W. J. King’s “Unwritten Laws of Business”

A summary of key business rules of thumb from W. J. King’s “The Unwritten Laws of Business” that are particularly applicable to startup entrepreneurs.

A Useful Collection of Business Rules of Thumb

There is some useful guidance in this slim volume. Originally written in 1944 as the Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King, it was revised in 2001 and again in 2007 by James Skakoon and retitled the Unwritten Laws of Business. It would still be very useful for engineers in the first year or two on the job or newly promoted to manager, but much of it is more broadly applicable and a few of the rules are excellent guidelines for managing yourself in a startup.

Demonstrate the ability to get things done.

This is a quality that may be achieved by different means in various circumstances…It can probably be reduced, however, to a combination of three basic characteristics:

  • initiative–the energy to start things and the aggressiveness to keep them moving briskly.
  • resourcefulness or ingenuity–the faculty for finding ways to accomplish the desired result.
  • persistence (tenacity)–the disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement, or indifference.

We often think of “the energy to start things” as the hallmark of an entrepreneur, but equally important is the ability to persevere. If you are an idea person, it’s best to find someone with Attention Surplus Disorder and tolerate their desire to deliver on current commitments before moving onto the improvements and new opportunities that beckon so invitingly.

Confirm your instructions and the other person’s commitments in writing.

Between poor memory, poor communication, misunderstandings (unintentional and otherwise) and the need to get paid, it’s always a good idea to at least summarize instructions, giving the other person a chance to amend and correct (how different it can look when it’s in writing) before proceeding.

Develop a “Let’s go see!” attitude

Throughout your career people will approach you with all manner of real-life problems resulting from your work. A wonderfully effective response is to invite them to have a look with you–in other words, “Let’s go see!” It is seldom adequate to remain at one’s desk and speculate about causes and solutions and hope to sort it all out.

Steve Blank makes a similar point in “Four Steps to the Epiphany” when he says “there are no facts inside of the building, only opinions.” We often tell clients “You need to leave the BatCave (and not only talk to but listen to strangers!)

Cultivate the habit of seeking other people’s opinions and recommendations.

This is particularly useful advice during a confrontation of any sort. A good first question to ask is “What do you recommend?” Your confronter will usually have thought about it more than you have, and this will allow you to proceed to a productive discussion and avoid a fight…If you have no intention of listening to, properly considering, and perhaps using someone’s information opinion.

This applies especially during conversations with prospects or customers. Note: asking for other people’s input does not mean that you are abdicating your responsibility for the decision, just that it can often give you a better results to take other relevant perspective into account.

Promises, schedules, and estimates are necessary and important instruments in a well ordered business.

In particular, John Jantsch’s suggestions for a “new customer kit” for when the prospect says “yes” constitute a good start on defining your brand promise. Paradoxically it’s most important to prepare this before you’ve made a sale, since a blank look and a mumbled “No one has ever said ‘yes’ before” can often reverse a customer’s decision to buy more effectively than almost anything else you might say. Jantsch suggests the kit should include:

  • What to expect from us next
  • How to contact us if you have a question
  • How to get the most from your new product/service
  • What we need from you to get started
  • What we agreed upon today
  • How we invoice for our work
  • A copy of our invoice

We like to a see a five day (or fewer) implementation schedule included in the data sheet for packaged software. A prospect’s need to understand how and when a new tool will be operational is second only to price in most cases, and only large established firms have the luxury of promises results in seasons (i.e. three months or more). You need to be delivering value within five business days.

Make it a rule to require, and submit, regular periodic progress reports, as well as final reports on completed projects.

This is a “three bird stone” that increases your effectiveness in three areas:

  • Staff meetings are more productive because the discussion can focus on issues not a recitation of recent events. This assumes that progress reports are circulated widely.
  • Explaining status of a project to customers and prospects doesn’t trigger a fire drill.
  • After action (post mortem) meetings are baked into your process so that there is an ongoing focus on “lessons learned” for future projects (and phases of current projects).

This does not mean that you have to stock up on quill pins or carbon paper, a project wiki can be a very effective way to manage these reports (and further reduce e-mail overload). It also avoids making the project manager the neck of the bottle on meeting minutes and decision records.

All in all there is a fair amount of wisdom in the 104 pages of this slim volume, although it may be more useful for your first real job in corporate America (or your promotion to manager). It might also be worth buying a copy if you are in the midst of being acquired by a much larger firm and trying to figure out how to remain employed for the two years you need for your earn out to kick in.

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