Big, Hairy Audacious Goals? Give Me Audacious Problem-Solving

From late November to early February, I always dread two things: One is seeing the endless New Year’s lists of the personal attributes required to be an entrepreneur (you know, passion is always No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3). The other is hearing lots of talk about everyone’s “BHAGs” for the coming year — the term is pronounced BEE-hag, and it stands for “big, hairy, audacious goals.”

For me, and I suspect for many fast-growth entrepreneurs, even the warm glow of holiday cheer can’t drown out this stuff. Why? Because both BHAGs and the entrepreneurial attribute lists are fantasies that always live another year but in many cases are counterproductive. The last thing most entrepreneurs need as a new year begins are audacious goals that are really just soon-to-be broken promises made in meetings where everybody talks and talks — a terrible environment and a horrible habit for a growing company.

I must admit I thought BHAGs were kind of cute when I first heard the term. What entrepreneur doesn’t want to be audacious? But the problem with BHAGs is that they suggest it’s O.K. if you don’t achieve your goals. What about some M.B.C., or management by commitment? That’s where if you say you are going to do something, you do it.

As dangerous as BHAGs can be, I think the entrepreneurial-attribute lists are bigger fantasies — maybe even bigger than flying reindeer. The truth is, successful entrepreneurs come from such a variety of backgrounds, education levels and personalities that we really don’t know exactly what attributes and characteristics help them drive their companies. If you need a holiday fantasy to warm your heart, stick with old St. Nick. At least it is a good fantasy, one that stirs the holiday spirit and does no harm.

The entrepreneurial-attribute lists, on the other hand, can cause harm. They overemphasize the importance of passion, and they suggest that aspiring entrepreneurs should always follow their passion, whatever it might be. This can be terrible, life-changing advice. Look, I have passion for fried shrimp, but I don’t think it would be wise for me to start a shrimp business.

So let’s flip it in 2015. Let’s skip the BHAGs and ignore all of the entrepreneurial-attribute lists and instead follow the lead of companies that focus on results. One example is a Lexington, Ky., manufacturer of industrial and residential fans called Big Ass Fans. Since the recession, this company has gone from about 150 employees to more than 600, while exceeding 35 percent year-over-year revenue growth.

When I spoke recently with the company’s chief executive, Carey Smith, he told me the company preferred to focus on big, audacious problems rather than big, audacious goals. “We are a community of contrarians,” he said. “If everyone else is doing it, then we don’t want to. In fact, around here we work on all the small things that others might want to ignore. As we get bigger, we keep thinking how can we operate as if we were still small.”

That makes sense to me. As we head into 2015, let’s commit to working on big, audacious problems. I would suggest identifying two B.A.P.s, one confronting your company and one confronting your entire industry. (If they are the same, that’s even better.) Please understand that all real fast-growth B.A.P.s are about revenue. End of story. No fantasy.

Dina Giesler, a dentist in Atlanta, recently gave me the perfect example of a B.A.P. that needs to be solved, one that has relevance for entrepreneurs in many different businesses. Dr. Giesler explained that people frequently fail to show up for teeth-cleaning appointments and that these no-shows can cost a growing practice hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

This B.A.P., which afflicts the entire dental industry, is narrow in scope but deep in consequences. It’s a true B.A.P. because the problem gets nastier without action. As other dentists at the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs have explained to me, teeth-cleaning appointments are critical to both health and economics. They identify issues that help patients and generate revenue.

You might suggest solving the problem by charging patients who fail to show up. But entrepreneurs like Dr. Giesler are trying to make the medical industry more customer-friendly, not less. Patients will stay loyal to a dentist who understands that people are busy and that life happens. Oh, and by the way, those automated reminder calls, emails and texts have resulted in only slight gains in reducing no-shows. What you have here is the perfect B.A.P.

And I must admit, so far, neither Dr. Giesler nor I have figured out how to solve it. If there is a solution, I suspect it would be of great interest to lots of businesses with scheduled appointments — beauty salons, restaurants and the like. Any suggestions?

If you can solve this B.A.P., you will prove you are a B.A.E., a big, audacious entrepreneur.