In order to catch fish, think like a fish and not a fisherman.
This summer blessed many of us with some time off to regroup and adjust to a market that has completely changed course. I had some time to fish the Oldman River with my Dad this summer, and learned 12 important lessons that I am applying as a small business owner in this down market.
Lesson 1: Get the appropriate licences.
Before venturing out to fish this summer, I renewed my fishing license. Fish and Wildlife officers have extraordinary powers when it comes to enforcing the regulations, which includes confiscation. Here in Alberta, OH&S officers are increasingly following suit with similar powers.
In business, ensure your tickets, worker training records, licenses, registrations, insurances, HSE program and similar documentation are all in order.
When it was my turn to take the helm of Xi Safety, we did not have a Small Employer’s Certificate of Recognition (SECOR), and we weren’t registered with ISNEtworld.
I felt that major oil companies in calgary wouldn’t look at a safety company that didn’t have their SECOR or were able to prequalify as a contractor in ISNEtworld.
Obtaining these two certifications was frustrating, but good. When potential clients come to us seeking their SECOR or ISNEtworld RAVS manuals, we can safely say that we understand their frustrations and challenges with these systems.
While pursuing these two certifications, we also picked up a Registered Employment Agency license in the province of Alberta. I don’t think many employment agencies in Alberta also have their SECOR.
In my company, we’ve been partnering with third party suppliers who specialize in helping companies become more efficient with taming their paper-based safety systems.
We’ve seen several clients who have grown disillusioned with the stacks upon stacks of Hazard ID cards and Field Level Hazard Assessments, and are looking for a more efficient path forward.
“Going Paperless” seems to be the next phase of HSE Management as companies seek to trim costs. We have been beta-testing several systems out there and are looking to help clients implement these cost-saving solutions.
We are also seeing an up-tick in callers looking to get out of an enforcement order issued by Alberta OH&S. With government revenues down, you can be sure that OH&S officers are eager to levy fines.
Lesson 2: Choose the method and materials appropriate to the body of water.
A few basic clues should help you determine the correct method for catching fish. For example, fly fishing isn’t an appropriate method for catching crabs off the coast of Alaska. You noodle for catfish, not sharks. Harpoon guns are overkill for cutthroat trout. Caviar is good fish bait, but salmon eggs are more affordable and work just as well.
The body of water is an analogy for the company or industry you are marketing to. If a method worked for selling to oilfield services, it doesn’t follow that the same method will work for selling to the nuclear or forestry industry.
In business, you can’t cold-call people at 11 PM. But you can put ads above urinals in pubs, where the fish are swimming. Supply Cain Managers might not be reading twitter at work, but they do search google when they are expanding their vendors list. Drill bits are still being sold by sales guys who visit rigs, but more and more owning companies require you to get on their vendor list.
At Xi Safety, we have invested thousands of dollars into google adwords, search terms and having a mobile friendly website. We spend time trolling social media, including LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. We’ve ventured into YouTube and are taking a look at other forms of media. So far, Linkedin has been the most fruitful fishing hole.
For the companies that finally get a sale and need to go through the pre-qualification process, we’ve been able to help. Sure, you can go to one of the “SECOR Mills” as I call them and get a cut-and-paste safety system that meets all the requirements of ISNetworld, but has no relevance to your actual field operations.
This is something we’ve been seeing – clients who are customizing their HSE manuals to their actual operations and policies, rather than using the verbiage that was included in their off-the-shelf safety manual. While it may have gotten them through the pre-qualification process, it doesn’t jibe with their operations.
Lesson 3: Maximize your options but keep it simple.
You’ve got three options here:
This can get complicated. If you have too many lines in the water and can’t tend to them all, you need to bring more people into your boat. In business, you can’t be in every industry and be all things to all people. If you do, you’ll miss a big fish while smaller ones are on other lines.
Right now, in Calgary, many individuals and companies are considering other bodies of water. In today’s market, I’m seeing lifelong Drillers and Derrickmen making divergent career changes, eager to walk away from the booms and busts of the oilfield life.
I’m seeing oilfield services companies reinventing themselves in the commercial construction market.
I’m also seeing thousands of small construction companies in need of safety programs.
Even though the big fish (oil companies) seem to have stopped biting, the smaller construction outfits are still hungry. Companies have laid off dozens of workers and want to ensure their core teams have up to date training. By partnering with training providers and tapping this market, we’ve been able to weather some of the storm while helping companies keep their training costs low.
Lesson 4: Learn to read the water, terrain, the seasons and the environment.
When reading water , look for “funnels”. These are places fish naturally congregate due to water currents, geography, vegetation, food sources or some other environmental factor. The secret is to look for environmental factors that deter fishermen, but attract fish. If you’ve ever fly fished Stauffer Creek in Alberta, you’ll know what I mean.
This summer, I was out fly fishing the headwaters of the Oldman River south of Calgary. These headwaters used to be full of nice little pools where lazy trout hunkered down and waited for their next meal. However, since the recent floods in 2006 and 2013, these headwaters looked like a bulldozer went down the stream. The entire landscape had changed, and what once was, is no longer there.
All the easy fishing in the Oldman headwaters is gone. I discovered that the fish were still biting along one treacherous stretch of water known as “The Gap”, which is basically a gorge. When fishing The Gap, you end up fishing a stretch of water that not many people venture into, due to the terrain and current of the river as it passes through deep crevasses.
In today’s current economic climate, it makes sense for companies to increase their sales budgets, rather than cut back. Just like The Oldman Gap cost me more in terms of effort, every sale will require the same. However, with cash flows drying up, sales and advertising budgets inevitably suffer. It becomes a catch-22 in that you have no cash flow because you have no clients, and vice versa.
This means that marketing campaigns must be targeted, they must reach the right people at the right time, and the product information must meet the needs of the buyer. Of course, this is easier said than done. It takes a lot of effort to convince a discerning trout to nibble.
Lesson 5: Think Like a Fish, not a fisherman.
This is perhaps the most important lesson, because it requires you to think outside your own frame of reference. Fish bite for various reasons, and not all are known to the Fisherman. Through trial and error, experience, advice of others, or research, the Fisherman can gain the upper hand. The fisherman must approach this information unencumbered by his own biases, and he must learn to think like a fish.
In order to better think like fish, my company hired a guide. We reached out to a Communications Expert in Vancouver (Kris Davenport), who is used to fishing for big fish. She’s rubbed shoulders with CEOs, VPs and executives in the Gold Industry. While she may come from a different industry, she has taught us not only how to think like these big fish, but to swim with them.
Every VP of Major Project or Project Manager we talk to seems to be interested in delivering safe projects in this tight market. With procurement companies and contractors accepting slim margins, a single major incident could become impossible to recover from, financially.
This current economic climate might be conducive to delivering a project in terms of quality and schedule, but delivering on budget will prove more elusive if workplace incident costs rise.
It doesn’t help just to have a project safety plan. That plan needs to be implemented relentlessly during the project to ensure that risks remain low and costs are controlled, which is of course, what we specialize in.
Lesson 6: Clear waters make for picky fish.
According to the Chinese Proverb, muddy waters makes catching fish easy. When oil is at $100/bbl, the market is turbid, and buyers rely more on instinct rather than logic. In turbid waters, the fish has no time to scrutinize every morsel. When waters are muddy, flash and motion or simply being a reasonable facsimile can be your best friend.
In a down market such as this, the waters become clear. Buyers have more suppliers vying for their attention. Catching fish in clear water means that flash and motion can spook your buyers. Instead, being authentic and true to the buyer’s expectation is going to induce bites because the buyer has the inclination to scrutinize.
Being transparent with clients about our cost structure helps both parties. Both our client and subcontractors know the spread. By being transparent and keeping our markup low, the client knows they are getting the most value. If we get greedy and increase our markups, we lose that authenticity.
Lesson 7: Maximize your line time.
It might be fun to see how far you can cast with your new fly rod, but flies tend to catch more fish when the fly is in the water.
Your lure is “in the water” if you are talking with clients, getting leads, networking, building a social media presence or writing a letter directly to a contact within a company.
Your line is not in the water if you’re going to trade shows just for the sake of it.I’m not saying “don’t go to trade shows”. Just make sure you are getting every minute of value out of it.
The easiest way to maximize your line time is to visit as many LinkedIn profiles as you can in a day. It is a micro-expression of interest. Something about that person’s title or their picture prompted you to click on their link, and it put you on their radar.
LinkedIn has not yet enabled me to land fish as large as what has come through our website, but it has brought some huge lunkers my way.
Lesson 8: Masking vs Chumming
Masking agents are used to hide human scent on a lure. Chumming refers to using dead fish remains to remind fish of an easy meal
Masking is more about revealing your results without revealing your methods. If a client or competitor can steal your methods, you give away your market power. To chum the waters, deliver your client some references from satisfied clients and testimonials as social proof that you are an easy meal.
A downturn in the economy has the effect of flushing a lot of driftwood out of the industry. Or, if you’re a salt water fisherman: when the tide goes out, we learn who’s not wearing pants.
As we go through the contractor prequalification process with oil majors in Calgary, we are seeing more and more companies asking for project references. While they may not have mattered as much in the past, in this market they are becoming invaluable.
Lesson 9: When in doubt, imitate.
While up in Terrace, BC last fall, I learned that grizzly bears are a good indicator of where to find big salmon. If you’re careful about it, you can fish alongside these furry fishermen.
If you notice your competitors are getting contracts and you aren’t, try to figure out why, and imitate them. You may not be able to adopt the same methods as a grizzy bear, but you can learn a lot, just by watching.
This is why we have sat back in the market to see how various medical and safety companies fare in this downturn. Our strategy has been to keep overhead low in order to survive this downturn. In 2013, we felt that the medical market was over-saturated, and have been developing a business plan that is scalable and flexible to market conditions.
Hopefully when the time is right, you’ll see dozens of shiny Xi Safety medical units on the market.
Lesson 10: Avoid Gimmicks
Gimmicks are to fishermen what fishing lures are to fish. There’s no shortcut to success. Instead, figure out why something works, even if you don’t know how. Talk to other fishermen (network). Build trust and they may divulge their secrets (trust). Hire a guide to show you the methods and secrets for the species of fish you are going for (mentoring).
In the past, my company has fallen prey to salespeople in Calgary who market a portfolio of service companies to prospective clients. They charge a monthly retainer fee and produce reports for us on how many corporate folks they had lunch with, at our expense.
It’s like paying someone to fish for you, but they only have to tell you where they fished and how many fish they think they cast your lure to. There’s a serious moral hazard here because there’s no incentive to actually close deals.
When we offer these folks a straight commission based on net revenue, they tend to back out the door. If you are in he business of oilfield sales here in Alberta, I would encourage you to drop your retainer fee and ask for more commission on the total contract value. Finding the right balance is key.
I could discuss some of the other methods we use instead, but to do so would violate Lesson #8.
Lesson 11: Remember previous successes.
Herbert Hoover was a fine President, but a better fisherman. He’s quoted as saying “Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers”.
There is something ancient about fishing that brings the fisher into a state of remembrance. Every fish caught deserves a picture. Every sale deserves a celebration. Every business has a history.
Xi Safety was founded by three individuals who were increasingly frustrated with the current state of Health, Safety and Environment, which seems to restrict more than it enables businesses to flourish. When I get frustrated about current market conditions, I look back on this story. I know there are businesses out there who want to make safety sensible again. This vision is enough to help me keep one foot in the front of the other to cast another line at another pocket of promising water.
While looking at past successes doesn’t put food on the table today, remembering these things keeps me motivated to do just that- get more fish on the line.
Lesson 12: Keep a Journal
I use a Rite in the Rain journal, which I picked up from Crown Surplus in Calgary. I use it at work, and at play.
Every good fisherman keeps notes on the variables that have led to past successes. Fishermen will record location, date, weather, lure characteristics, water conditions, insect hatches, moon cycle, cloud cover and observations about wildlife. When any combination of these variables is present (cloud cover, season, insect hatches), it becomes easy to select the lure that maximizes the possibility of landing a big fish.
At my company, we try to keep good records. We are getting better at it every day. We’ve also toyed around with Customer Relationship Management platforms, but to be honest, a white board works better. As we grow and evolve, adopting a CRM may be in our future. But for now, the notebook and whiteboard are my best friends for ensuring consistent follow up with clients.
We’ve also been focusing on helping companies keep track of their corrective actions. With recent changes to the 2013 update to the Alberta OH&S legislation, this is increasingly important.
There’s no silver bullet to surviving this market downturn. It involves hard work, good relationships and drawing wisdom from wherever it may be found.
If you’re in the process of applying lessons learned within your company and want to make safety sensible again, get a hold of us at: