17604-computer-keyboard-pvIt occurred to me recently that certain concepts, trends, guideposts, whatever you want to call them, kept coming up in my reading, research, discussions, and consultations. They’re not necessarily new or comprehensive, but definitely relevant as businesses succeed and fail faster in a business environment that is increasingly global and digital. And they all begin with the letter “C.” No, this isn’t (at least not directly) about “C-level” people, although I hope a few might read this.

So, without further adieu, and not necessarily in order of importance, here’s my list of “C-words” and some musings about each:

1. Convenience

This is in the category of old news, but I still find myself saying to clients: “It’s hard to go too wrong in a business that truly delivers convenience”, especially in a world that is seemingly too busy and complex (one of those “C-words” to avoid by the way). There are obvious recent examples like Uber (convenient transportation), OpenTable (convenient dining reservations), but let’s not forget the big established players: Google (convenient web search), Amazon (convenient shopping), Facebook (convenient social networking), and so forth.

Now there are some important layers to the business value of offering convenience. Not all conveniences are created equal. I might be able to create an app to make it more convenient to deliver motor oil to your home, but I don’t think most people would place a lot of value on that.

Also, being a first mover in a category of convenience can be a key to success, but is not always necessary. MP3 players made listening to music more convenient, but it was really Apple that capitalized on that technology with the iPod player and iTunes platform, and they weren’t first. Better beat first in that case. Subscription or ad-based streaming services (vs. downloading) now appear to be the next level of music distribution convenience, and, interestingly, Apple is currently behind the curve on that one – and hoping their offering will again be better.. At the same time, Amazon did and still defines the standard in e-commerce. First won out there – largely because Amazon continues to make the digital retail experience increasingly convenient. They were first and better and that continues to be the case.

Is your business solving a problem that consumers value and are you’re the first and/or the best at delivering the associated convenience? If you are the first, are you thinking ahead to always be the best?

2. Control

I worked in the world of Interactive TV in its early days. I was convinced that “interactivity” was going to be the word in entertainment distribution and monetization. Certainly, interactivity in today’s digital world is a big thing. As a simple example, I’ve voted online or via phone/text to try to help my favorites win on TV competition shows. But, the dominant word in content distribution and consumption today is really control. We want to watch TV shows and movies (assuming there is much of a difference these days between those two formats) how, when, and where we want to consume them. We binge. We “zap” commercials, and watch our favorite movies and shows “on demand.” That genie is out of the bottle, for good.

Consumers desire for control is turning the media world upside down, but there are implications for other businesses as well. I might even argue that the increasing control of entertainment/content is influencing our expectations for other businesses. We’ve always dreaded the idea of buying a car and going through the multi-layered sales/negotiation process that dealers provided. Now, information and digital technology have wrestled much of that control from dealers and given it to consumers. I love wine. Maybe you do. If you do, do you find yourself checking prices online before ordering that desired bottle of wine on the wine list at your favorite restaurant? I simple have more control over my choice in that transaction due to the accessibility of information.

While the recent “Fight of the Century” between Mayweather and Pacquiao may have turned out to be anything but that, the most interesting part of it for me was the technical snafu that delayed the start of the fight. With the massive Pay-Per-View audience driving most of the fight’s revenue, there was no way that the fight was going to start without the broadcast cleanly reaching the TV screens of cable and satellite customers who shelled out their 100 bucks. So, in a sense, it was the massive home viewing customer base in question calling and controlling the shots in a major sporting event – much to the chagrin of those sitting in the arena.

The desire for control is a powerful and instinctive human behavior. It’s the close cousin of convenience. Is your business resisting this irrevocable force or recognizing and providing the appropriate level of control to your customers?

3. Content

There was a time when content was essentially considered to be the movies and television shows produced by Hollywood studios and the other production entities across the globe. One should also add in the editorial content created and distributed by newspapers and magazines. In short, it was entertainment or news. But now, businesses across countless categories are creating content. And the prevailing theory is that if your business is not in the content business, then you are either not optimizing your growth potential – or in trouble. What’s this all about?

Well, in simplest terms, digital technology has knocked down the walls in which text, audio, and video can be delivered directly and instantly to consumers across the world. Beyond the business model and piracy issues this created for traditional media players, it also generated both the opportunity and expectation that your business will have a more direct relationship with your consumers.

These new channels of communication include everything from (not so new) email to video platforms like You Tube and an increasing array of social media platforms. These can and are being used to take traditional advertising messages, once reserved for paid media channels like TV, radio, and magazines, and deliver those messages to a wider (often incremental) audience.

But people want more than just advertising delivered in these new channels. They expect some level of relationship and engagement. That’s where content can be essential. Content in this sense is defined as words and/or images that provide information and context to the why, where, and how of what you’re selling. This is content engaging email recipients and potentially motivating them to visit a web or mobile site/app, or social media platform – and in most cases, buy something. And consumers, particularly Millennials, are saying (with their wallets) that if I don’t have that connection with your enterprise, I may go elsewhere to a competitor that does.

Content creation and management are not easy. They can be resource intensive processes and add as much risk as reward. It seems like a day or week doesn’t go by when a company tweets something on Twitter that quickly goes viral and becomes an exercise in damage control. That said, consumers have spoken and ultimately what was a “nice to have” is now a “must have.”

Is your company in and effectively “playing” the content game? And that leads to the next “C-word…”

4. Creativity

Books have been written about creativity, so I won’t try to compete with them. I will simply say that as powerful as creativity it is so often undervalued, undermanaged, and/or underexploited. In my own experience, the obvious example of the impact of creativity is in advertising where a great ad can literally change the growth curve of a business overnight. TV as a media platform for a great ad held that promise for years – much less so now – while great content going viral in social media is often seen as today’s holy grail in accelerating growth.

So, yes, creativity is an obvious and necessary part of advertising and social media. But I also like to think of it in the broader context of so many aspects of business: Scrum as a more agile and effective project management concept is a very creative process. The creativity behind the product design and technology behind Elon Musk’s Tesla is amazing. How did the creativity of the original iPhone design change the mobile phone category? A visit to Zappos headquarters provides a showcase in creativity in motivating people to provide stellar customer service. In effect, creativity when applied to people, process, and product is a powerful thing. And the best businesses have engines that hit on all of these creative cylinders.

But I think the most misunderstood part of creativity is where it comes from. Just as I believe that leaders are not born, but can be developed, I also believe that we are all creative (in different ways) and successful organizations tap into the creativity of their teams at all levels. They don’t just depend on the head of design, the Chief Creative Officer, or any one individual or group to drive the innovations necessary for business success.

Is your company bringing creativity to all phases of your business and are you tapping into the inherent creativity of your team members?

5. Communication

Is it a sound if a tree falls in the middle of the desert and no one is there to hear it? I don’t know. But I do know that for all of the progress in communication technologies that continue to make the world smaller, communication within business organizations has always been a challenge in my experience. Sometimes, it’s about not getting the words right in trying to communicate the company’s strategy and tactics. Or, it may have been about leadership that preferred to keep information vital to the entire organization accessible only to the top layer of management. It may have been about not having appropriate processes in place to facilitate the easy flow of information from top to bottom – and bottom to top. Sometimes, it’s frankly just a deadly form of company politics, where information – and the withholding of it – is seen as a source of power.

But I’ve also seen the other positive side of this. It was related to my experience in starting up a new business within a Fortune 500 company as part of its international expansion. There was a tight launch deadline with new hires seemingly arriving everyday with projects and plans moving at a rapid pace. But, in this case, the mission, the what, and the why, were very clear and easy to communicate. And while there were many factors (and people involved) in what was ultimately a successful launch of that business, I put a lot of weight on the clarity and communication of the message and its impact on the team to bond and work in concert, despite the numerous obstacles faced.

Strategy is essential to any successful business. There are not many worse (or wasteful) things in business than having a well-trained, well-organized, and motivated team being led down the wrong (strategic) road, or simply not knowing what the road is. However, if you’ve taken the necessary time and effort in your business to define (and continually evolve) your strategy, it is only as good as your ability to communicate it to the team and, of course, reinforce the message on a regular basis.

There is, of course, an external element to this notion of effective communication that cannot be overlooked. Getting funding for a new business is not an easy task. But how often are good business concepts rejected by investors due to a founder’s inability to communicate concisely what the business is and how it will ultimately make money for the venture and, of course, the investors?

I’m a huge admirer of Winston Churchill. His life holds many lessons for all of us. But his facility with words and his ability to communicate were as powerful as any weapons utilized in World War II, and particularly in the dark days of the Battle of Britain.

As the leader of your organization, you have to write and speak a great deal. However, are you communicating?

6. Culture

We’ve all read the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I don’t actually believe that in the literal sense, although I also believe it was not intended to be strictly interpreted. Strategy and culture are attached at the hip so there is no need to debate which is the cart and which is the horse. You need both to move forward.

I worked in business and led teams for a number of years before I fully understood the impact of culture in achieving the desired goals. Again, this is a topic about which volumes have been written, so I will only offer a personal perspective related to some lessons learned about the importance and impact of culture.

To start, if you are an entrepreneur starting up a business or have a venture in its early stage, put this “C-word” high up on your “To Do” list. Culture, like weeds, will grow and spread on its own. Thinking about it early on provides the opportunity to shape the culture rather than realizing later on that your organization looks, feels, and operates in a manner that is out of synch with your vision. Trust me, shaping a culture as you start and build a business is much more manageable than trying to change an engrained culture later on.

It is often said that when a company gets to be 100+ employees, the game changes. Direct communication up and down the organization doesn’t happen as easily or naturally. Process becomes more critical, and the impact – good or bad – of culture really kicks in. But, at the risk of over-simplifying, I’ve learned that there are a few basic steps to take, no matter the stage of your company, that can be invaluable in making culture a catalyst of growth vs. a pond of quicksand:

  1. Define your mission. Make sure everyone knows the answer to the “why?” of getting up in the morning and working for your company. It’s the core of employee engagement
  2. Define the values that underpin how you want the company to conduct business.
  3. Communicate the above openly and regularly
  4. Walk the walk – lead by example. There is no more important factor in shaping and reinforcing the culture one envisions for an organization.

Are you thinking about what your company culture is? Is it a stimulus or an hindrance in achieving your business objectives? Are you taking steps to shape or change it? Are you walking the walk?

7. Consolidation

As I write this, one of the top stories in today’s Wall Street Journal is: “Liberty’s John Malone Eyes Content Consolidation.”  A few days ago, Intel’s nearly $17 billion acquisition of Altera was reverberating in the press.  In that same vein, Broadcom was recently acquired for $37 billion as the chip market adjusts to a world dominated increasingly by Cloud computing and the rapid move by consumers to mobile devices. On a smaller scale, there was also the recent acquisition of the live-streaming app Periscope by Twitter. Compiling a list of recent examples of consolidation is not a difficult exercise.

For businesses of all sizes, consolidation is both an opportunity and a challenge. The change in competitive landscape often created by such combinations can create an instant threat to long-term growth or even viability. At the same time, for many firms, consolidation delivers an exit opportunity for companies, providing liquidity outside of the public markets. If your company is the acquirer, an acquisition can provide a source of technology and talent that can accelerate your strategic roadmap. Or it can create an integration nightmare where cultures clash, anticipated cost savings never materialize and the value of your enterprise quickly moves in the wrong direction. Words like “excitement” and “synergy” get replaced by terms like “sell-off” and “write down.”

It would appear that the key to all of this is a large dose of strategic self-awareness. For example, starting a business where consolidation is emerging as a trend can make sense if not pursued blindly. Can your company develop and offer enough tangible value to become a viable target of a well-funded player? Or, is competing in that category jumping into shark-filled waters? On the other side, is there really strategic value in the company you are considering buying? Think back to eBay’s acquisition of Skype and then later sale to Microsoft. Better yet, think Time-Warner/AOL, the apocalypse of attempted strategic consolidation.

Where does consolidation fit into your business strategy and the category in which it competes? Is it a problem or an opportunity? Are you potentially selling, buying, or competing?

8. Commitment

This is an easy one to discuss but not to truly possess. Famously turning down $1 billion for your company – think Facebook or Snapchat – is, I suppose, a classic exercise in commitment. In a sense, for whatever ultimately results from those types of decisions, I believe one thing holds true. Leaders with a real sense of commitment don’t really lose either way. Wealth is certainly desired and welcomed, but the drive to create something different, something that has impact, something that may even change the world in some small or big way, often transcends the chase for financial rewards.

And when one looks out at the landscape of companies of all sizes – not just high-profile start-ups, but also Fortune 500 companies – it’s not too difficult to distinguish commitment from what is essentially greed, and who’s winning in the marketplace.