The Best of Bo Burlingham

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“Everything I’ve done has brought me back to the paramount importance of knowing who you are, what you want and why,” Bo Burlingham told us on The 21st Century Workplace podcast last year. Burlingham is the editor at large of the venerable Inc. magazine and the author of several ultra-successful business books, including Small Giants, Finish Big and The Knack (with Norm Brodsky). We’ve curated our top small business takeaways from each.

  1. Be Unprofessional
    Yes, you read that correctly. This one comes courtesy of Small Giants. We live in a business landscape where professional means that a leader has to be detached and aloof. This doesn’t work for small business owners. Burlingham explains: “Though [small giant leaders] were consummate businesspeople, they were anything but professional managers. Indeed, they were the opposite of professional managers. They had deep emotional attachments to the business, to the people who worked in it, and to its customers and suppliers – the sort of feelings that are the bane of professional management.” In short: Care about your people, your product, your clients, your community.
  2. Track your numbers by hand
    In The Knack, Burlingham and co-author Norm Brodsky advocate tracking your numbers by hand from day one, “broken out by product category or service type by customer, and do the math yourself”. That means NO COMPUTERS (but a calculator is permitted.) Why? “If you let a computer do the work, the numbers become abstract. They start to blend together. You don’t focus on them. You don’t absorb them. You don’t get to know them as well as you must if you’re really going to be in control of your business.” Read more advice on numbers in The Knack.
  3. Four Stages of a Successful Exit
    It’s crucial for every small business owner to have an exit strategy, regardless of where you’re at. In researching Finish Big, Burlingham discovered that there are four distinct stages of a successful exit (summarized by Chris Taylor in his summary):

    • Stage one is exploratory. Learning what options exist, and deciding what you do and don’t care about in an exit. It may also include coming up with a number—that is, the amount of money you’d be happy to walk away with when the time comes—and a time frame.
    • Stage two is strategic. It requires learning to view your company as a product itself, not just as a deliverer of products or services, and then building into it the qualities and characteristics that will maximize its value and allow you to have the kind of exit you want (and to whom).
    • Stage three is about execution. This is the deal stage, whatever type of exit you may be looking for. It could be a sale to a third party, but there are lots of other options that make more sense – a management buyout, a gift to your children, a liquidation of assets, or any number of other possible outcomes.
    • Stage four is the transition. It begins with the completion of the deal and ends when you’re fully engaged in whatever comes next. Until you’ve moved on—not just physically but psychologically—to a new venture, a new career, a redefined role, or even retirement, your exit isn’t complete.

How have you employed Bo Burlingham’s small business advice in your organization? Let us know in the comments! And for a walk down memory lane, check out our interview with Bo here.

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