What don’t you know that could kill your business?

Last week I had an experience that has been repeated far too often. I was talking with a client and mentioned a development in his industry that I took for granted he’d heard about, but the look that came on his face instantly told me that what I had said was news to him.

I’ve had numerous moments like these over the past 20 years with both clients and colleagues. Each time I am surprised that the person didn’t know the tidbit of information I’ve just shared. And such moments are not confined to business newbies. I’ve had them with people who have been in business for years and just not bothered to keep abreast of market trends and developments.

My favorite examples of such moments date back to the mid-1980s when I was working at Schneider Associates, a Boston PR firm that at the time was basking in the glow of a red hot real estate market and doing tons of business with residential and commercial developers. At least once a month and sometimes more often, we were sitting down with a new prospective client who was building a condo complex in the Greater Boston area. At some point we began to see a trend. When we asked who their target market was, the answer was the same; developer after developer was building high-end condos in Boston’s suburbs for empty nesters.

We began to probe deeper and found that none of these developers had any real hard market data about empty nesters. They didn’t know how many empty nesters were in the pipeline and they didn’t have any proof that these empty nesters were planning on downsizing in the suburbs or whether they might be interested in moving into the city (which it turns out lots of them eventually did).

There was also a developer who was building entry-level and mid-priced condos and all the one-bedroom units featured a metal spiral staircase. When one of my female colleagues and I took a tour, we asked what was up with the spiral staircase. He said he was designing the perfect bachelor pad. Whether a spiral staircase equated with the perfect bachelor pad was questionable, but one thing we did know for certain as women – negotiating a spiral staircase in high heels isn’t fun so women wouldn’t tend to go for these units. And in this case, what the developer hadn’t bothered to notice about the current real estate market was that the percentage of single women buying condos was MUCH higher than the number of single men who were making the leap into home ownership. So he was pitching his one-bedroom units to the small end of the market. Duh!

As a result of all these failures to develop even the most basic market data, the Boston residential real estate market got hugely overbuilt and crashed and burned in 1989-90. (Of course, the banks shared part of this blame because they should have insisted on seeing a real market analysis before handing out money to inexperienced developers.)

The big question I always ask myself when I bump into such a situation is how is it possible that I, a PR consultant, knows more than the trends in a  client’s business than they do? Trust, me, I’m not that brilliant. I just keep my eyes and ears open and do a lot of reading.

There is no excuse for being clueless about your business and the environment in which it’s operating. Sure, it’s not possible to be master of all things, but you can turn to experts and you can take classes and participate in webinars and read books and blogs and industry news. For examples, I began reading about social media about three years ago and still immerse myself in this topic because it is changing how marketing is done. To stick my head in the sand and pretend nothing is changing could be ruinous to my business.

So what’s happening in your industry that is changing how things are done? What don’t you know that could come back to bite you? No matter how long you’ve been in business, continuous learning is still a must. To think you know it all is a recipe for disaster. New opportunities are always popping up, and your competitors are ready to take advantage of them. Don’t assume you already know everything you need to know. Because you probably don’t.

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