Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

Blog Has Been Moved

Dear Reader,

I have recently switched my blog to www.usmansheikh.com. Please visit my new blog site and update your RSS feeds and subscriptions. I apologize for any inconvenience during this migration.

If you have any questions or queries please send me an email or leave me a message on my new blog.

Thank you for your continued readership and patronage. I greatly appreciate it.

Wishing you a very successful and exciting new year.

Best Regards

Usman Sheikh

Filed under: Change

Book Review: Back of the Napkin

“Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see – both with our eyes and with our mind’s eye – in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way that they simply “get”.” Dan Roam (Author, Back of the Napkin)

I am one of those individuals who enjoys putting a pen to paper and making sense of any issue or problem through pictures and charts. I have to admit I am not artistic by any stretch of imagination, and people usually have difficulty in deciphering the stuff that I put up. Nonetheless, I find the act of visually depicting a story or challenge, to be an extremely powerful tool, one that should be there in every entrepreneurs tool kit. While browsing at a local book store a while back I caught a glimpse of this book and the cover image caught my attention.

Back of the napkin Dan Roam

Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

This book covers a very interesting concept, after flipping through the book for the first time, I remember thinking that the author had done a great job putting together abstract concepts in a most exciting visual manner. I am glad I found this book as it has provided me with a framework to actually make sense of the visuals I use in brainstorming sessions or when giving presentations. An important note I want to make before moving forward with the review is that you don’t need to know how to draw or be artistic to make use of this book. It’s principles apply as much to those of us who prefer to sit back and comment on a visual as to those who are eager to depict the visualization on a whiteboard.

The book is split up into 4 parts, the first takes you from understanding the power of using pictures to solve problems, the next part equips you with a fundamental knowledge of some frameworks to use, the third section is my favorite as it merges the first and second parts into a powerful application of the frameworks, and the last part shows you how to actually use pictures to sell and present your ideas. The parts flow naturally well together and I was inspired many a time while reading the book to get up and use the frameworks that had been introduced and apply them to some of  the business issues we were facing. When I did, the results were truly remarkable.

I often just get up to the board and start to draw or write whatever comes to mind without realizing that it may be difficult for others to actually decipher what I am doing. The frameworks in the book such as “Six ways of seeing” and “SQVID” (see pictures below) helped me to literally visualize what I wanted to say through my pictures before I actually did. I began to see things differently and details I hadn’t thought about initially, started to take shape. I think different people will experience such epiphanies at different stages and levels, varying on how quickly you  grasp the techniques. Confidence with the pen will follow!

Visual Thinking Toolkit Dan Roam Back of the Napkin

The Visual Thinking Toolkit

SQVID Dan Roam Back of the Napkin

SQVID

6x6 Dan Roam Back of the Napkin

<6><6> Rule

As an entrepreneur I know how important it is to be able to communicate your ideas to a target audience, irrespective of whether you are pitching to a client, investor or your own partners. The message needs to be delivered in a manner that enables your audience to “get” the message. The saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’  is truly a powerful concept and when harnessed competently can open any number of doors and opportunities. I  recommend this book to anyone wanting to improve the way they deal with difficult problems, as well as becoming a more competent presenter.

Related Links:

- Amazon.com has ranked The Back of the Napkin as the number five business book of 2008

- BusinessPundit: #4 business book of the year

- Best of BNET 2008: BNET’s Best Business Books

- The Best Business Books of 2008 by Fast Company

- Best Innovation & Design Books of 2008 by BusinessWeek

Filed under: Book Reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where Did the Day Go?

The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time.” Franklin Field

Since the start of this year my plate seems to be extraordinarily full. Days go by so quickly that it is becoming difficult to keep track of what is being accomplished and what things are being left behind. My action days are getting mixed up with my preparation days and everything seems to be moving too rapidly. Whenever I experience times like these I need to actually take a step back,  stop auto piloting for a while and stop to reflect about what is really happening. If one does not do this, you get lost in the moment and one day blends into the next and pretty soon the day, week, month or year has passed you by. A story I re-read at such times is this one. It helps me put the bigger picture in perspective and clearly shows that the bigger things in life are what one needs to be focused on. If we continuously  work on developing the little things, we forget the big rocks and after a while there is no more space for them.

Last year I wrote about the time management philosophy I follow which includes a mixture of preparation days, action days and relaxing days. In the last quarter of  ’08  I started to integrate  GTD  a lot more into my life. Apart from the usual split of days for that system I also do three other exercises. The first one of these is to set some big goals for the month, chunk them down into smaller ones to be done weekly and lastly chunk them even further into mini steps to be done on a daily basis. The daily basis steps comprise of my “Most Important Tasks” for the day. These range anywhere from 2-4 tasks. It is important to take consistent action on the goals we are working on. Although I have some large yearly goals such as writing a book this year, I tend to keep most of my goals on shorter time frames. This adds the often much needed sense of urgency and stops me from procrastinating.

When I start to lose track of time it is either that I am focusing too sharply on micro goals and have forgotten the bigger picture, or the fact that mini steps are taking longer than usual thereby dragging my day.  General frustration builds up when you work hard but do not get the results that need to be there. Being a highly result oriented person, when I begin to miss daily or weekly targets, flashing red flags force me to take a step back and re-evaluate what am I doing wrong, and gauge whether the path  I have selected is truly the one I want to continue on. Having such built-in systems helps keep me on track, focused and provides the sense of motivation to get things done.

Start with simple steps and goals and steadily increase their number and complexity as you become more adept. Hopefully you will get more things done and see your productivity sky rocket.

Related Posts:

- An Inspirational Story

- 5 Steps to Manage your Time Better

- 5 Steps to Get Things Done

Filed under: Time Management, , , , , , , , , ,

The Secret to Success

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Unfortunately there is no magical formula or path to guarantee success. Reading autobiographies of some of the most successful people in the world and engaging in conversations with successful entrepreneurs, the one common tread that is always brought up in one way or other, is their level of persistence. This theme is stressed upon vigorously and they reiterate how they nearly gave up, but something told them to keep going on. I am reading the “Second Bounce of the Ball” by Ronald Cohen these days, a founding member of the private equity industry, and he brings up this point in one of the early chapters of his book. In the first couple of years of setting up his business he lost both of his partners because they did not think the business was going to survive. However he kept faith and persistence in the inner conviction that he was onto something and kept plugging away. Success came 7-8 years into his venture but at the end of his career he was managing $2ob.

Starting an enterprise is hard work. Everyone knows that, but I think many of them underestimate just how challenging it actually is to get a venture past the break even point into profitability. However, plugging away on a venture without changing the strategies that are not working, is obviously not very smart either. Listed below are a couple of pointers to assist you push through the challenges and achieve the goals and results you want.

1. Clarify your goals: I have reiterated this point many a time on my blogs. Before starting any venture, ensure you know what you are working towards. What is the final end goal? What do you want to achieve, and by when? Make your goals as specific as possible and ensure that they are measurable and time bound. Without clear goals, chances are that you will lose steam half way, begin to doubt yourself and lose faith in the venture. You need to be emotionally and mentally connected with your goals and believe with conviction that you have the abilities to reach them.

2. Have a Plan: If you set a goal for your business to achieve a $1m in profits in 3 years time of selling your product/service, then chart out a plan how you plan to achieve the goal. What are the steps that need to be taken? What are major milestones that need to be achieved along the way? What resources will you need to realize your plans? What are your backup strategies if you are unable to hit some of your mini goals? A plan is a critical element in keeping you focused and provides much needed motivation during those rough times.

3. Partners: These could be your business partners or they could be associates from your mastermind groups or mentors who help push you when the chips are down. When you are riding solo and business is not going as planned it can get very lonely, frustrating and demotivating. Without an adequate support system even the most persistent and determined individuals can falter. Make sure you have partners who will be there to catch you in case you fall and will help you get back up again.

4. Shrug of Negativeness: How many times have you heard someone shoot down a business idea that you may want to pursue or tell you that the economy is so bad that your chance of succeeding is negligible. As an entrepreneur you need to be able to shrug of this negativity without letting it affect your mental capacities. By surrendering to external circumstances we will find ourselves paralyzed and often unable to think or act correctly. Have faith and believe in what you are doing  rather than other people, let concerned people give you feedback and take it from there.

Success is usually the last person still hanging on when everyone else has given up. It takes patience, persistence and a level of self confidence that enables you to weather the storms when the going gets tough. Remember not to fight through the challenges blindly without adjusting your strategies along the way. If you really believe that what you are wanting to achieve is possible and you can do it, you are more than half way there.

Filed under: Advice, Inspiration, , , , , , , , , , ,

What do you do when you fall?

“Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” Alfred (Batman Begins)

I was having an interesting discussion with a friend yesterday about the economic climate and the alarming rate of business closures in multiple sectors. We were sharing personal stories about how we had dealt with difficult times in our respective businesses and what things kept us plugging away even when it seemed to be the end of the road. I am sure you understand that problems are part and parcel of starting a new business or being part of a new venture. Some problems will be larger than others but you never really quite run out of them. When you solve a specific challenge in a particular segment of your business it does sometimes manifest itself in another aspect of it.

For example, suppose your business is struggling with sales generation. After brainstorming and overcoming that problem, the next challenge is often managing the inflow of new orders which the business may not be equipped to do. This forms a cycle where it is possible to continue moving forward and facing new challenges as they appear. However, it is not usually as simple as that. There are three potential stages we can go through when facing a challenge.

1. Ignore it: How many times have we been faced with a problem either of a personal nature or in a professional aspect of our life and chosen to ignore it. There have been many times that I can personally recall where we knew something was wrong with the way our business was doing a certain process yet we never changed it. Wanting a different reaction from the same action is unfortunately something that many of us find ourselves doing when we do not want to move out of our comfort zones. We pretend that our problems do not exist or are not affecting us and hope for a miraculous change. Unfortunately that usually never comes and most of the time we just end up amplifying the problems.

2. Blame somebody: This is probably the most used excuse whenever we are faced with a problem. The economy is bad, my partner cheated me, we lost our star sales person, we do not have the funds or I am not skilled enough. This is another easy way to deal with problems. We shift the blame to anyone we can, including ourselves sometimes in the face of problems we cannot pass on. This creates a detrimental and negative cycle that ends up sapping all motivation and drive we may have left in ourselves and we let our environment condition us in whatever way it deems fit. This is giving up  control in our lives by burying our head in the sand.

3, Solution: The most productive thing we can do for ourselves whenever we face a problem is to correctly identify it, document where it is stemming from, brainstorm with individuals who will be able to pinpoint pain areas and develop a set of options that can help us deal with them. As start ups, we go through some tough challenges such as getting your first big reference customer, securing funding or convincing a star player to join your team. We have to look at each of these problems with an open mind and no matter how many times we fall down, we must learn the lesson inherent in the fall, then learn to pick ourselves up again.

Most of the things discussed in this post may appear extremely obvious. I mean who wants to admit that they are actually not dealing effectively with a problem that they may have in their life. I recommend getting a piece of paper and writing down all the major problems that you may be facing in life right now whether of a personal or business nature. Next, identify how you are dealing with these problems. We are often surprised to discover that we focus so much on the fact that we have these problems, that we forget to think of  necessary solutions. In order to move forward we need to understand that problems are a natural part of life, the quality of our lives however depends primarily on how we deal with them.

Filed under: Advice, Change, Inspiration, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Great Customer Service Experience

“One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth doing is what we do for others.” Lewis Carol

I have been a GoDaddy customer for as long as I can remember. Somehow years ago when I bought my first domain they must have been the first one which popped up in my Google search. I have had limited interaction with their customer support department and usually only call when I am traveling or if I think of a domain name on the go, and want them to process my order. One can expect to be kept on hold a fair amount of time during peak hours, however this problem has become better recently. Whenever I call, there is the usual protocol for verification and the operators are usually helpful and I get my order processed very quickly.

Yesterday I called them up to register a domain and when the operator answered there was something different about her manner and voice from the very onset. She greeted me and made a conscious effort to get the pronunciation of my name right which can be a bit difficult for some people. During the course of the call we had a pleasant discussion of the importance of renewing personal name domains for a large period of time and she  made a concerted effort to make a larger sale without seeming too pushy. There was so much life and passion in her voice that I really didn’t mind and subconsciously became a lot more open to some of the suggestions she was giving me. All this simply by making an extra effort and showing  enthusiasm, thus differentiating the service entirely.

I have noticed that it takes very little effort to go from average to good customer service. If your business has a lot of direct contact with customers and prospective customers through  the phone, make sure that you provide them sufficient training to ensure that they give your customers the best service possible. Taking customer service from good to exceptional requires a lot more effort. Most of it must originate from the customer service representative. Are they truly passionate about what they are selling/servicing? This clearly came across from the GoDaddy representative who answered my call yesterday and I felt that service which had been good, has suddenly become exceptional.

Filed under: Customer Service, , , , , , , ,

How Focused Are You?

“Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” Anthony Robbins

The pace of our lives is increasing on an almost daily basis. Sometimes I just don’t know where the day goes between phone calls, emails, blogging and dealing with customers. What happens though is that we tend to begin autopiloting a lot of daily tasks and instead of working towards our goals we get stuck in just maintaining the state we are in. I have seen people maintain this state for years, months or weeks on end without realizing that they are just not making any significant progress in their lives. Yet when you talk to them and ask about their schedule and business it is usually packed. I have gone through several periods like this myself and I think one of the most significant changes that I made to my daily schedule was adopting the GTD methodology. For those of you not familiar with the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology please click on the link below to a series explaining it.

The GTD methodology has helped me tremedously in keeping my eye on bigger goals while making sure that all the mini steps that need to be completed are clearly marked out as well. Early last year I started reading Leo Babauta’s  Zen Habits blog seriously. He also follows the GTD methodology and has modified the original methodology in some places. One of the modifications that really helped me was his concept of setting the three most important things that one needs to accomplish in a day. Instead of having your usual to-do list which can often be a little overwhelming, he trimmed it down to 3 things that would have the greatest impact on your day, week, month and year. This has helped me prioritize my action items and has helped me in getting a lot more of the critical things accomplished, sooner rather than later. 

Focus is a key success factor that is found in all great individuals. Whether they be entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers or even bloggers. The ability to concentrate our energies on activities that yield the highest output will result in accomplishing our goals faster and with greater efficiency. This being the start of the new year I would highly recommend integrating the ’3 most important things list’ to your daily schedule and see whether it makes an impact on your life. I wish you all the best of success in 2009. 

Related Posts:

- 5 Steps to Get Things Done

Filed under: Change, Inspiration, , , , , , , , ,

A Small World

“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.” Bill Gates

Today after being on a conference call between three different time zones, I stopped to marvel at the amazing transformation the internet and telecommunication tools have had on business. My father reminds me of the days he was in Saudi Arabia in the early 80′s, when using the telephone was a luxury and all business transactions were either done in person or through telegrams. I cannot even begin to fathom doing that today. With the explosive growth of computers and the internet, the world has suddenly and truly become a small world. No one is really inaccessible and everyone is linked to each other through various social networks. At times however it can be quite overwhelming knowing that one is constantly plugged into this network be it through a computer, laptop or mobile phones.

The world having become increasingly more connected has brought about many new opportunities for entrepreneurs in it’s wake. Today you can be sitting in Singapore talking to your supplier in Guangzhou, China and selling your product to someone in Brazil. All this with the help of Skype, E-Banking and some collaboration software. However, not enough entrepreneurs are being able to see the multiple opportunities that exist now that we are able to bridge these massive divides. My father and many of his friends are in the import/export business. They can literally conduct business anywhere in the world just by using a phone. Other opportunities such as outsourcing are also becoming increasingly popular and Timothy Ferris has dedicated an entire chapter in his book “4 Hour Work Week” to it.

I have quite a few friends who use e-bay and other such websites to make a decent part time income to supplement their primary income streams. Some of them are the first ones to get the latest mobile phones from Asia and sell them to buyers in the West; others buy handicrafts from China and supply major retail stores. This definitely requires doing your homework, finding a niche and seeing whether you can locate a gap to fill. By leveraging on technologies which are readily available today this has become increasingly simpler from days of yore when you needed to go to the post office to send out a telegram. This is only one of the ways we can leverage on available technologies. I will discuss the impact of these technologies on various aspects of business processes in the near future.

Filed under: Communication, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Inspiring Entrepreneurial Story

“I’ve always learned on-the-job, in real time. A problem comes up; I research it, and try to solve it. You can’t study to be an entrepreneur; you have to develop those skills day in day out. “ Tom Szaky

I have memories of going to a video rental store over the weekend when I was around 6-8 years old. The video store was called Star Video and when they gave us the videos they were packed in a paper bag which had the logo of a restaurant called Barbeque Tonite on it. The restaurant was the final aim of the owners of this small video rental franchise that had a couple of locations. The owner’s son used to school with me  and was a friend. Eventually they opened a small restaurant that served traditional barbeque food and very wisely paid an exceptional amount of attention to detail and quality. The place could probably hold a maximum of around 50 odd people in those early days. Fast forward to today, the restaurant has witnessed an absolutely explosive level of growth. Today it probably has a capacity of at least 500+ customers spread over 4 floors. They have a limited menu but the quality has remained evenly and  exceptionally good, this has kept most of us coming back for more week after week.

Seeing the level of success of this restaurant, many have attempted to replicate it, as close to them as possible, to cash in on the spillover since there are always  huge crowds waiting to get into the place. However, none of them have succeeded in coming close. Having dinner there tonight, I was once again amazed at the level of success that they enjoy and whenever I visit their restaurant it renews my faith as an entrepreneur. The owners knew from the very beginning what they wanted. The vision to be the leading provider of local barbeque food was something that each of them were passionate about and they figured out a way to raise money for the venture. Once they had managed to do that, there was no looking back.

There are two important lessons from this story. The first is, before you start whatever you want to,  ask yourself  “Is this something that I am truly passionate about?” If the chosen line of business is something you are passionate about, the next step is the need to articulate a vision for the business you want to run. I have made the mistake of not thinking through the second aspect with enough detail on several occasions and have paid a price for it. Without a clear vision one usually spends a lot of time going round in circles not quite knowing which direction to take. This problem is overcome when you think things  through and know and visualize exactly what you want. During the course of working it out practically things will change somewhat but the fact that there is a guiding principle from the very beginning is essential for starting on the right foot.

Filed under: Inspiration, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My Big Challenge for 2009

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

I have been thinking about my goals and aspirations for 2009 for the last couple of days. I have been setting goals for various aspects of my life. When I reached the category of personal goals, I began thinking on similar parallels to my goal of starting this blog in 2008. I believe starting this blog was one of the most rewarding goals that I have set to date. It has come to a point that I am motivated on a daily basis to write something and if I don’t, it feels as if I have forgotten something during the course of the day, in short I miss it! While thinking about this I began debating the idea of possibly writing a book in 2009. It would be a book about entrepreneurship and detail the major joys, hurdles and learning experiences I have had on my journey so far. The primary objective would be to assist others out there who are wanting to start a business or have started a business recently. After thinking about it in depth, I know that such a book would have been of great help to me when I was starting up a couple of years ago. I have thus decided to set myself the goal of completing the e-book version by Dec 31st 2009.

I realize there are many “How-to” books on starting a business as well as entrepreneurship in the marketplace today. My only gripe with most of them has been that they are very technical in nature and instead of always inspiring someone to take the leap, they often lead to self doubt. The objective of my book would be to provide advice on some of the biggest lessons I have learnt during my entrepreneurial journey. That would include setting visions, finding the right partners, the importance of marketing, how to manage cash flows and other very expensive lessons that I have learned over time. After reading this book I hope the reader will be able to see entrepreneurship from a 30,000 ft level as well as some of the intricacies that need to be addressed during the first year of starting up.

I would really appreciate feedback from readers of this blog about whether this is a book that would be of interest to you and what you would want to learn about, and see included in such a book. Your feedback will be critical in assisting me to choose the right focal point of the book. I look forward to hearing from you either through email at blog (at) usmansheikh.net or in the comment section below.

Filed under: Ideas, , , , , , , , , ,

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