to isolate customer devices from company devices,” Lehman explains. “So, it is prudent to be able to have a dedicated testing protocol.”
Controlling costs is another benefit of the LeewardBA/Fortinet solution. “This wound up being a cost-neutral project,” Lehman relates. “When we set up the security infrastructure eight years ago, franchisees starting paying a cybersecurity fee that they had not paid before, and this was frustrating for many of them. The new solution does not increase their fees, yet it delivers much more robust security and performance.”
Finally, Batteries Plus Bulbs now has a scalable solution that makes adding additional security products and services very easy. “Having a single provider gives us economies of scale, and we know that services we add later will be compatible,” Lehman asserts. “Some of what will happen in the future is unknown today, but we have the depth and breadth in our security architecture to provide protection from whatever comes along.”
Managing expenses is key to a successful business. To do that, you need to understand the actual Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of your investment. Making your financial decision on purchase price alone is a losing strategy, and this is especially true when deciding what technology and computer equipment to purchase.
Consider the duration and detailed services provided. Most consumer PCs only come with a limited one-year warranty. PCs should be expected to last three years for business use and should have a warranty that matches.
The default warranty on most PCs requires that you pack up the unit and ship it back for repair. This means someone you don’t know has access to the data on your system and your business is without a computer. With some mail-in repairs taking two to four weeks, these are large concerns.
Instead, an ideal warranty on a business PC should provide next day, on-site repair. Downtime, shipping, and any repair costs are important factors to consider when calculating your TCO.
If you are buying a PC from an online retailer or local electronics store, you can expect it to come loaded with “bloatware”. This is the industry term for pre-installed software and apps that your business does not need. Their existence on your computer can slow it down and make you more susceptible to viruses and malware.
Additionally, those PCs will not have all the software tools specific to your business installed. This means you either must take up your own time getting the computer ready for business or pay an IT provider a steep hourly rate to complete the configuration. These expenses should also be considered in your TCO.
The average computer support professional will charge $130 an hour and in some areas, their fees may include a trip charge and an hourly rate as high as $190. Just one hour of support each month over the three-year life span of a business PC can range from $4,680 to over $7,000. That expense must be added together with the cost of lost productivity to understand your actual TCO.
security and backup
Don’t forget other monthly services that are critical to safe PC operations. Those include a proper subscription for antivirus, malware, and data backup. Skipping out on those services to save a few more bucks could lead to a catastrophic business loss. Finalize your TCO by adding in the cost of monthly subscription services for security and backup.
Calculating the TCO for a PC purchase can take time and might be overwhelming. That makes it seem much easier to buy the hot deal of the month PC and take your chances. As a business leader, you know you need to make sound financial decisions and you also have to allocate your time to priority business tasks.
Surprises aren’t something that should be accepted when it comes to making good financial decisions. Overpaying for your business’s technology can severely impact your bottom line and limit your ability to invest your profit in growing your business.
Use this guide to calculate expenses related to technology ownership you might be forgetting about. Before you make technology purchases, compare the TCO of your current situation and that of the proposed purchase
but wait, there's more
There is a lot more to consider before making technology investments. Watch for future blogs on the difference between consumer-class and business-class equipment, what a warranty should cover, unlimited vs. hourly support, and more. We would love to know what else you want to learn about. Please share your ideas through the "Ask Me" survey on this page.
learning on the job
In my pre-teen years, I was fortunate enough to get a hand-me-down computer and taught myself programing and computer repair. As I explored job after job (five different jobs by the time I turned 20, to be exact), I decided to turn my hobby into a career.
At my first ‘real’ job in Information Technology (IT) I worked within a team of people assembling, configuring, and shipping large computer orders for companies like Abbott Laboratories. Orders were piling up and customers were waiting weeks to receive their new computers. I knew there had to be a faster way.
I could not stand the thought of customers’ waiting so long to get their orders filled. I proposed instead of each technician working on a small batch of orders, we follow an assembly line approach. In a few days we were cranking out pallets of fully configured computer systems, we eliminated the backlog and most orders were fulfilled the same or next day.
It was a seemingly triumphant moment, until I was called into the manager’s office. I had literally worked myself out of a job. Still, I did not regret doing the right thing for our customers. Luckily, they had another role for me to fill and similarly, it needed some mindful efficiency applied.
I continued my self-led training and successfully gained professional industry certifications in Microsoft Server technologies which led to a job in the IT department at Allstate Insurance Company.
During my nine years at Allstate I continued to apply my passion for customer experience and process efficiency. I continued to push back anytime I felt it could be done better. They were not always keen on my questions, but they humored me. I believed if my team was fully read into the business needs and goals, we could design a better solution at a lower cost. We did, reducing project costs by millions of dollars. I learned to take the time to fully understand the business needs, then design the RIGHT solution.
Training and life lessons came together for me and a light bulb went on. Long before it was a corporate buzz word, I was practicing servant leadership. I found ways to support my employees in their entirety, no more “leaving your baggage at the door” when coming to work. We built a team culture that was genuinely supportive and was not limited to dealing with 9 to 5 issues. That made us a strong team and a force to be reckoned with.
We learned to ask WHY a lot! Unbeknownst to me, this was a revolutionary way to manage IT. I was honestly doing what I thought was right in each situation.
it is the same everywhere
After accepting a role on a newly formed IT operations consulting practice with Microsoft and consulting for over 130 companies in eight different countries, I came to learn just how forward thinking my approach really was.
As I settled into a life of full-time jet setting with Microsoft, I had another illuminating moment. Regardless of geography, size, or industry, businesses tend to suffer from the same types of technology challenges. The issue with solving these challenges in large fortune 500 companies is the time it takes to undo so many years of layer upon layer of problems.
Oh, and the culture. Most fortune 500 companies have not gotten the memo about servant leadership. They spend a lot of time, and a lot of money, talking at each other about who’s problem it is to solve the problem.
The technology was not the prevalent issue across these companies. The issue was a lack of consistency, misalignment of solutions to needs, and complexity for the sake of “that’s the way we have always done it”.
maybe smaller is better
I departed Microsoft and took a role with a much smaller IT company that served small business customers. I wanted to know if the same issues were at play in companies without the layers of bureaucracy, without 100 years of built up denial, and without the multi-million dollar technology budgets.
The answer is yes, the same problems exist, and no one was solving these issues for them. I found the average small business IT service provider was gleefully intent to sell their customers anything and everything. Sometimes ten of them, just for good measure.
Instead of helping meet business needs, these IT providers were adding to the complexity, driving inconsistency, feeding into the misalignment. Not one to sit by and watch a problem grow without a solution, I left after a year.
doing the right thing
It was time to take my twenty years of insight and experience and so something impactful with it.
Working with two business partners, Leeward Business Advisors was created. We laid out a five-year business plan, filed our articles of incorporation, put $500 in our new business checking account, and started knocking on doors.
six years later
Our team meets with executives and owners, learns about their business, identifies their needs, helps them prioritize, and provides value-aligned solutions. Sometimes the solution is to reduce technology, manage it differently, and improve their process.
We have found a way to create a complete package of IT services that is consistent, without complexity, and readily aligned to most business needs. The result is Leeward Elite.
Leeward Elite is more than a product or service. It is the culmination of over 25 years of experience and insights, it is delighted employees that serve with a passion, it is the right solution for businesses with 1-50 employees, without complexity, it is an outstanding experience that delivers great value, and fits comfortably into a small business budget.
Leeward Business Advisors also supports bigger businesses. Leeward Enterprise is perfect for the company that has an IT department, but wants to hand off some of the support to free up your IT professionals to focus on your in-house needs. If you don't have an IT department, don't worry. We can be your IT department!
Twenty-five years ago, I stood back and looked at a backlog of computer shipments, envisioned an array of disappointed customers, and instinctively modernized the process to solve the problem. Today, our team oversees thousands of computer systems, dozens of processes, and hundreds of requests a day all with the aim of solving the problem and delighting our customers.
In the future, I will cover the importance of business-class vs. consumer-class hardware, servant leadership, cybersecurity, what small businesses need to know when considering their technology needs and more. The goal of this blog is not to convince you to purchase Leeward Business Advisors' service. It is to share information and help you grow your business!
Of course we are always happy to discuss whether or not Leeward Business Advisors is right for you and invite you to reach out if you would like to learn more about our services.