Toilet Paper & Tacking: Lessons On Running a Small Business

Toilet Paper & Tacking: Lessons On Running a Small Business

I don’t have to tell anyone that COVID-19 has caused a hell of a tear in the business world.

Companies are going through gut-wrenching times, and leaders are flying blind not knowing what is going to happen next—or how to course correct and get back on track. Or if it’s even possible. It’s unprecedented, and uncertainty is everywhere.

During a long, socially distant walk in my neighborhood, I thought of some really great advice from one of my favorite business books by author Mike Michalowicz (ironically timed) titled—The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur.

There is a part of the book where the author shares a story about learning how to sail a boat for the first time. It was one of the best lessons he had ever learned about business.


The timeless art of tacking

Here is the excerpt from The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur.

“When sailing a boat, a sailor needs to know where he is in relation to his destination. He has to know which way the wind is blowing, and know that it will occasionally change. Finally, he has to look periodically for obstacles that lay in his path—like other boats or land masses.

With these few bits of crucial information, he uses a technique called tacking to navigate as quickly as possible to his destination. He knows that he will not follow a straight line—the changing winds alone will not allow for that. Instead, he will travel in a zig-zag pattern.

By tacking, the sailor travels a short distance, maximizing the winds and avoiding hazards. He then analyzes where he is in relationship to his destination—adjusts the sails, redirects the boat, and continues the zag part of his travels. After another short distance, he again evaluates his relationship to the destination, and adjusts.

Pay attention and navigate only in short segments, readjusting to the final destination only periodically.

Michalowicz goes on to explain that running a business (or a marketing department) is just like sailing a boat. Getting to your destination needs to happen a little bit at a time, or it can seem overwhelming.

He recommends “tacking” your business quarterly—focusing on only a handful of measurable goals and using the resources available to you to avoid obstacles and move your brand forward.

I’ve always loved the tacking metaphor, because you in business you can’t always know which way the wind is going to blow.


Hyper-tacking and marketing

In this time of uncertainly, I find myself thinking about tacking in much shorter distances than Michalowicz’s quarterly recommendation.

We’re measuring our Atomicdust goals on a weekly basis, and adjusting the plan to make the most of the wind.

But this approach isn’t only for operations. We’re hyper-tacking our marketing. Let me explain.

Marketing and lead generation is one of the core functions of our business. Even though the mindset of the world has shifted to scarcity overnight, we (and most businesses) have to press on with the mindset of abundance.

Overnight, our content calendar, case studies and social media plan have become irrelevant. To pursue it would make it look like we had blinders on to the world around us.

Instead, we needed to shift to what the world, and what clients need most—advice and assistance on how to get through.

Now the question for companies becomes, how can you rethink your marketing channels to better serve your audience now, even when your product or service might not seem relevant?

For me personally, we’re shifting our marketing approach to creating more content (writing more), focusing more on existing clients, ramping up Google Ads and optimizing our landing pages, and building out email sequences in our CRM.

Our tone has also shifted, and spreading joy wherever we can has become our mission.

And the thing about tacking is—next week, when the wind changes, we’ll have to see where we are and reevaluate the way ahead.

But we’re going to keep sailing. You should too.


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Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski is Principal / Creative Director of Atomicdust and is involved with the day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management.

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