The ancient aroma of cutting-edge business strategy

Umbrellas closed and dripping we hastily ducked into the small waiting room leaving the rain and narrow street behind. Immediately, softly, we were wrapped in the ancient scent of burning incense —the aroma of healing.

One of the most wonderful aspects of my line of work as a freelance strategy consultant is precisely this: the opportunity to intimately know, to see, hear and feel people’s projects with all of my senses. I help people to draw a personalized strategic map and plan of action for their idea, business or organization. That’s why a client and I were standing in the cosy waiting room, swathed in the fragrance of sweet wood on that rainy day.

My client will soon open a small business to offer her health services in Barcelona, and she is doing it by herself as the sole creator, investor and worker. I am helping her to draw the map she will need to be successful. She is excited, afraid and full of desire.

Because this the first time she has embarked on this type of venture, I thought it would be helpful for her to talk to someone who has a business similar enough in size and content to invigorate her ideas, but different enough for that person not to worry about us copying their blueprint.

I knew of just the right business a nearby town. Using my network of contacts, I found a close colleague who personally knew the owner and offered to make a call on my behalf, opening the door for me and my client to have a conversation to learn about his experience. He invited us to come to his shop on a Friday afternoon.

And this is where the story begins.

We were greeted at the door by the owner, let’s call him Julian, an acupuncturist who studied many years in Japan with a renowned teacher and two years ago opened his own small clinic, which he runs by himself. He shyly ushered us past the waiting room, past a long simple curtain that separated the two main areas of his clinic.

Before us unfolded the provocative marriage of the Orient with the architectural elegance of the Mediterranean: terracotta tiled floors and beveled ceilings left to their own simple beauty, the walls sparingly adorned with renderings of Japanese calligraphy with long beige curtains dividing the three intimate spaces with raised cots where he attended his clients. The lights were soft and dimmed, the gentle aroma becoming stronger as we entered the heart of his practice.

He pulled up a chair for my client and he and I settled atop one of the padded cots. I took the lead and explained briefly my client’s project, telling him that we would like to learn about his own experience so that my client could hear, first hand, what it was like to begin a business with characteristics similar to hers. I pulled out a list of questions written on a small piece of paper and he smiled and said very simply “Ok, fire away. I have until 4:00, when my next patient is due to arrive”.

My client, we’ll call her Raquel, began to ask him questions about licenses, permits and how he decided on this particular space. He explained what obstacles he had met, how he had solved them and what parts of the process had been most difficult or costly for him. Raquel was hanging on his every word, learning something useful with every sentence he uttered.

It was then time for some of my questions about his business and marketing strategy.

And this is where the story takes a turn, going back to a place and time that existed before our sophisticated vocabulary about strategic planning, before the acronyms and 2.0 lingo, before SWOT analysis, before business schools.

“How do you promote your services?” I asked. “What kind of marketing do you do?”

For a moment he just looked at me, composing his idea, translating my words into his own way of thinking. I could see immediately that Julian was not cut from the cloth these questions were wrapped in. He was not versed in academic marketing methods, he had no background in business administration.

After a moment, he spoke clearly, without a hint of doubt in his voice: “It is the quality of the service I offer”.

As he said that, he motioned to the cot we were sitting on, inviting us all to imagine a person, one of his patients, lying there. Raquel and I waited for a moment in stillness, anticipating that he would continue, that he would add to his answer.

He did not.

And his words hung there, writ large and weightless in the space around us, their meaning deepening with each exhale of our quiet breath. It is the quality of the service I offer.

I continued, shifting my tone, finding the right language. “How do you get new clients?”

He looked directly at me and then at Raquel and, with a gentle force that can only be drawn from the purest of personal beliefs, he said “I help people, that is why I am here”. His face became serious. “Some of the people who come to me are very ill and, after we work together here, they get better. That is the purpose of my work; the purpose is not to simply have a business and make money”.

He continued “I am a part of this community and people see me that way. If I help someone feel better or solve a health problem, they tell other people. People come to my clinic mainly by word of mouth. It has taken me several years to build a strong number of clients. It was a slow process at the beginning, which meant a financial loss at first, but it grew over time, steadily, because of what I offer here and the quality of my work.

Again, another silence, as Raquel and I drank in his words.

We then spent the next minutes listening to the details of his story, he told Raquel facts and figures about his overhead and other expenses and about teaching students from around Catalonia who came to learn his classic system of Japanese medicine.

As they talked together, I let my mind wonder over the terrain of vocabulary my contemporary tribe of professionals use to describe what he had just told us in the simplest terms. Client-centered, personal branding, community management, user-accessable, relationship marketing, mission-driven outcomes, client engagement, enhanced user satisfaction, value defined services

The words and expressions silently tumbled out of my mind in single file, into the air before me. They lined up in a neat row, the line becoming longer and longer as the expressions from our modern business lexicon came pouring out and filled the small space. There they hung for a brief moment as I contemplated them all, until finally letting each word drop gently to the floor, one by one, and disappear.

They were of no real use in this room. There was a deeper, wiser business philosophy present. Julian knew what the reason for being of his business was. He had a clear mission, clear values and very clear objectives. There was nothing cutting-edge or modern about it.

Or was there?

A flood of questions came rushing at me. Could it be that the very simple way he described his business philosophy is what we are, today, trying to reach for through the invention of new vocabulary and new marketing platforms? Are we speaking in tongues while simply trying to have a clear vision, make a real difference in someone’s life and re-learn the importance of solving a problem for people? Are we desperately trying to re-connect with human values?

Perhaps we are trying to find a way to give the world our art, craft or skill in today’s upside down economy and live with dignity in the process. Helping to make people’s lives better, healthier or more joyful by doing something we are good at.

As I sat there, I began to wonder if we have complicated almost beyond recognition the essential ingredients for being happy and productive members of our world. Yet, here, in this small business that is thriving in these stormy times, I felt the prickle of hope that this essence has not been completely lost.

Developing some kind of strategic map is necessary for projects to be successful.  When I work with people, we begin the map with defining the most basic elements of their project —the elements that have often been overlooked or unconsciously pushed aside as obvious. The failure to clearly define these elements that are the core of all projects is eventually what weakens the outcomes, muddles the course and brings a business to its knees or to its end.

For example, some of the questions that must be answered are:

  • How do you define the essence of your product or service?
  • Do you have the skills to offer this product or service with excellence and, if not,   have you found the best people to help you?
  • Who is your public?
  • What do they need that you can provide for them?
  • What will change for your public after they use your product or service?
  • What problem will it solve?
  • How does your public feel about what you offer?

This is a necessary exercise for all businesses both small and large. Once all of the basic elements within a project are clearly defined and understood, truly felt, from there a strategic map that charts the route to success can be developed.

The sound of the bell from the front door interrupted my thoughts. Julian glanced at the clock on the wall, it was approaching 4:00. He went to the door and we heard hushed voices of warm greeting; he then returned alone. Our voices became quieter and the space took on another feel. This is where people come to heal some part of themselves. That was the reason he was here. And that clarity of purpose is the key to his success.

As we began to gather our things, Julian asked if we had any other question.

Raquel and I looked at each other inquisitively. She shook her head. I thought for a moment, looked at him and said “Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for Raquel as she launches into her new project?”

He looked at her and, without missing a beat, with calm in his voice, he said “Be happy doing what you do”.

With that we gave him our thanks, almost in a whisper. We hugged, said our good-byes and he wished Raquel luck.

We walked past the curtain and into the waiting room; Julian stayed behind to prepare the area for his client.

In the waiting room sat a woman wearing a scarf on her head, protecting a hairless scalp that I imagined was the result of chemotherapy. She was browsing through a magazine and stopped to look up at us and smile. We smiled back, bid her adieu and walked out into the rainy afternoon, leaving the warm aroma behind as the door closed.

On the street, the image of the woman with the scarf stayed in my mind; I understood why she was there, in that particular waiting room and not in another. “You’re in good hands”, I thought to myself. And, as I looked back at the sign hanging on the door of the clinic, I thought about Julian’s business. “You are in good hands too”, I said under my breath.

Umbrellas opened and perched overhead. My client and I walked down the shimmering street, folding into the stream of fellow pedestrians.

…………….
Photograph of antique books by Peter Kaminski
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