Paul Tyma defines the Old Man’s Business Model as taking the sure way, even though it may be longer than shortcuts that may not work. Tyma calls a “trade-off of investment up-front versus brute-force hope.” The “old man” makes an investment up front instead of hoping a quick and dirty approach may work.
Paul Tyma on “The Old Man’s Business Model”
Every now and then we needed an “old man” (like in his 40’s or something) to help us fix something when it was beyond our self-taught abilities. Now when I say “old man” here and throughout this article, I don’t necessarily mean “old” (and I don’t necessarily mean “man”) – I mean “experienced”. Experienced at whatever I’m interested in at the time – or more specifically, experienced at what I wasn’t experienced in at the time.
And as far as fixing motorcycles, what struck me was the way he’d go about it.
A rather common case would be something like there being one final screw holding on some engine part that we needed to replace, but it was buried deep inside the engine – i.e. you could barely see it. My first reaction was to wedge a screwdriver in there as far as I could – and see if, with luck, brute force, and karma, I could turn it enough to get it out.
The old guy on the other hand never went this route. He merely looked at it a moment, then immediately started taking off the neighboring easy-to-remove piece of the engine. Once that was off, he then effortlessly put his screwdriver in to remove the now exposed screw. Now mind you, the old-guy’s way was my back-up plan–but I was betting that my brash exuberance would payoff in a slightly quicker result. Sometimes it did–sometimes it didn’t–and sometimes I broke screwdrivers.
This trade-off of investment up-front versus brute-force hope became so obvious that my friends and I used it as vernacular. “Do you want to try this the ‘young man’ way or the ‘old man’ way?”. It was surprising how without any further explanation we would know all the precise steps involved in both for whatever situation.
- There is a tension between “quick and dirty” and “slow and reliable,” but the real trade-offs that entrepreneurs have to navigate are when to rely on an established method and when to invest extra time in developing a new method that may obsolete it, least for a range of situations if not completely.
- There is a value in “young man’s” impatience if it encourages you to be dissatisfied and look for better methods. There is a risk for the “old man” in sticking with the “tried and true” if it makes you complacent about competitors and developments in adjacent industries that may find their way to yours.
- Normally you have to maintain the “old” toolset or methodology which is often slower and less productive, but is very well understood and minimizes surprise, the current or production set which is faster and/or cheaper but may have some problems, and the new or experimental or “under development” approach which promises much more rapid and/or cheaper results but is far less reliable.
- It’s when you are under pressure and need to make near term commitments to customers or partners that it’s best to remember “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Take a a small hit up front with the customer (negotiating for “slow and steady” instead of promising “quick and dirty”) and make a promise you can keep.
- The key to speed in scripted situations is rehearsal and practice. The key to strong performance when improvisation is called for is scrimmaging or wargaming: break your team in half and have one side act as if they were the counter party the competition.
- If you are planning a longer project, you can build in a certain amount of slack or “margin for error” that enables experimentation. But you have to manage to the cross-over point where you have to shift to the “slow and steady” if your experiments or exploration have used up all of the slack without paying off, or paying off enough to keep you from switching to “slow and steady.”
- A team has traction when it has the ability to set and hit goals: your margin for error is your room to maneuver. Create schedules with slack and support infrastructure that is resilient. If you cannot reliably set and hit goals then narrow your focus to the next few steps: zoom in for traction. If you have traction then zoom out for impact.
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