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A Ballet Dancer's Lesson

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A few days ago I read an interview with the famed Russian ballet dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and one of his comments sent me into an hour of business thinking. It may be the first time that a person often seen in public wearing tights has given me a business lesson!

Just sitting in the audience watching world class or even fine amateur dancers I'm impressed by their elegant form and disciplined movements. I used to wonder how long it took them to master those soaring leaps and dizzying spins. In truth, my first adult romantic relationship was with one of those dancers and she provided insights into a world of hard work that successful entrepreneurs would likely understand. The dancers have to be relentless in shaping their enterprises (bodies and minds) in pursuit of the results they envision.

In the interview Baryshnikov said, "In dance you are trained to identify the wrong stuff and get rid of it: the line of your body, or a clumsiness of movement." Wow, I said. These days I'm working hard to take my business into several new product areas and it has been a struggle at times. But those few words from a world famous dancer gave me a clue as to what you and I as business owners have to do with things that don't serve us well.

Which of your products, services and people are generating the most sales? What software programs on your office computer system are being used the most and proving to help you run the business better? What customers or clients do you rate as being the best and most enjoyable to work with? Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff said that the first American astronauts had to possess the mindset and skills known as the right stuff to make it into the space program. I love the notion from Mikhail Baryshnikov that if I get rid of the wrong stuff, the desired right stuff is what will remain!

Years ago I read about a business principle that helped sort out the good stuff from that which was destined for the trash bin, thrift shop or another job. If you've never heard of the Pareto principle (the 80-20 rule) it is worth paying attention to. It is named after an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who back in 1906 noticed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas! Like Pareto, the Occupy movement in our country will likely rally around the idea that 80% of our resources are owned by 20% of the population. In business, it makes sense that 80% of your sales likely come from 20% of your clients.

I suggest that you and your employees devote one hour per day for at least one week having a frank and honest discussion about what has become the wrong stuff in your business. For example, I have a small client that has so many rules and procedures for creating a contract that I regularly refer to them as our PITA customer. You can easily guess the meaning of that acronym. The energy sponge clients deserve your help in finding another place to spend their money.

In the same interview, Baryshnikov also said that "In the second part of life, you get rid of stuff you've accumulated." That is great advice. There may be a product or service that served us well and that we lovingly hold onto for old times sake. You have to decide if it's time is near an end. I remember the day when we stopped offering VHS tapes of our TV shows. Clients welcomed the move to DVDs, beginning with the fact that they were easier to store. Last year I ended a successful 21-year run of our weekly small business show, Making It! on broadcast TV because the marketplace pointed to a different distribution method, the Internet. The transition is fraught with many of the same challenges as getting a raw startup off the ground, but I'm excited about the prospects.

Whether in the world of dance or your business, it all comes down to your personal vision and its clarity. Do you really need 2000 square feet of expensive office space or the shop on Main Street to deliver you product or services? Is that the wrong stuff to shape the business as it exists in your vision? Those things may be exactly what you need but deciding what is right and dispensing with what isn't right is the key to moving forward and upward. Those decisions are often difficult, but necessary. Another legendary artistic figure's advice sends us down the same path as Baryshnikov. Michelangelo said, "I saw an angel in the block of marble and I just chiseled 'til I set him free." Make this a week to take your hammer and chisel to the wrong stuff.