The Most Dangerous Number In Any Business

Recently, Apple announced new privacy changes that would allow users to opt-out of data collection on apps like Instagram and Facebook as well as email marketing changes that would prevent marketers from using pixels to collect information about delivery and open rates, thereby making it difficult or even impossible for tracking and retargeting. The internet marketing gurus of the world spent a good deal of time gnashing their teeth and wailing about how this was going to end online marketing as we know it. Silly.

Of course, this is nothing new, and stricter data privacy laws are going to give marketers who live and die on this information and functionality a digital headache that is only going to get worse, which brings me to my point:

The most dangerous number in any business is ONE.

ONE marketing method that brings in all the customers. ONE salesperson who can sell and close. ONE client that represents a majority of your income. ONE media platform (like Facebook) that hosts your entire client base. ONE vendor that provides critical functionality to your business operations. ONE source of income. ONE investment. Any time you are dependent on ONE critical person, vendor, method, or source, you are skating on thin ice, asking for trouble, and tempting fate and Murphy’s Law to wreak havoc on your business.

Many of the internet marketers today haven’t taken a recent history lesson on how fax broadcasting became banned and illegal, shutting down entire businesses overnight that depended on it for all communication with their clients. This also happened with infomercials: They were banned by the Federal Communications Commission until 1984, when Reagan lifted the laws against them — a very rare occurrence of government deregulation.

Before spam filters existed, it was easy to get an over 90% delivery and open rate. Today? You’re lucky to get 20% to open your email and 2%–5% to click through. For years, I had my internet marketing colleagues call me stupid for gathering snail-mail addresses, phone numbers, and company names on lead forms. They insisted it was a bad idea because it suppressed conversion (truth). But where are they now, with 80%–90% of their emails never even getting through and no other way to identify or communicate with the lists they built of unconverted leads? Their “one” means of communication has now disappeared, and they’ve got no other recourse.

This is the same warning I have for small-business owners who run their entire business on Facebook or Instagram. These are platforms they don’t own and can’t control. What if Facebook suddenly decides it doesn’t like you or your group and shuts you down? What if it becomes regulated to the point where you cannot host such groups anymore? Or what if Facebook decides to start charging per member or becomes prohibitively expensive to advertise as it has in many cases for Google Ads?

Of course, most small-business owners don’t want to think about these things. Such problems are unpleasant, and sufficient are the demons they’re slaying today without having to worry about what’s hiding under the bed out of sight — but worried you must be.

You can lose that star salesperson or tech to a competitor, illness, or personal crisis. You can lose that loyal-to-the-end client who LOVES you to a merger or acquisition or change of ownership. No one predicted COVID-19, yet it wiped out entire industries in weeks. As an event company, we had a big bite taken out of our hide, but we had already been doing quasi-virtual events and streaming for over five years at that point, so we were down but definitely not out. We also had other sources of income and ways to sell clients other than in-person events. Many of the vendors in the channel who sponsor our events and others were completely lost, unable to get clients because in-person events were their ONE way of securing new clients. We all hide behind the “It won’t happen/can’t happen to me” belief … until it does. So, what can you do about it?

1. For starters, identify all the critical ‘ones’ in your business and start work on putting in place Plans B, C, D, and E, reducing the dependence on them. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been working on building a highly competent executive team that runs different departments of my organization, removing me from being a “one” in any area. While I still have some “ones,” they are nowhere near as bad as they once were, but they’re constantly cropping up and needing to be dealt with as the business grows. Nobody is “irreplaceable” in business. Sure, some are harder to replace than others, but you must not allow yourself to be trapped and held hostage by the critical “one.”

2. Second, do what you can to avoid ALL known risks and disasters. While we cannot foresee and avoid ALL crises and bad things, we certainly can do things that mitigate or reduce our chances. A person who smokes three packs a day, takes no exercise, drinks their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and is as miserable as an old rattlesnake might never get cancer, but they certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors by not avoiding those behaviors.

Employees are a big, giant source of risk in every business, so put time and effort into learning how to recruit and hire good people and screen the bad ones. Develop real leadership skills and a code of conduct that you stick to religiously. Monitor constantly for compliance and quality work, and never tolerate an employee who is undermining you in any way, be it insubordination, bad attitude, sloppiness, or outright illegal behavior. You cannot afford it, no matter how good they are at their job or how desperately you need them. As I’ve often said, sour milk never turns fresh, and you get what you tolerate. Get ahead of the problem by constantly recruiting for “A” players so you can pick and choose the best rather than desperately search for a body to fill a position when you need it.

3. Another source of risk for many MSPs is not having the ability to generate sales on demand. They have no list, no marketing systems, no CRM, no pipeline of opportunities, and no productive campaigns in place to quickly generate income if they need it. They dangerously rely on the “one” source of referrals that is fickle and unpredictable at best, thereby carrying unnecessary risk. Hear me on this: You do NOT want to do marketing only when the mood strikes or you’re desperate. If you do, you’re constantly starting over from scratch and needing twice the money and three times the effort to get it to where it could be with a steady, constant focus. A pot of water is brought to a boil much quicker if left on the stove to simmer rather than building a fire under an ice-cold pan from scratch.

Closely tied to that is carrying too much debt and insufficient emergency funds. I personally recommend my clients pay off all debt, including their home; have at least one year’s income stashed away in cash they could easily access without dipping into investments; and be fully capitalized with 2–3 months of operating expenses in retained earnings, in easily accessible cash, and sufficient recurring revenue to cover their expenses in ADVANCE of the month. This is all prevention for events like COVID-19 that hit you out of the blue. It also helps if you find something or someone you want to invest in at a moment’s notice. Living too close to the edge of your finances is a risky, stressful ride that can be avoided with intention and planning.

There’s enormous resistance to implementing these risk-mitigation strategies, particularly if you’ve never experienced a major disaster in your business and things are going “well.” There’s also the big temptation to simply find a “one” who can do it all. The one great tech, the one great salesperson, the one great client. These are easy buttons that can lull you into complacency and laziness, but if your goal is to build a sustainable business, you must figure out how to build safety net after safety net so you are not beholden to the easy “ones” in your business.

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