Business is like a race, but not how you might think.

Earlier this week we did something we don’t want to repeat any time soon. We decided to run an office half-mile challenge in 95 degree heat.

File that under “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” And like any silver-lining searcher, I’ll take the opportunity to learn from that experience.

tweet about our race with reply

What can we learn? Our tiring race day looks a lot like lessons that apply to business. (And this time we’re not talking about competition.)

On your mark. Set. Go!

Race Lesson #1: Just try to be better than you were before

No one at SpyFu likes to run. There were just different degrees of how much each of us hates it. Still, we’re a competitive bunch, and we like outdoor activities. We wanted a challenge that would draw in enough takers to be lucrative and fun. To convince people to join in, we embraced one of our strongest principles:

Just be better than yesterday. 

If you strive for incremental improvement every time, you’ll build strong results. Accepting small improvements for yourself takes away those mental barriers that you have to knock something out of the park on your first try. That kind of thinking keeps you from making progress. Instead, it’s helpful to remind yourself that small steps are still steps forward. So yes, around here “Most  Improved” is as big a deal as winning outright would be.

trophy and money awards

 

Being “better than yesterday” is one of our guiding principles at SpyFu. We’re big fans of the idea that what you create doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable. As long as you are authentic and serve up something helpful, entertaining, or insightful, people aren’t going to rake you over the coals for its shortcomings.

Start small and try something new that’s better than what it was yesterday. If you aim only for perfect, you will never leave the starting blocks.

That thinking helped us get over a fear of starting a huge undertaking with our in-house SEO audit. It was such an important, time-intensive project that we worried we weren’t ready to do it right. Plus, as much as we love the adage, just any improvement wouldn’t be enough. We can’t dedicate weeks of work to a project that gives us a tiny bump in the right direction, and you shouldn’t either.

Make the call on what “improvement” really means for that specific project and do what it takes to get there. 

 

Race Lesson #2: Conditions won’t be perfect.

Speaking of perfect…don’t wait for it, either.

On race day the temperature spiked 12 degrees from the day before (and it had already been sunny and warm). There’s no time to acclimate when summer decides to pop in for a surprise visit. A surge of heat like that one usually triggers some air quality issues, too. Combine that with Arizona allergy season, and you get some stressed-out lungs. We found ourselves in a post-race heap of coughing fits with a few runners reaching for their inhalers.

It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. This tree outside of our office could have been a hint of the sneezing and wheezing we were about to sign up for.

yellow flowers in the tree and on the ground
Every yellow thing is a little pollen bomb.

 

Would Thursday have been a better day to run than Tuesday?

Yep. A big yep.

Temps would be going back to normal, but then allergens are still strong this time of year. So what about the Tuesday after that? Or the next one?

That’s where it becomes clear that conditions will never be perfect. Adjusting for one detail can just uncover a different challenge.

Think about how we chase perfect conditions in our work.

  • I’ll be just getting back from vacation. Can we bump that phone call?
  • He wants to talk to a few more people before signing off on the artwork.
  • I’m still working on the wording of this report. It’s not quite ready.
  • Let’s not pitch them until we have a bigger team in place.

This one’s a hard balance, because sometimes it’s smart to catch obstacles or potential issues up front. That post-mortem I mentioned earlier is a great example. People who have learned from past hiccups turn that experience into valuable insight.

Consider what is foresight and what is veiled procrastination.

When you have big projects on the horizon, adjust what you can control and plan contingencies around what you can’t.

As you gear up to present a report, kick off a team project, or launch an ebook, do your work. Line up your research. Prepare for something to go wrong. But don’t push things off because conditions aren’t perfect.

 

Race Lesson #3: Stretch before and after.

But just like with any prep, how do you know when you’ve done enough?

Put aside time before and after your presentations, pitches or projects. Investing in prep work with your team is almost a no-brainer, so embrace the post-mortem too.

I keep a note for myself that grows after trade shows. It tells me what we did well, but also what to remember for next time. These aren’t always big flubs. It might be something like “you didn’t like the table they provided. Order a different one….Stickers were a big hit….Buy more size medium shirts, etc.

On top of that note, the team post-mortem is incredibly helpful. Whoever led the project should ask for feedback, but then choose to actively listen to the perspective that’s coming in.

  • What went well?
  • Why did it work?
  • What could they have improved?
  • Talk about the big stuff AND the small stuff.

 

Go outside of your department to see how your launch affected others. We ran a killer promotion with strong conversions, but it strained our support team with auto-replies to the wrong email address.

Cross-department feedback helps you break out of silos in your work.

Race Lesson #4: Rebound from tough breaks

We ran two heats with the fastest group closing out the event. We knew that the person finishing first in this group would be our overall winner, so we glued our eyes to the final stretch as two runners appeared in view. They both looked strong, but about 50 yards from the finish line, the race leader fell.

Poof. It was a cloud of dust. If you watched a replay of it, you’d hear a quick round of gasps or “oooh” from the spectators. That sound was a mix of surprise and empathy. He had come THIS far to lose the lead.

Only he didn’t. Kyle popped right up and ran ahead. He was grimacing, but he picked up speed and finished first. He WON.

Bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still win.

At SpyFu we’ve been pretty open about mistakes we’ve made and how things have gone wrong. Sometimes they’re our own errors. Sometimes it’s flat out bad luck. (Though usually our own errors.) As much as I champion the concept that you can learn from your mistakes, this message is different. You can still win IN SPITE of your mistakes.

Don’t let the mistakes decide that you’re done.

If you’ve tanked a pitch, you can still bounce back. And it might be that same client that you bounce back with. Humility and honesty go a long way.

  • Did you botch your SEO? You can adjust and start building your ranks.
  • Publish a thought piece that missed the mark? Write a follow-up about that experience.
  • Wish you had chosen better words in a group meeting? Your colleagues are probably more forgiving than you think. If you stammered, stumbled, or felt you didn’t get your idea across well, try to move on. I promise that no one else remembers it the way that you do. Though if you offended someone, own up. Apologize quickly. The faster the better.
running sucks, but you did it medal

Now that a few days have gone by, our hindsight is as sharp as ever.  Aches are fading. We’re not coughing as much, and we’ve got a sense of accomplishment.

To me, the best thing about race day is that it’s in the past. The toughest meetings will pass. The phone call you don’t want to make will happen. You’ll get through it. And if you give it your best shot, you will be better off than you were before.

  • Jacob Steenholdt

    Nice post! This is so true.

    • AgentSidra

      Thanks, Jacob! I think that the post-mortem is my favorite takeaway. We try to use it on big and small things. It doesn’t get stale.