“The Pumpkin Plan”
I've been reading the work of Mike Michalowicz for some time now. Not long ago I wrote about “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” (TPE), a hilarious and useful primer for launching (or relaunching) a business. Now it's time to (finally!) write about “The Pumpkin Plan,”which I have been promising since, uh… last October, I think? (Hi, Rya!)
The Pumpkin Plan takes over where TPE left off, and I'd recommend anyone interested in this book to go and read the previous one as well. The Pumpkin Plan refines its metaphors and tropes with agricultural (instead of bathroom) metaphors, and it goes much further than the previous book. The new model is extremely useful, by the way, not just because of aesthetics alone, but because it's about achieving great results, not just making do with what you have at hand. The previous one was about the start; this one is about the finish.
Soothing the pain of business
Running a business is not for everyone, and most people seem to have an idea about this — the long hours, the sacrifice, the risk… However, the Pumpkin Plan helped me realize that running a business didn't have to be such a painful and grueling experience after all.
One of the things that appealed to me in this book were the stories of struggling entrepreneurs who worked harder than everyone else, and yet failed to achieve any success, or had zero chance at taking a vacation. Mike puts it this way:
Entrepreneurs are struggling, trapped in a never-ending cycle of sell it-do it, sell it-do it, sell it-do it that leaves them feeling desperate, hopeless, trapped. No matter how many all-nighters they pull, no matter how many kids' soccer games they miss, most entrepreneurs can't seem to get anywhere near the multimillion-dollar mark, much less beyond it.
Oh, that quote hurt! But it rang so true, I had to keep reading.
What Mike describes happens basically for two reasons: either business owners are spread too thin, which dilutes their profits, or they are indispensable to every aspect of their business, which keeps them on perpetual overtime mode.
The Pumpkin Plan offers an answer to all of that pain and suffering. First, it asks you to focus on your best clients and on what you do best, instead of saying “yes” to everything. Then, it asks you to remove yourself from the business and go on a four-week vacation — but not so quickly! There is some homework and preparation that needs to happen first.
The seed and the vine
Mike talks extensively about the value of a good seed, which for giant pumpkin growers is the Dill's Atlantic Giant variety. A single seed for champion growers can cost over $1,800 (lots more than its weight in gold), so we're talking about a serious start for your pumpkin.
For an entrepreneur, the seed is a business idea that can grow to epic proportions, so it's worth spending the time and energy to find an excellent one. Your perfect seed should reflect a sweet spot between your unique offering, your top clients, and your ability to systematize processes (you'll find extensive discussion in the book). Miss one of the areas, and your business will not stand out as an extraordinary giant pumpkin.
Once your seed is planted and starts to grow, you need to quickly identify the most promising vines — that is, customers who bring you the greatest profit and satisfaction, and focus relentlessly on them, instead of wasting your time with bad pumpkins.
Kill first, nurture later
The Pumpkin Plan is based on the ability of an entrepreneur to say NO before saying yes. Mike teaches you how to assess and grade your clients and how to find the ones who are best for you. These are the ones who share your Immutable Laws (for this, again, it's useful to look at the TPE book), the ones you'd take with you to a desert island, the ones who are almost like your family. Then you can focus on finding more of those clients.
But as Mike says, “Kill first, nurture later.” Anything growing in your patch that isn't your giant pumpkin is only taking water and nutrients away from it. Starting entrepreneurs often say “yes” to anything (hey, we have to eat!), but there is great power in knowing when and how to say “no.”
The Pumpkin Plan features many examples of “pumpkin-planning” a business: some from real life, some hypothetical; some from Mike's entrepreneurial career and some from people he's inspired or coached.
There's the florist who after 20 years in the business and a revenue of $700K a year still had to borrow money from the folks to make ends meet. There's the race car specialist who would answer the phone at any time of day or night, and earned well but was a slave to his business. There's the web programmer who was always “one project away” from being solvent, except that he wasn't.
And there's the solar contractor who prospered wildly by turning down jobs. The providers of computer controls for luxury cars who prospered by focusing on just a couple of brands. The freelance writer who left a life of perpetual bidding to run her own company. The providers of virtual phone systems who succeeded by catering to companies just like themselves. The feminist fashion designers who found their perfect niche online with little expense.
There are also ample hypothetical examples on “how to pumpkin plan your industry,” be it micro-brewing, airlines, online retail, financial planning, indie bands, web design, restaurants, legal services, nursing homes, construction, and dog-walking. Enough examples to inspire your own giant pumpkin!
How the Pumpkin Plan has changed my business
Since last year, my wife and I began to discard parts of our video business that generated more headache than profit. We also parted ways with clients who were good and decent people, but who didn't share our immutable laws — and this reduced our headaches immensely.
Getting our gear stolen, while traumatic, only accelerated the process, because we realized we could do away with providing video services altogether, and we could start afresh by creating products instead — films and stories and characters that have earned us awards and financial support and a devoted audience.
Over the winter break we improvised a retreat at home and spent a week making plans about where to go for the next five years. Now we are in the middle of an artist residency doing exactly what we want to do, and our plan is to continue pursuing this path: creating products that we love and reaching out to find those who, like us, love what we do.
What the Pumpkin Plan could mean to you
Are you all over the place, spread too thin, stressed, and running on a treadmill? Do you own a seed that could grow into a massive, trophy-winning giant pumpkin? Are there parts of your life that you could systematize or outsource while you cultivate inordinate success in one area? If you're not a business owner, could you perhaps apply some of these ideas to your hobbies, your life, or your career?
The next step
Ideas have consequences, and I have to practice what I preach. In a recent article by April about preparing for emergencies, I commented that having a side job could actually bring about failure by distracting one's efforts to find success in one's main occupation. There is a time to hedge and a time to go all-in, and I believe it's time for me to go all-in.
What this means, of course, is that having a giant pumpkin to water and nourish and keep safe from pests, I can no longer afford to have a side job. So I have to say goodbye to my job at Get Rich Slowly!
Yes, I love the community, which helped me so much when I needed it, and I enjoyed giving back to others through writing, but at this point I must take maniacal and single-minded care of our giant pumpkin, so we can win trophies and medals and have our photo on the newspaper next to a vegetable monstrosity.
My editors have left the door open for eventual guest posts, and I might occasionally show up to report from the trenches, but for now it's time to say goodbye… as a writer, of course, though not so much as a reader — I'll still show up to comment and argue, as I sometimes do.