Marissa Bracke, An Expert in Small Business Architecture

“Small steps forward, taken consistently, will get you farther than inconsistent leaps.”

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I recently had the pleasure of connecting with Marissa Bracke, CEO of Bracke Enterprises and an expert in small business architecture. A self described “computer geek”, Marissa’s talent lies in her ability to see the “holes” in small businesses’ services, strategies and systems and setting up the right architecture (systems, processes and strategy) to shore up these holes and empower businesses to thrive. Our interview below has some great pearls of practical wisdom from Marissa. She goes deep. You are sure to gain some insights from this…

1. Marissa, you made a successful “pivot” from being corporate counsel to digital marketing and business architecture expert.  How did that come about?

Completely by accident!

I’ve been a computer geek my whole life — I learned early programming skills on an Atari 800 when I was around 5, and I was learning to code webpages in the mid 90s. It was “just a hobby.” Then when I was looking for a new attorney position, I started doing a little work for an online business owner. She initially wanted some help just answering customer emails, and I thought it’d be an interesting way to make some money while continuing to look for my next attorney job.

Her customers started asking me to work with them as well, and as my clients realized that I had this background in (and fascination with) computers and the web, my roles in their businesses rapidly expanded. This was just before the Virtual Assistant industry really took off, so I didn’t have a term for what I was doing. I coined the term “Can-Do-Ology” as a catchall phrase to encompass the many roles I played for my clients at that time: customer service front line, email wrangler, strategist, planner, website remodeler & administrator, online community manager, copy editor, marketing advisor, etc.

After a few months, I was, basically, “fully booked.” And I realized I had a viable business on my hands, should I choose to pursue it. I decided to go for it, and I stopped looking for attorney work. And I never looked back.

One of those early customers once told me that she saw me as uniquely valuable because I could simultaneously hold Eagle View and Mouse View. That is, I have the ability to see and forecast the big picture (Eagle View), while understanding and planning for the details required to make that big picture a reality (Mouse View).

The Business Architecture advising grew out of years of first-hand experience seeing the “holes” small business owners had in their services, strategies, and systems from both the Eagle View and the Mouse View, the detrimental effects those holes had on the business’s day-to-day effectiveness and long-term health, and how much more resilient and stable businesses are when they’re run with an eye toward streamlined, results-oriented, effective architecture.

2. What was the scariest part of the transition?  How did you overcome it?

It’s a familiar refrain: I was afraid to leave the “certainty” of getting a paycheck. This was nearly a decade ago — the economy hadn’t imploded quite yet, so the “certainty” of a paycheck wasn’t as easy to laugh at then as it is now.

Here’s how I overcame it: I stopped trying to overcome it.

All decisions, whether personal or business, are made as follows: act, observe, assess, adapt, repeat. You act based on the best information you’ve got at the time. And then you take stock of where you’re at after your took that action, you gather new information available to you, you adapt, and you act again.

There is no “Jump and be done with fear once and for all” — that’s a platitude, not a way of living.

But there is always the next adaptation. There is always new information you didn’t have the last time you acted. There is always the next chance to alter your course and do something different, and see how that change affects the results you’re getting.

And once I realized that, I realized I didn’t have to overcome my fear. It was absolutely fine for that fear to show up every now and then. Because I always had the chance to evaluate that as a choice: did I want to attempt to return to the perceived certainty of a paycheck, as an attorney or in any other position? Am I willing to do what it would take to make that happen? Am I willing to give up what it would take to make that happen?

When that particular fear shows up, I evaluate it. If the answer is ever “Yes,” then — okay. I’ll adapt my next actions accordingly. But to date, the fear has never stood up to a frank evaluation of reality. Never. It shudders and runs away as soon as I shed the first light of pragmatism on it.

Because there is nothing — and I mean nothing — that fear is more afraid of than a frank, unrelenting pragmatic stare down. It’s more effective than trying to leapfrog over the fear, every time.

3. Why did you start focusing on business architecture as an expertise?

Because tactics are easy and plentiful and offered up like candy on Halloween by every course, webinar, and listicle out there — but tactics do not work long-term if they’re being applied to a business with broken or weak architecture.

And I was tired of seeing people pour time, money, and effort into these grand plans for their products, for their teams, for their funnels, or for their businesses as a whole, only to see all that time, money, and effort run right out like liquid from a leaky cup.

And what would they do? Pour more time, money, and effort into the same leaky cup. Over and over, until they were burned out and broke.

Because the myth is that when things aren’t working, you need to put more time, money, and effort behind them, and get it figured out. That’s wrong. When things aren’t working, it’s because you’re going straight for tactics before you’ve got your architecture solid.

No amount of tactics, no matter how good the tactics may be, will make up for bad architecture in the long run. That leaky cup will eventually drain you.

A resilient, healthy business — one that succeeds over the long-term and allows you as the business owner to run it without perpetually burning out — requires smart and solid services, systems, and strategies. If you don’t have those, do not bother with tactics. Unless and until you get your services, systems, and strategies in place, you’re just pouring your resources right through a leaky cup.

4. What do you think small businesses need to work on most?  Ie., what issue(s) do you consistently see with your clients?

Small businesses must be ruthless about asking “Does this matter?”.

Small business owners tend to believe they’re instinctively good at knowing what matters and what doesn’t, and making sound decisions on the fly about which is which.

They aren’t.

The reason is because what might sound good, and might hit all the right places to get that gut feel for “Yes, this is a thing that matters,” turns out to be something that does not matter when you look at it in its full context.

For instance: Let’s take the common goal of wanting to get more leads. If you ask a small business owner about their goal of getting more leads and said, “Does this matter?” it’s such a reflexive “Yes.” Of course — more leads means more potential sales means more money, etc. Of course more leads matters. How could the answer be anything else?

But let’s look closer. Let’s look at an example business with the goal of getting more leads. Looking at the rest of the business and data, it’s (very) often the case that the real source of the business owner’s problems isn’t that she needs more leads, but that she’s got a problem with her offer — the offer itself isn’t sharply enough defined, isn’t a clear enough fit to the audience it’s being marketed to, isn’t priced well, etc. — and that’s where the issues she’s hoping to solve with more leads are all stemming from. It’s not a lead problem, it’s an offer problem.

Which means that bringing in more leads, even if it we brought in a shockingly huge number of leads, isn’t actually going to solve the issues at the core of this example business. She could bring in ALL the leads, and they wouldn’t end up buying, because her offer’s missing the mark.

Which means, for this example business the answer to the question of “Does more leads matter?” would actually be… no. Right now, more leads does not matter. Fixing that offer matters. Getting a followup campaign set up for the leads that are coming in for that offer that we’ve identified as being ineffective — that matters. But bringing in more leads to a broken system? No. That absolutely does not matter and should not be a focus whatsoever.

(This example is a much more common scenario than people realize, by the way. Everyone always assumes that the answer is “More Leads!” Lack of leads is, in fact, very rarely the problem. Leads tend to amplify what you’ve already got — they don’t fix what you don’t have.)

5. What is the best advice you received along your entrepreneurial journey?

I was just getting ready to part ways with a major client for the first time, and I was terrified. I didn’t know how I’d make up the loss of income, how I’d keep going without the business I got just by working in her business. I thought I was doomed.

I poured all of this out in a stream of teary worry to a business coach one evening. She “Mmm-hmmed” thoughtfully and replied, “You want to know what separates the successful businesses from the unsuccessful ones?”

I sat up straighter, got my pen ready over my notebook, and prepared for a life-altering piece of business wisdom.

“The difference between the successes and the failures,” she said, “is that the successes are still here.”

Record screech.

Wait, what?

“That’s it?” I spluttered. “That’s what you’re telling me — don’t die? Just… don’t die?”

She laughed, a full throaty laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, actually that’s exactly what I’m telling you. Don’t die. That’s the secret. Do. Not. Die.”

At the time I thought she was kidding — or slightly drunk — but I get it now. She may have been slightly drunk, but she was also absolutely right: there is no “big secret” anywhere to discover or figure out. There really isn’t. No one’s doing anything brilliant behind a big curtain that if you can just get your hands on will make you powerful and successful too. And everyone — EVERYONE — gets deep in the weeds sometimes. Every single business goes through incredibly rough patches that leave its owner teary, burned out, emotionally banged up, and questioning whether this whole thing is worth it.

The businesses that fail… well, they’re not still here. The business that succeed, are.

At the end of the day, that really is the difference.

The reason that’s stuck with me as profound is because it’s easy to be wise and full of great pithy pearls of wisdom when things are going well. But when you’re deep in the weeds and you’re teary, burned out, emotionally banged up, and questioning whether this whole thing is worth it, the best you can do is not die.

And to know that, at the very core, that alone is what separates the failures from the successes? That can be enough to get you through the weeds and into the next day.

And that has felt profound to me every time I’ve been in the weeds.

thetakeaway

6. What is the ONE piece of “takeaway” advice you would have for an aspiring or new entrepreneur?

Passion is awesome, and you will hear a lot about it. But you know what trumps passion? Action.

You will have days when you do not feel passion, and you don’t feel particularly purposeful, and this whole adventure of entrepreneurship feels a whole lot like… freakin’ work. Don’t worry that you’ve chosen the wrong thing to pursue or that you’ve lost your way, or that everyone else is having more fun than you. (We’re all just freakin’ working sometimes too, I promise.)

When you feel like this, just keep the action going. Look for what you can do in or for your business that will have some impact — however small — and do that. Even if it doesn’t feel like passion or purpose and it only feels like work. Small steps forward, taken consistently, will get you farther than inconsistent leaps.

The platitudes make it sound like passion is the catalyst for action, and it can be. But action can also be the catalyst for passion. When your passion wanes — and it will — keep your action going. Your passion for what you’re doing and your consistent action will support and catalyze each other.

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