Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

Can I have your business card?

“The way of the world is meeting people through other people.” Robert Kerrigan

Business cards are a vital component of effective networking. They have the ability to form a link between two strangers and potentially grow that link into a mutually beneficial relationship. The first time I really needed a business card was at one of my first networking sessions in college. Being relatively new to the networking scene at that point, I wondered how so many students were going about exchanging name cards. Eventually I got a hold of some them and was surprised at the information presented on these small bits of paper. They ranged from mini size resumes, information regarding student organizations they were part of, and more traditional name cards with information about their organizations. It was at this time a close friend of mine and I set up Synaptic Creations, my first company, in which I started out assisting students design and print name cards on an affordable basis on campus.

Coming back to the importance of business cards. There are a few tips and etiquettes I have picked up over the years, they have helped me during networking, I am sharing them with everyone:

1. Design: It is important that one chooses the paper, design and font carefully for business cards. One’s business card is an advertisement for the product/services you provide. It is important to maximize the space you have on the card and at the same time not to make it too cluttered. Choosing a very small text to display contact information should be avoided. If needed use both sides of the business card to convey your message.

2. Ready Stock: As an entrepreneur we should always be equipped with an ample number of name cards at all times. This applies especially for networking sessions, a place we are bound to pass out many name cards. Countless times I have spoken to individuals at networking sessions who apologize for not having name cards, or hoard them to give to the “right people”. This sends wrong signals  and should be avoided at all costs.

3. Presenting: In Asia name cards are presented and received with two hands. This is a sign of respect and the best part about such an exchange is that it provides an opportunity to look at the name card closely. Either way even if name cards are exchanged with one hand, we should take the time to look at the other persons card carefully as a sign of respect as also to see if there is anything of interest we could discuss further with them. One needs to make people feel important so that they share the same attitude towards you.

4. Referrals: Whenever you exchange name cards with someone who may not be in your line of work or industry, but has shown an interest in what you do, make it a point to ask politely for referrals. It is important to emphasise the politeness aspect. I have across many individuals who just go on and on badgering for referrals. This usually makes the other person feel uncomfortable and forces them to close up as they infer one is only wanting to take advantage of their network. Depending on the situation choose an appropriate manner and time on how to bring up the discussion.

Exchanging business cards is just the beginning of the relationship. It is as important to follow up with the individual and add their name to a rolodex or online depository. For management of my name cards I use a service called Highrise. It is a simple and neat tool which allows me to easily add data and provides access to my network from just about anywhere through my phone. It is hence essential to have a methodical way of managing one’s name cards.

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First Impressions

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” W. Triesthof 

A couple of years ago, two individuals from my university came to my partner and I for initial seed funding for a project they wanted to start. It was in the service industry, in a sector which was growing relatively fast. The first meeting involved the pitch, which was well done. However,  during the Q&A session when we  actually started interacting with each other, I felt something was off. Being relatively new to seed funding at the time, I got convinced with the figures and disregarded the seeds of doubt which I had. As it turned out my first impressions were right, I learned a very important lesson, at a cost. The purpose of the story was to show just how important first impressions are, whether you are networking, pitching to an investor or securing a customer. When meeting someone for the first time, a couple of things I always looking out for are listed below:

1. Attitude: There are some people who start off talking about themselves, and just do not let the other person into the conversation. Their primary and total objective is to figure out how to get something out of networking with you. This approach is short sighted, and often results in the inability to make an actual connection. The better attitude is to make the other person the focus of the conversation. See if you can possibly assist them in any possible way through your network. This attitude will in turn create a wealth of opportunities for you and will continue to do so over time. It is therefore essential to constantly assess the signals you are giving out and the manner in which they come across to the other person.

2. Listening: There will often be people who whilst engaged in a conversation with you, will not really be there. They are constantly distracted with what is happening around them, have a tendency to suddenly change subjects, and generally give out vibes that they really do not care. When I notice someone acting this way, red flags go up instantly, and making an extra effort to push any sort of working relationship forward is greatly decreased. We also have to be constantly aware of whether we are actively listening ourselves. To learn more about active listening please click here to read more about it.

3. Appearance: The way an individual dresses and carries his/her self says a lot about them. It is always better to be over dressed than to be under dressed for an occasion. Find out what the appropriate attire for the occasion is before going. My grandfather used to tell me that there was much learn to lot about a person from his hair, nails and shoes. Even though times and attire has drastically changed since his days, the advice still holds true today.

Since first impressions are formed quickly, one has to remain vigilant about how to present oneself, one’s attitude and overall body language. It is much more challenging to change initial impressions, it is hence essential to do all we can to ensure we get it right the first time. Will we always get the right impression across? Probably not, however, we have to do all we can to make sure that the signals we are sending are well aligned with the impression we want to create.

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Do you Network?

“I like to define networking as cultivating mutually beneficial, give-and-take, win-win relationships… The end result may be to develop a large and diverse group of people who will gladly and continually refer a lot of business to us, while we do the same for them.” Bob Burg

Effective networking is often the difference between the success or failure of a business. As entrepreneurs, if we wait for someone to come buy or check out our products or services, we will not gain much traction. We have to continuously put ourselves out there, and find people who could benefit through our product/service or who could benefit us. The important aspect here is, there needs to be a mutually beneficial exchange. If we remain self centric and just talk about “me,me,me”, building long lasting relationships is going to be very challenging.

As stated in some of my earlier blogs, networking was and still is to an extent, something I am not completely comfortable with. This is quite common for a lot of individuals who are relatively introverted, and do better in smaller groups or on a one to one basis. Many books have been written about how to be better networkers, somehow I always felt they slowed me down instead of accelerating the process. What I have learnt the hard way is, there is absolutely no replacement for experience. We have to continuously place ourselves outside our comfort zone and make an effort. I think the tipping point for me was during a sales training course I was participating in. The group was instructed to go and collect as many business cards from strangers in 30 minutes. To make it difficult it was 8pm at night, and people were tired and hurrying back home. Eventually I gathered up the courage to go up to some people and make my case.

I got a lot of nasty comments and rude looks, but eventually, I found some people who cooperated. Ever since that day my whole mindset towards networking has changed. I have begun to truly understand how critical networking is and how the benefits far outweigh the awkwardness one may have to face doing it. During the course of this week I will be covering five factors, which I believe have made me a more effective networker. These have greatly helped me in both my personal and professional life.

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5 Steps to Better Negotiations

“Any business arrangement that is not profitable to the other person will in the end prove unprofitable for you. The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.” B. C. Forbes

Most of us take part in some form of negotiation everyday. In life, skilled negotiators are able to close better deals, and reach mutually acceptable agreements faster. Ever since I undertook this entrepreneurial journey, negotiations seem to have become common place. I have come a long way from my early negotiations, at that time, very often I did not get the best deal possible . Experience however is a great teacher, and although I have made many mistakes in the past, I have also learnt much, which has honed my negotiation skills . Listed below are some key steps to be undertaken during negotiations, to ensure that a mutually acceptable agreement is reached quickly, fairly and efficiently.

1. Motivations & Interests: At the heart of every negotiation, each side has a set of motivations and interests which enable them to take  certain positions on issues. Before beginning the negotiations, identify  your personal motivations and interests for resolving the issue at hand. Internal clarity helps greatly to communicate your message. Next, we need to understand the other side’s position, as also why they have taken it. What are their motivations and interests on the particular issue? The initial round or rounds of negotiation need to include candid discussion to ensure as clear a picture as possible. To read specific examples please click here.

2. Focus on the Problem: The entire objective of negotiating is to find a mutually acceptable consensus. To ensure that this objective is achieved, we need to keep the process as simple as possible. This requires us to understand each other’s perceptions to ensure that we are on the same page. It also requires us to keep emotional baggage off the table. Lastly, we need to ensure that during the negotiation process both parties communicate clearly, and listen attentively. At the same time, we need to be aware of non verbal communications as well. Being focused on the issue and not deviating ,greatly improves the speed at which to reach an agreement. To read more specific examples please click here.

3. Develop Options: The objective of the option development phase is to arrive at a set of mutually viable and beneficial options. To reach this objective much collaborative work is required. We need to have several candid sessions whose sole purpose is to chart out maximum number of options. Each side has to ensure that its position’s and interests are clearly communicated, with the entire focus on how to maximize expectations by working together on a macro level. To read more specific examples of developing options please click here.

4. Alternatives: These are options which form our backup options if negotiations break down and agreement cannot be reached. Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available alternatives related to the issue at hand. Then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. Alternatives are vital negotiation tools and need to be used tactfully to ensure that a fair agreement is reached. To read more specific examples of alternatives please click here.

5. Objective Criterion: These are benchmarks which provide a fair assessment to rate particular options against. Negotiations which use objective criterion’s usually result in fairer agreements. Therefore it is important that before one begins negotiations, criterions are researched and decided upon. Whether it is for purchasing a business or negotiating a salary increase, one needs to identify quantifiable metrics which can help make the decision making process easier and fairer.To read more specific examples please click here.

Negotiations are usually not very straight forward. Much of the time, emotions get in the way which complicates matters dramatically and frankly confuses both sides on procedural matters. To say that we need to keep all emotion out of the picture is not possible. What we need to do is to exercise a great deal of self control, and constantly put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. Only once we begin to see negotiations as a two-sided process will we be able to progress to becoming a more skilled negotiator. I wish you the best of luck in all your future negotiations.

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Objective Criterions

“Here’s the rule for bargains: ”Do other men, for they would do you.” That’s the true business precept.” Charles Dickens

Most of us have at some time, played the high-lowball game during negotiations. For example, a while ago I was attempting to buy a domain I wanted. The seller had a listed price of $500, I put in a lowball offer of a $100 dollars straight off the bat. The $100 I offered, had no actual basis and was nearer to the $200 or so I wanted to actually pay for the domain. The seller and I had a number of correspondences back and forth, and a deal was struck around $230. Did I get a good price? Was my reservation price, one that had a logic basis? Unfortunately I could not answer any of these questions.

It therefore got me thinking, that having objective criterions are necessary to ensure that both sides get an optimal deal. In the case of the above example, companies such as Sedo are able to calculate the true worth of a domain through several established criterions that include, estimate of the domain name’s value, list of recent comparable sales, search engine friendliness, branding potential, legal situation and even, possible buyers. This estimation establishes the true worth of a domain. If the had seller relied and gone with such a report from a trusted authority, stating the domain estimate at $500, I would have had very little room to negotiate a price which was substantially lower. We can therefore see, that by adding objective criterion’s to negotiations, we can optimize the value created on the whole.

It is therefore recommended, that whenever you enter into a negotiation, be it changing terms of payments with your supplier, a salary increase for your staff or the sale of your business to a private equity firm, do research regarding the metrics that can be used fairly, to add objectivity to the negotiations. It is important that the criterions proposed are acceptable to both sides. A key characteristic of skilled negotiators is, they are always prepared. They know their underlying interests, the options available,  available alternatives, and a list of objective criterions to reach an optimal agreement for both sides.

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What are your Alternatives?

“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” ~David Russell

How does one assess whether one is really getting a good deal or not? To answer this question one needs to have a deeper understanding of the alternatives available. Lets say for example, we are negotiating a salary increase with our employer. We want an increase from $50k to $60k. We bring up the topic with our employer, who immediately refuses the suggestion blaming the current economic climate. We could be an extremely valuable resource for the company, but without any available alternative we have very little leverage in this negotiation. However if we do some research about market rates for our profession and may even float our resume around to get an idea what our market worth is we could arrive at a figure which gives us a better understanding of our market worth. With this figure we now have a foot to stand on during negotiation.

Alternatives however are rarely as straight forward in complicated deals where one is negotiating the sale of a business or better terms of payment from suppliers. They do however give us an important edge to see how far we can actually push during negotiations. Lets say for example I am selling my car and my reserve price is $20k I meet a seller whose maximum limit is $30k. In this case any price above my $20k reservation price will be a positive outcome for myself and likewise any price below $30k will be a positive outcome for the seller. This brings out the objective of negotiations which is to achieve a better deal than not negotiating at all. Revealing your alternatives during negotiation is usually not a good strategy unless it strengthens your position at the negotiation table. It is important to remember that alternatives should not be used to apply pressure or force the other side into a particular decision. They are markers to help us make an optimal choice.

Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available choices related to the issue at hand. I then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. It is important to not use ones alternatives to apply pressure tactics to induce the other side to give in. Such tactics may work in the short term, however repeated use of such strategies will hurt your future chances of getting a better deal. One needs to be fair and ensure that each side is benefiting from the agreement to ensure better long term results.

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Options Development

Everything is something you decide to do, and there is nothing you have to do.” Denis Waitley

Often in negotiations, each side promotes their optimal outcome without taking into account mutually beneficial options. We often only concentrate on how we can get the most out of a particular predicament, rather than creatively coming up with alternatives for mutual gain. Other common problems leading to stalemates, is when each side looks for a single answer to resolve the issue, or views the pie as fixed, and looks for ways to increase their own share. These road blocks lead to slow negotiations, and can be frustrating for both sides. Below are a couple of ways I follow for option development:

1. Separate Brainstorming & Decision Making: The option development phase is an important one, and needs to be handled independently. If we mix the option development phase, with the decision making one, it could potentially lead to premature judgments. This phase needs to focus on the creativity of both sides, to develop options which cater to the bigger picture. At this stage there is no option which is too crazy, and both sides must feel comfortable in expressing their point of views and opinions. The end result of these sessions should be a developed list of potential options which cater to both sides and are mutually beneficial.

2. Cater to Interests: As mentioned in earlier posts it is important to focus on interests rather than positions during the negotiation process. This has great significance in the option development phase. For example, if we negotiate a larger equity stake in the business with one of the founders, it is important to let the partners know why you want 10% instead of the 6% offered. Is it because the 10% signifies the actual opportunity cost that you are foregoing to join the business? Explore the reason of the founders interests  and why they had offered 6%. Without this, the discussion is polarized to very hard positions, its either 10%, or I will not be joining. Such an attitude is not conducive to developing viable options.

3. Focus on Increasing the Pie: On a micro level when you look at an issue there are a couple of possible options available. For instance, if you are negotiating terms of payment with a vendor there are a limited number of options available to reach an agreement. However, if we take a 3 dimensional view of the issue at hand and take into account macro level factors to improve the situation, a number of options will become available. In the same negotiation with the vendor, if we zoom out and brainstorm new ways to increase the volume of business with the vendor through shared activities, maybe the vendor would be more inclined to negotiate more favorable terms. Broadening the scope of the issue is an essential trait of the skilled negotiator.

The objective of the option development phase is to arrive at a set of mutually viable and beneficial options. To reach this objective much collaborative work is required. Many individuals shy away from talking through options and stating their interests, only because they fear they may be giving too much away and may appear vulnerable. Such a stance will most likely lead to a limited set of options, most of which do not cater to the interests of the involved sides.  We must therefore introduce candor into our negotiation process to yield optimal results.

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Focus on the Problem

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” Dale Carnegie

Dale Carnegie’s quote, eloquently summarizes a major challenge we face at the negotiating table. Negotiations tend to get complicated due to the fact, that as human beings we bring a lot of baggage to the process. In the seminal book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury, they have a dedicated section devoted to separating the personal element as much as possible, from the negotiation process. They identify three main segments which tend to complicate matters repeatedly, they are perceptions, emotions and communications. Listed below are a few tips on dealing with each segment.

1. Perceptions: As stated in yesterday’s blog post, if we do not look adequately into the other sides position and interests, our perceptions will be skewed. We may perceive an issue in a certain manner because of a particular reason, whereas, it could be due to something completely different. We need to open up candid discussions on both sides. Unless this is done, both sides will blame the other and point fingers. Each side needs to be part of negotiation process, as also clear on each other’s positions, to reach a mutually agreeable decision.

2. Emotions: This area tends to complicate matters during the negotiation process as a routine. To become an adept negotiator, one needs to become emotionally aware of ourselves and others. Emotions tend to play either a positive or negative role in negotiations. It is only when negative emotions such as anger, fear and distrust come into play, that reaching a consensus becomes very challenging. As skilled negotiators it is important to keep a constant check on our own emotional levels, as well as that of the other person. When we sense a boiling point it is important to diffuse the situation by either changing our stance or by temporarily leaving the scene. It is important to focus on the issue at hand and not take personal jabs at the other person.

3. Communication: During the negotiating process if the involved individuals are not able to communicate properly, chances of reaching any sort of agreement is minimal. We need to ensure that during the negotiation process both parties communicate clearly and listen actively. At the same time, we need to be aware of non verbal communication as well. Key factors such as eye contact, facial expressions and body posture are continuously communicating messages to the other side. We also need to be aware of the non verbal cues we may be receiving from the other side as well. Miscommunication is one of the primary reasons why negotiations break down, we must ensure that the focus on keeping channels of communication clear at all times is maintained.

The entire objective of negotiating is to find a mutually acceptable consensus. To ensure that this objective is achieved, we need to keep the process as simple as possible. If we complicate the process by bringing external baggage into the equation, chances of reaching a consensus become slim. We need to ensure focus on the issue at hand at all times. This will undoubtedly be challenging, and there will be moments when our emotions will get the better of us. However, if we always remind ourselves of the core issue and make a concentrated effort to reach a consensus, both sides will benefit.

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Understanding Motivations and Interests

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” Jim Collins

At the heart of every negotiation, each side has a set of motivations and interests which enable them to take  certain positions on issues. When the sides lack an understanding of the other’s interests and motivations, reaching a mutually agreeable decision is very challenging. Before beginning any negotiations, there are a couple of steps I take, to better understand my position on the matter as well as the other individuals position. Chances are, we will not have all the information needed to make an optimal decision. However, the initiative to understand positions better, will greatly improve chances of reaching a common ground.

1. Identify Self Interests: When we enter a negotiation process, there are obviously some goals and targets  we want to achieve. For example lets say,  you want to exit a partnership in a business you have been with for the last 5 years. What are your reasons for wanting to exit? Asking ourselves questions helps to view the issue from an analytical aspect. Identify the reasons for your inability to work with the other partners, is it due to office politics, or to fund an financial emergency need ? We need to be clear about our position to quit when we go to the negotiating table. Internal clarification greatly assists in the communication of our message.

2. Understanding the Other Side: Once your position and the interests which led to its selection is clear, begin to focus on the other side. This is a critical step which gives a holistic view to the issue being discussed. Much of the time we forget to look at the issue from the other’s point of view. We need to not only understand the other side’s position, but also why they have taken it. Through this exercise, it is possible to come up with different positions which may be taken and create counter arguments for them. In the example above, the other partners may look at the sudden request for quitting as suspicious and may choose a hard line when negotiating terms of exit. You could be a critical member of the team whose departure will cripple the firm. As many possible positions should be taken into account.

3. Candid Discussions: Both parties need to have detailed discussions to help each other understand points of view from each angle. Sometimes this can be difficult when individuals do not want to cooperate, this is quite common. The fact of the matter is, if we choose to take the hard ball route, one side is forcing their position down the other side without paying adequate attention to the other’s interests. To make any progress, one needs to gauge what, and how, the other side thinks to be able to reach common ground. This is a difficult process if candid discussions are not part of the organization and will take time. However it is well worth the wait.

Negotiating is a challenging task. If we just look at the surface on “what the other side wants” instead of also asking “Why do they want it?” we will only have half the picture. By taking the initiative to understand our own interests as well as those of the other side, will provide us the ability to look at the bigger picture and make a more informed decision. Becoming stubborn and refusing to pay attention to the other’s interests, or dismissing them all together will only make the negotiations difficult.

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Having Trouble Getting to “Yes”?

Negotiation is “the art of letting them have your way.” Daniele Vare

Negotiations are a central part of our lives. During the course of a day, we negotiate a host of issues, ranging from simple ones, such as who gets dropped off first to work, to more complex ones, such as negotiating the equity split in your brand new start-up. In each scenario, those with better negotiating skills have an advantage to arrive at a decision in their best interest. However, acquiring better negotiating skills takes time and experience. I strongly believe, that a better understanding of the negotiation process  will dramatically improve these skills. On a macro level, all negotiations consist of three main components. They are:

1. Issues: This is the central cause for negotiations to take place. Examples can be, the sale of your company, a salary increase or a partnership agreement. It is essential that everyone involved in the negotiation is on the same page, and has a thorough understanding of the issue being negotiated. Much of the time, the involved individuals fail to see the issue correctly, which leads to complications that could easily have been avoided. Understanding the issue at hand and making sure everyone is on the same page is hence very important.

2. Positions: Once the issue has been presented, the involved individuals take positions. For example, if the issue at hand is a salary increase, the employee will take the position that his performance warrants a pay increase, and the employer could take the position that the employee’s performance does not warrant this. It is through negotiations that a middle ground needs to be found, where both the employee and the employer can reach a mutually acceptable decision.

3. Interests: The positions we take are always motivated by certain interests. In the above example, the employee may want to buy himself a condominium or, be getting married and needs a salary increase  to afford his changing status. The employer on the other hand, may be under strict instructions by senior management to put in place a salary freeze because of the prevailing economic uncertainty, hence his position to deny a salary increase. Negotiating interests means, negotiating about things that people really want and need, not what they say they want or need. Often, these are not the same. People tend to take extreme positions, often designed to counter their opponent’s positions.

Understanding these basic foundational blocks is critical before one delves deeper into negotiation tactics. We have to be able to see the picture from a broader perspective in order to reach mutually acceptable decisions. During the course of the week, I will share a few steps with you, steps which have made my negotiational skills more affective. I hope they will be of some assistance to you. As always your comments and feedback will be greatly appreciated.

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