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Business Strategy Roadmapping with John Tooher

Podcast published: June 5, 2020

A business owner and strategy consultant, John Tooher has his finger on the pulse of the business community in greater Philadelphia. John is the owner of HeadRoom, a small business accelerator based in Media and Wayne, Pennsylvania. Over 90 businesses use the HeadRoom office facilities to run and grow their business. John spends most of his time helping companies of all sizes to create strategic roadmaps for their business.



How is HeadRoom different from other coworking places?

  • Not a coworking space – but a place for folks who want to have an office with a door.
  • HeadRoom encourages an open door policy, but it’s optional, providing a series of offices and conference rooms.
  • In light of COVID-19, people at HeadRoom can self-isolate themselves in their own offices.

What effect is COVID-19 having on small businesses?

  • Certainly there have been some real challenges for retail businesses.
  • It’s been pleasantly surprising how many companies were able to pivot – mostly by focusing their offerings on services that can be safely delivered online.
  • An overall trend towards online, internet-based working has made it possible for business to keep the ball rolling – perhaps not performing at the same high levels, but surviving as a business.
  • Until recently, businesses were generally able to get along, but for many of those businesses to survive, lock-down regulations need to be relaxed in June, with all systems go July 1.
  • John’s own office space business – HeadRoom – has dropped by 50%.
  • Happily, that drop has coincided with a big upswing in the amount of strategy work he’s been doing with clients.

How can a business roadmap help a business survive a COVID-19 economy?

  • A roadmap is very important, especially in the current business environment, as that roadmap provides a “North Star” for the business.
  • “If you have a plan, it’s easier to get somewhere than without one.”
  • The business with the plan has a lot more potential opportunity.

What does a roadmap process look like for a business?

  • “You’ve got to be totally honest with yourself.”
  • The hardest part of strategic roadmapping is figuring out where the business is today. Look at everything.
  • Don’t try to solve the problems – just write them down!
  • Then, decide where the business should be going.
  • Write down where the business is today, and work to explore what’s having the most impact.
  • A situation analysis should be a full day’s work.
  • Write down everything with an impact and rate them – based on the most likely items, and the most impactful.
  • Then write statements that address on these items, with that list of statement of issues and opportunities becomes the strategic objectives.
  • Then, assign dates for actioning the list, allowing for 12-24 months to complete the work.

As lock-downs are relaxed, what advice do you have for businesses as they prepare to reopen?

  • “Have a plan.” Do think about it – don’t just open your doors and hope.
  • Ask important questions about planning and timing: What am I going to do for the first month? What am I going to do for the first three months?
  • Explain the business plan to customers, staff, vendors, etc. to ensure that everyone understands how the business will work to keep everyone safe.
  • LINK: Lisa Van Ess episode

How has HeadRoom prepared to reopen and how has it shared those preparations with customers?

  • HeadRoom has spent a lot of time and effort ensuring that it has sufficient cleaning supplies for its offices.
  • The company has established social distancing and safety guidelines (for example, around when and where masks need to be worn).
  • The infographic that HeadRoom produced and shared with its community has proven very effective.

Joe Casabona: As we air this show, we want to take a moment to talk about the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Racism is a real and significant problem in America, and even in our own local community. African Americans and people of color have long suffered from racist hate at so many levels and in so many ways.

Liam Dempsey: At Start Local, we’re focused on the local business community in Chester County and the surrounding Philadelphia area. As stay at home orders begin to end across Pennsylvania, we want to continue to serve the local business community as best as we can. One way in which we can achieve that goal and bring value to our community is to amplify the voices of underrepresented business owners, like African Americans and other people of color. We can, and will do more to make sure that the guests that we have on our show more accurately reflect the community in which we live and run our businesses.

Joe Casabona:  As we continue to learn more about the history of racism in America, we pledge to hold ourselves accountable for playing an active role in ending the adverse effects of racism in our own community. 

Liam Dempsey: On a practical note, we are assembling a list of African American owned and people of color owned businesses in Chester County. We will work to publish this list on our website. We invite you, our community, to share the names and details of such businesses so that we can support them.

Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody and welcome to another episode of Start Local, a podcast helping small businesses in Chester County, PA and the greater Philadelphia area navigate through this COVID 19 economy. My name is Joe Casabona and I’m here with my co-host Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you? 

Liam Dempsey: Morning, Joe. Always a pleasure. Thanks.

Joe Casabona: Yep. Thanks for joining us today. And our guest today is John Tooher. John Tooher is the owner of HeadRoom, a small business accelerator based in media and Wayne PA. Over 90 businesses use this flexible office facility to run and grow their business. John spends most of his time helping companies big and small create strategic roadmaps for their future business. John, how are you today? 

John Tooher: I’m excellent, Joe. Thank you very much. It’s a lovely, sunny summer’s morning. So got to be thankful for that.

Joe Casabona: Absolutely. Enjoyed the nice weather this weekend. It’s continuing this week. So, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m excited to talk about kind of small businesses starting to get back together, right?

As we record this, Chester County is about to move into, like the yellow phase of reopening and people will start to kind of gather together and, you know, kind of based on your intro here, I think that you’re a great person to talk to about this. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

John Tooher: Okay, Joe. Well, again, John Tooher. I co-founded and now own a company called HeadRoom. And we are, I call it a business accelerator. 

We have two facilities. One in media PA, and one in Wayne PA. And we offer up our space to small businesses and startups or anybody who’s in the business world who needs to get some flexible, short term use of office space. And they’re there to do business to grow their business, to meet clients, to have meetings. Perhaps just to get away from the washing, or the dogs, or the kids, whatever.

And They’re using the space as a high sort of, high state of the art office facility. There’s everything a small business or any business would need to get on with the business of doing business there. We encourage the businesses that are using the space to collaborate. It’s a great place to get to know other people that are in the same boat as you, or people that have subject matter expertise that you might need for your business. 

And a lot of the companies that use HeadRoom do collaborate. They use each other’s services. They pass on referrals to each other. And, they basically get to know each other.  

The third part of our business, so there’s the space, there’s the collaboration, and then the strategy is a consultancy practice that’s focused around helping companies create roadmaps to a future desired vision of their business. A lot of companies don’t take the time to create a strategy or a roadmap to take them from wherever they are today to wherever they’d like to be. They tend to just sort of come in on a Monday and keep going right. The problem is you tend to do what you were doing last Friday and you never quite get around to doing anything that’s changing the nature of your business. 

And so a big piece of what drives me to do this and to have left my corporate background and come into the smaller business world is the understanding that if you have a plan, it’s a lot easier to get somewhere than without one. So that’s the thing that sort of gets me up in the morning. The strategic planning side of it. The business, the space side is the fun side of it because I get to meet a lot of people and hang out with a lot of great companies. There are currently 90 businesses, 9-0 businesses using HeadRoom and you can imagine it’s pretty eclectic interesting environment.

Joe Casabona: Wow. Yeah. Now I know Liam has a couple of COVID-19 related questions, but I do want to specify something we talked about in the pre show, which is, HeadRoom is a little different from a coworking space. Right. And I think probably the strategy part of it is the main differentiator there. But, do you want to maybe give like a quick sentence or two about like, Hey, this is the difference.

John Tooher: Yeah. I mean, when we started the business, we thought it might be more of a co-working environment. But we soon realized that a lot of the younger people in our demographic, in our demographic or target market, they like to go into the city, to the WeWorks and the Benjamins desks and the bigger co-working facilities where you’re sitting in with a bunch of people pretty intimately connected on a big desk and you get your corner of the desk or whatever.

We realized we couldn’t compete with that. And we wanted to cater for maybe a person that wanted to have an office with a door right that they could close if they wanted to. We encourage people to keep their doors open if because it invites people to just say hello and get to know each other. But ultimately, HeadRoom has, you know, HeadRoom is just a series of offices and conference rooms. You book the room. You use it for the period you’ve booked it for. You leave and then someone else comes in and they can take the room.  

And in the COVID 19 era, we think it’s important for people to understand that they can come to HeadRoom and they can isolate themselves in a room. They don’t have to sit at a table with a lot of other people. I hope we can get back to doing that. I’m nothing against co-working and that whole spirit of co working. It’s a great thing. But right now, I think it’s important that people understand they can come, wear a mask in the common areas. But when they go into their office, it’s entirely up to them. Just close the door and get on with your business. And that’s the model we use. So it’s basically people get bundles of 50 hours of office space per month and they use it whenever they want to. It’s a 24/7 facility. Use your 50 hours anywhere you want. Conference rooms, small office, whatever it is you need on the day. 

Liam Dempsey: That’s great. Thank you for differentiating and clarifying that. John, you and I have known each other for more than a few years, and it’s very clear to me in my interactions with you that you have a pretty expansive business network. And in fact, you know, you just shared with us, there are 90 businesses that are taking advantage of HeadRoom’s services and accommodations and the like. With that in mind, I want to talk to you really specifically about what you’re seeing through your network about how COVID 19 are affecting businesses, small businesses in particular, in Chester County, in Delaware County, in Montgomery County, really in and around Philadelphia. What are you seeing? What are the trends? 

John Tooher: You know, I have to say I’ve been surprised at how many companies have managed to pivot in some way or other and make the best of a bad situation.  And they are the ones I’m dealing with now. You know, I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories, like someone was telling me they bought an entire summer collection of women’s clothing for their shop just prior to COVID lockdown. And they’re sitting with that infantry. And by the time, you know, things open up again, it may be too late to sell that. It probably is. And you know, so it’s very hard to turn that problem around. But a lot of people have found ways to do business. And I think the fact that we’ve been doing more and more things online and using Zoom and so on, it’s made it possible for a lot of companies more than you’d expect to keep the ball rolling. 

The PPP loans have helped to a certain extent. So I would say up until recently, people were getting along, not great, finding a way to keep going. The problem will be if we don’t get going again soon, we definitely need to have things opening up in June. And, for sure, July 1st has to be more or less all systems go, otherwise people are not going to be able to recover at all. I mean in large numbers, I think it’s going to be pretty bad if that happens.

Liam Dempsey: At the risk of putting you on the spot, could you share some examples of some companies that have pivoted in some way doing more online?

John Tooher: You know, I mean, I’ve heard so many, Liam. I can’t honestly say when it comes to mind, but a lot of businesses have sort of more than one, you know, focus. And like for myself, our space business, the rental of our space dropped by well over 50%. I mean some people have been very kind to keep paying us regardless of the fact that they’re not using the space because they realize if they don’t, we’re gonna, we’ll go out of business and we’re not there for them. And I think they want to support us as well. But a lot of people have had to say, I’m sorry, we’ve got no business, so I can’t pay you. And I’m suspending my membership. They haven’t cancelled, they’ve suspended. 

Just about the time that that happened, I started to do a lot more strategy work. I just got a lot of calls from people saying, I want to use this time to work on my future roadmap. I want to plan for post COVID, what we’re going to do with the business. And so I just started to get more strategy work. And it kind of, it didn’t make up the entire loss, but it certainly helped to keep things til it’s over. And then when you put the PPP loan in on top of that, I was able to pay my operations manager throughout this whole thing. So, you know, it’s examples like that. But, and I’m sorry. I had, I thought about I would’ve had a couple more examples for you for the show, but,  definitely…

Liam Dempsey: No. I put you on the spot on that. I put you on the spot on that. And I think what I heard, that was really interesting is, and you tell me if what i’m interpreting is right is that a lot of smaller businesses aren’t so much coming up with new services as they’re looking around at the services that they currently offer in some way or shape and say well we can’t do service one because that’s way too interpersonal, way too…We have to go into their offices kind of shake their hand kind of thing. But we can do service b or service c that are more remote focused. And let’s drive that. Would that be a correct understanding?

John Tooher: Absolutely. And honestly, it’s I have been quite surprised being on a lot of calls with a lot of people just how innovative they’ve been in finding ways to keep the ball rolling. They’re not making the kind of money they were making before but they’re the business isn’t dead, you know.

Joe Casabona: Yeah. I think that’s really fantastic what you said about doing a lot more strategy work and kind of pivoting towards that. Cause, you know, I have another podcast where I interviewed somebody about how they’ve pivoted and the advice was basically take what you do. Think about the skills that you have acquired in your business. And then how you could take them to do something else in this economy. And I think,  you know, what you said about doing more strategy work because people aren’t going to be in the space is great. And I’ve given that advice to other people who maybe have like a spa or something where maybe you can sell something online or you can do some sort of consulting time or something like that, because that’s you need to do something.

John Tooher: Yes. And while you might not be making as much money or any money, you’re reaching out to a new audience. People are getting to know you. And you know, you’re building your brand or you’re building your customer, potential customer base for when things get back into a better state, let’s put it that way.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. Not to turn this into a sales pitch for you, but it strikes me as given all the uncertainties that we’re facing, having a detailed, structured, well thought out roadmap is now more important probably than in any recent period that we’ve been through. And because we’re gonna get pulled to the left right and center all the time by the changes in the news and the updates around COVID 19 and a lot of the other challenges facing the American economy right now, having some kind of North Star to say that’s where we’re trying to get to. We might need to tack left or tack right a little bit, but let’s keep that North Star in mind. It must be really important. 

John Tooher: Yeah. I honestly think that the companies that take the time to have a plan, to know where they’re going, to think about the impact that COVID will have had on their business environment and how they’re going to respond to it, they’re the ones that are going to do the best. I mean, the person with the plan who knows where they’re going has a much better chance of getting there than one who’s stumbling along and waiting to see what opportunities come their way, right? 

And so I would say the difference between people that are going to be successful or not post COVID is whether they’ve taken the time to figure out what their plan is. And it doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s just a bit of discipline and a bit of time. Work through every piece of your business and figure out where it’s at today. Decide where you want to be at some point in the future, what it looks like and feels like to be in that business. And then figure out what’s the gaps between where you are and where you want to get to which are the most important and most impactful.

And then only focus on those ones. Those opportunities or those issues, nothing else. Because nothing else ultimately matters other than those small number of things that make the difference between you being where you are today and where you want to get to. And that’s really what it all is. It’s very simple. It’s people just take the time to do it.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. And so you’ve covered that. You just kind of covered this a little bit, but what are some of the questions that businesses should be asking themselves when thinking about creating their own roadmap? You know, is there like a template that you run through and not to give away the farm of course. 

John Tooher: Oh, it’s fine. It’s a standard planning process that’s used and has been used probably for thousands of years. And it’s really, again, I go back to it, you’ve got to be totally honest with yourself. You’ve got to bring in your team or people that you trust so that they ask some questions or they bring something to the conversation. Because the most important and the hardest part of strategic planning or roadmapping is figuring out where you are today. And people will say, oh, our IT systems suck. And that’s what they focus on for like, you know, most of the plan. When they’re not looking at operations, they’re not looking at their issues with hiring people. They’re not looking at their sales process, or their CRM, or their marketing. And it’s so important to look at everything first. Don’t try and solve it. Just look at it. Write it all down. This is where we stand with marketing. This is where we stand with sales, and so on. Don’t try and solve the problem. Just write it down.

And then decide where you’re going. What does it look like? What would the business look like? How would it feel to be in that business? You don’t have to go into too much detail, but you have to be able to kind of capture it in your head. And then you analyze everything you’ve written down about where you are today, and you pick out the things that you think are going to have an impact [Inaudible 18:21.20] And,  you might find there’s like a hundred things out of the three or four hundred things you’ve written down, because you shouldn’t really literally take a day to do the situation analysis. So you shouldn’t write down a lot of stuff. It’s just a brainstorming session.

But let’s say you pick out a hundred big things and you say, you know, these are things that are probably important, something we’ve got to do, something about opportunities we’ve got to seize, whatever. Rate those hundred things in terms of their impact in getting you to where you want to get to, and the likelihood that you’ll have to either do something about them or seize the opportunity. So the more likely and the more impactful, that the better. And what you end up finding is that there’s probably 20 things out of those hundred, which were selected from three or 400. You know, brainstorming points, you’re down to about 20 and you’ll then find us of those 20 things, four or five of them are marketing, three or four of them are IT. Two or three operations, whatever. Break them down into their areas and then write statements that address the issues of the opportunities that are expressed in those statements and they become your strategic objectives. 

And then you decide when are we going to do this? The other big mistake businesses tend to have is they tend to try and think they’ve got to do everything next week, you know. And the reality is to make a significant change to your business and get to that vision which has to be at least 12 months out. Typically if not two years, you need to take your time because the most important thing is that you actually get it done. And to get it done, you need to have the resources, and the time, and the focus. So you can just split it up, spread it out, but always do the things you said you would do. And if you do that and you’re disciplined, you build up momentum and suddenly you find that you’ve got to where you wanted to get to and your business is in a lot better shape than it was prior to doing this.

So, I hope that kind of helps. It’s hard to do it without a diagram. But, you know, it’s literally just about taking the time to think

Liam Dempsey: That was a great overview of your roadmap process. And it’s clear that it’s a structured detailed approach and that was great. I want to pivot a little bit as the government’s across Pennsylvania begin to relax isolation orders, stay at home orders. And from a Pennsylvania perspective, areas change from red to yellow or amber to green in due course. What do you, what are your thoughts on what these businesses need to be doing? What are the small and medium businesses need to be doing to begin to prepare for a return to “normalcy”, or at least the ability to leave our houses on a kind of as desired basis. What are you coaching your clients to think about?

John Tooher: Yeah. I mean, well, again, have a plan. So, I don’t want to go back to that too much, but, you know, do think about it. Don’t just go into the shop and open up on the day you’re allowed to, you know, sit. Now’s the time that you can stand back and say, “Okay. Let me take a couple of days and figure out exactly what I’m going to do for the first month”, Right. And then what am I going to do for the next three months. And really think it through, rather than wait for it to happen. 

Look, things might be, not be the way you expected, but I’m pretty sure you, with a small change to your plan, you could still be back on plan again. But don’t, not have a plan.

I think one of the things we all have to see is there’s a range of sort of behavior from people who believe it’s not happened at all, to people who are very afraid and would be very reluctant to go anywhere or near anybody. And we’ve got to try and cope with everybody and try and satisfy people’s fears as much as possible. 

But have a plan. Explain to people what your steps you’re taking to keep them safe. Anybody you interact with let them know up front. This is how we’re going to handle you if you come and interact with us. And this is the steps we’re taking to keep ourselves and you safe. I think that’s a huge piece of promoting confidence and getting people back to wanting to do business with you. 

I’m amazed how respectful and well behaved and civil everybody’s been in terms of COVID 19 and doing their best to make everybody comfortable, I think. We should be sort of proud of ourselves that we’ve done such a good job despite very trying circumstances. I think it’s going to continue on, you know, for the next when until we’re you know, question is when will we stop wearing masks? I mean, we don’t know. Do we know? It’s going to be strange. 

Liam Dempsey: No, we don’t. And not for the first time on this show we’ve heard the advice and guidance to communicate clearly, communicate candidly, communicate readily and in advance. And that’s a message that’s certainly not lost on Joe and me. You know, certainly we, in every episode we’ve had so far every guest has said whatever you decide to do. In whatever area we talked about it was always communicate that openly and as candidly and as publicly as possible. So thank you for sharing that.

Speaking of which, John, you do run a couple of offices. You’ve shared, with talk to us about it. You have folks coming from Chester county and around the area to use those offices. What have you done specifically to prepare for that side of your business? And how have you communicated? What have you shared with folks? 

John Tooher: Right. Well, I was going around stores for the last month or two trying to buy wipes and cleaning equipment and hand sanitizers because we wanted to have it for the office. The supplies have sort of loosened up, so we’ve recently started getting all we need. 

So yeah. We’re cleaning out our offices. We’re making each office has its own sanitizing and cleaning  equipment. We’ve decided that people should wear masks in the common area if they’re going to the bathroom or making a coffee. And we put it all on a very nice infographic. And, I put it out on LinkedIn and on Facebook and we also sent it to our entire email list and our entire resident list and said, guys, this is what we’re doing. This is how we’re preparing. Just want you to know that we’ll be ready when you’re ready. 

And I got a lot of actual, I got a lot of positive feedback from the people on the infographic. I think infographic is the way to go with this sort of thing. People tend to like it, sort of short staccato messages with a bit of an image that just helps people to kind of get in their brain what you’re talking about. So that worked really well.  

Yeah. And we’re just kind of waiting for the word now to know whether we can officially open. You know, right now our doors are locked. People can come in and get their mail and that sort of thing. Our members, but, you know, the doors are permanently locked and you need to have a pass to get in. But,  we’re hoping soon to be able to open the doors back up and be open for business. 

Joe Casabona: That’s fantastic. And, if, you know, if that’s publicly available, that infographic, I’d love to include it in the show notes, which listeners can find over at [startlocal. Co]. 

And John, this has been really great. Lots of great advice here. Before we wrap up, and I ask where people can find you. I do want to bring up the fact that it sounds like you don’t have an American accent. Can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and then what brought you over here? 

John Tooher: Sure. So yeah, actually you may be able to tell I’m from Ireland. I call myself an hour, a corporate American with an Irish accent because I’ve only ever worked for American companies or in America. So I actually worked, when I did work in America, eventually I worked for a British company. But prior to that, I worked all over Europe for 3M and GE. So two big American companies. I’ve only ever worked with Americans really, you know, which is weird. So I can’t even hear my accent and I don’t even notice yours, you know, it’s strange. 

But yeah. I worked with GE and 3M. And then I left 3M and joined a British company and I was running their UK operations. And a year later they asked me would I come over and run their US operations and I said Okay. And ended up in Philadelphia in 2004, running a business over here, which we grew very quickly. And I did that for 10 years and loved every minute of it.

But ultimately,  I parted ways with corporate America and decided I never was going back, you know, I’d had enough. 30 years in corporate space is enough for me. And I just wanted to try something else and ended up co-founding HeadRoom. And, yeah. That was six years ago now.

But by the way, my wife is German and my kids were born in the Netherlands, so we’re pretty, you know, all over the place there. 

Joe Casabona:  Wow. That’s wild. That’s really cool. Well, thank you for sharing that. That’s fantastic. And I just want to wrap up with, you know, if people want to learn more about what you’re doing over at HeadRoom, where can people find you?

John Tooher: They can go to [headroom.net], H-E-A-D-R-O-O-M dot net, or they can go to [headroomstrategy.com] if they want to hear more about our strategy products and services. 

Joe Casabona: Awesome. Well, I will link all of that and everything that we talked about over in the show notes. Again, that’s at [startlocal.co].

John, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. 

John Tooher: Joe and Liam, it was a pleasure. Thank you. 

Liam Dempsey: It was all ours. Thanks, John. Really appreciate it. 

Joe Casabona: What a great conversation. And thanks again to John for joining us this week. If you want to find all of the resources we talked about, you can head over to [start local.co]. And if you liked this episode, be sure to give us a rating and review on Apple podcasts.

Until next time. Stay safe out there.

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