Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

Icon

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

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.

Advertisements

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

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, , , , , , , , , ,

Changes in 2009

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

Maria Robinson

At the start of this year I made a resolution to post everyday. A month into posting on a daily basis I realized that I had severely underestimated the effort and time required to post something everyday. Nonetheless I had made a commitment and since I had made it publicly there was no going back. Along the way I adopted the weekly series format which brought structure to my posts and made my job a little easier as I had to focus on coming up with content for one topic weekly. I want to thank all the readers of the blog who continuously provided me with topic ideas and requests.

Now that 2008 is coming to an end, I have decided to discontinue the series format which I had adopted for the greater part of this year. I now plan on blogging between 2-4 times a week. These will usually be about topics of interest or interesting situations as they come up. Apart from blogging, I plan on doing a minimum of 2 book reviews per month. I have got a rather large backlog of books that I need to review. If you would like me to review your book please email me and I will do my best to schedule it in. Lastly, I am toying with the idea of possibly writing a monthly or quarterly case study. This would be based on common situations entrepreneurs find themselves in.

Over the next 4 days I will be blogging on random topics to give readers a taste of what is to come in 2009. The last 10 days of this year will involve the final series of the year which will be about the ten things I have learned from blogging everyday for the past year. Lastly my blog is going to get a major design overhaul in Jan 09. I look forward to your comments and feedback.

I would appreciate if readers of this blog could send me comments or suggestions of what else they would like my blog to include next year. This will help me prioritize and cater content accordingly. Once again thank you for your continued support, I now look forward to another great year with all of you.

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

Work/Life balance

Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance. Brian Tracy quotes

For those of us who have worked from home for a period of time, we know that the entire concept of achieving a work/life balance goes out the window. Mornings are spent in your pajama’s answering all your emails, meals are finished in a flash and we find ourselves somewhat trapped till the wee hours of the morning finishing our work. The entire concept of leaving your work at the office is non-existent and it seems that you are working or attempting to work whenever possible. Ok, so this is somewhat exaggerated, but there are definitely days which go exactly like the one outlined above. It does not take a doctor to tell us this is not a very healthy way to live your life. Sure, the whole concept of getting dressed and heading off to work at 6am in the morning is not something I would really like doing either, but a balance needs to be drawn somewhere in the middle.

A co-working space provides the opportunity to get that level of balance. First off, the feeling that you have to get up and get to a place will be a positive change. It gets you into the habit of actually fixing your internal wiring which tends to go out of whack. It is important that one is motivated enough to actually get up and get to work. This is why it is critical to first test out the co-working space you are wanting to join and see whether it is a place you could find yourself being in everyday. The whole objective of working for yourself is to free yourself from the pressure of having to go to an office come rain or shine. So choose wisely. Once you are done for the day your primary computer can be left at the space and you could use those couple of hours to network, learn something new or go and have fun. It is important that balance be brought into your life.

Getting balance is a critical aspect of life. Without it there are always way too many sacrifices that need to be made that have major repurcussions in the future. There is also the case of burnout, and losing interest in what you  do for a living. Most importantly it is your friends and family who are most affected if your work/life balance is not correct. So whether it is through a co-working space or any other way, one should make a resolution to bring a greater degree of balance to life in 2009.

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

Operating Advantages

“If we do a good job, customers pay us more for our products than the sum of our costs in producing and distributing them. This difference, our profit, represents the value we add to the resources we utilize.” David Packard

A large majority of independents work from their homes. This could be a room which they have set up with all their equipment etc. To maintain this room they need to incur a one time capital expense and then they are pretty much able to get by just paying the monthly bills. This sounds ideal to some and they find the entire concept of getting out of their house and going to work at another place quite ridiculous. However I beg to differ from this point of view. Having worked from home for a period of time I came to realize that there were a number of things which restricted me from scaling upwards. The fact that I worked from home sometimes worried clients about whether I would be in business tomorrow or if I could handle increased levels of workload. This is always a worry especially when you need to hire additional individuals to assist in the completion of a project. With co-working this perception is somewhat nullified as the place provides ample space to ramp up your operations at a moment’s notice.

The cost of ramping up operations is an expensive one and sometimes it is only needed for a stipulated period of time. Say you are a web developer and have got a massive project. It requires you to house at least 2-3 other resources who may not need to be at your office all the time but frequent interaction will be required. It also requires you to provide the client updates and this could mean frequent visits to your office. Essentially what you require is a little more space and a meeting room. This is a huge headache because you know you will not require this after the project is completed. Co-working is hence an ideal solution for you if you are currently in this predicament.

Some co-working spaces I visited involved a bunch of individuals pooling together to buy themselves expensive equipment such as large scale printers, projectors or servers. They were also able to utilize the business address of the co-working space to project a more professional image. The last important point which was brought up by many co-workers was that they were paying the same amount for the rent of the space as they were paying for coffee everyday at coffee shops. The cost of Latte’s tends to add up very quickly when working at these spaces. In conclusion, many co-workers were able to potentially keep their costs the same or increase them slightly to get a whole range of facilities that would not have been possible on their own.

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

Increased Productivity

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the recurring points made by many of the individuals working at co-working spaces was the level of increased productivity once they joined the space. When I explored this matter deeper there were several core factors which led to why this was taking place. Looking back at my own example, I always work better when I am working as a team. Ideas flow faster, feedback is instant and it is generally a lot more fun. It is when you have to work in isolation that one feels that one does hit a brick wall once too often. The core factors that contributed to this level of increased productivity were:

1. Increased Interaction: Working in isolation is not a lot of fun. From the brief research that I conducted, people generally feel a lot more creative and energetic when they are surrounded by others. Now these are not just some other people, they are individuals who share same interests, hobbies or even values. This helps to create rapport and a level of interaction which goes beyond just the trivial chit chat that you could be involved in at a coffee house.

2. Motivation: Ever been working on a report, blog post or project and half way through decided that you wanted to watch the latest Heroes episode, and before you knew it hours had flown by? I have many times. However the story is completely different when I am surrounded by co-workers or people who are working hard on their respective projects or assignments. A co-working space provides you with this atmosphere and it makes it a lot easier to stay on course and get motivated by those around you.

3. Accountability: Ever joined a gym and dropped out after the initial month of fervor? I have, and I am guessing there are many more people out there who have probably had similar experiences. However, when I got a gym buddy things changed, I became regular, made fewer excuses and lasted a lot longer. At a co-working space one can find many such individuals who can ask each other to hold them accountable to ensure that they finish a certain project or report. This creates a level of accountability which motivates you to get the job done.

The points listed above are just a few reasons why I believe people were more productive in a co-working environment. In the end it does however depend on your personality and attitude towards life. What are your objectives? How committed are you to get them? Even the most committed individuals find themselves slacking at times. It is only natural, and it is at times like these that you need someone to give you that shove or to get you motivated enough to reach your goals.

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

Networking Opportunities

“The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” Theodore Roosevelt

Networking is an essential activity, and every entrepreneur must learn how to do it well. If we do not give ourselves the opportunity to meet new people and create lasting relationships, we will not be able to accomplish very much. If you look at successful entrepreneurs you will see that there is always a group of people behind them who made them what they are. If we are to achieve the goals and targets we want to, then looking into opportunities to increase our social networks is of vital importance. For all of those entrepreneurs who are independent consultants or work from home, there is an inherent inability and opportunity to get out of the house and make an effort to meet new people. Undoubtedly the internet has provided us with a host of tools which can help increase our networks online. However, being able to network in the real world requires us to have a lot more skill sets.

Having worked from a home office for some time I realized that the opportunities for off-line social networking from this environment had greatly decreased. Sure there were events, seminars and workshops that I would go to occasionally, but the ability to meet with people on a daily basis was lacking. Which is why when I heard about co-working environments it just made so much sense. Here was an opportunity to go to a place and meet like minded individuals sharing similar interests, goals and skill sets as I did. To tell you the truth it was pretty exciting and since then I have ventured into many Jelly’s (Informal gatherings of individuals at coffee houses) and co-working spaces to see what was really happening.

Just about everyone I spoke to had positive things to say, above all they said that since joining the space they had been introduced to new partners, clients and investors. They were given opportunities to learn something new everyday from a fellow co-workers and hence increased their own knowledge pool. In conclusion, one of the biggest benefits of joining such a space is the ability to increase and enlarge your personal networks and find ways to take your business to the next level if you want to do so.

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

Would you want to co-work?

Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need Voltaire

Around a month ago we were looking for a technical developer for a project I am working on. A friend of mine asked me whether there were any co-working setups where I could possibly go and scout for talent. Frankly, before that discussion I did not really know what co-working was all about. The concept is pretty straightforward to understand, I had not however realized there was a global community behind these spaces. When I began researching available spaces in Singapore, I discovered there were actually a couple of places offering such spaces. I have since become really interested in the concept and am talking with some people and looking into opening such a space.

When I talk to individuals who do not know too much about co-working, I tend to get questioned primarily about the benefits of the concept of co-working.  I have hence decided to dedicate a series to this question. Before we get started, here is the definition of co-working from Wikipedia:

“Co-working is an emerging trend for a new pattern for working. Typically, work-at-home professionals, independent contractors or people who travel frequently, end up working in relative isolation. Co-working is the social gathering of a group of people, who are still working independently, but who share values and who are interested in the synergy that can happen from working with talented people in the same space.”

The main concern that has been brought up is that there is very little difference between the facilities provided by such a space and working from home. Hence the whole concept of paying to use a facility which is similar to your home office setup is something most people do not seem to understand. The main benefit of co-working as I see it, is the ability to interact with people who may share similar interests as you. This is the reason that has been the driving force behind the hundreds of co-working spaces which have been setup recently. People do find themselves being generally more productive and enjoy work a lot more when they are not working in isolation.

The question I have is, would you be interested in using a co-working space? If so, what are your reasons? Likewise, if you would not want to use such a space, why not?

I would really appreciate your comments and feedback.

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

Communicating Effectively

“The difference between a smart man and a wise man is that a smart man knows what to say, a wise man knows whether or not to say it.” Frank M. Garafola

Will the business survive this downturn? Will I be able to hang on to my job?  Common questions on the mind of all business owners and employees alike in these difficult times. It is only natural to have an heightened level of anxiety during stressful periods. However, if we were to hold all of that stress within ourselves and not have an outlet to release it, things could become ugly very fast. People begin to talk, rumors about layoffs begin to circulate, productivity levels fall, anxiety increases and just about any call from senior management begins to imply that you are about to be fired. All of this can be dealt with reasonably through effective communication. Senior management needs to provide all stakeholders with a clear and candid message about the health of the business and where it is headed. If a culture of candor has not been created in the organization this can lead to uncomfortable and awkward situations. Such an environment needs to be created.

Listed below are some ways to communicate effectively during such periods:

1. One on one sessions: Ensure that you have individual sessions with key players on the team, assess their current needs and answer any concerns they may have. I have found this to be a most effective strategy as it gives the person concerned a platform and ability to speak his mind, at the same time enjoy privacy about his concerns.

2. Group information sessions: Individuals who are responsible for broader functions like operations, marketing, finance and human resources should give talks on how the current situation is likely to impact the business and strategies that can be used to get through this period. Once again this provides the ability for individuals to get an idea of the company from different angles and provides valuable feedback.

3. Layoffs: Firing people is never easy and is something I really do not like doing at all (I don’t think anyone really enjoys it). However, when it needs to be done it should be done swiftly and as soon as possible. Delaying the inevitable is not a smart strategy and only compounds the problem.

4. Updates from senior management: I usually send companies I am involved with updates after every quarter. When times get tough I increase the updates to a monthly or even bi-weekly schedule depending on the situation. This keeps everyone focused on what is important and on the same page.

Depending on the structure of your business I recommend doing whatever is necessary to ensure that everyone is able to bring their concerns forward. Whether it is through group meetings, online forums or one on one sessions. Mechanisms need to be in place so that communication is made feasible as easily as possible. Failure to do so will further deteriorate the business and one could end up losing a lot of key players.

Filed under: Advice, Communication, Strategy, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Reasons why Teams Fail

“You will find men who want to be carried on the shoulders of others, who think that the world owes them a living. They don’t seem to see that we must all lift together and pull together.” Henry Ford

I started this series with a question posed by a reader  asking  why some teams succeed and others don’t. When I began structuring my thoughts and getting advice from more experienced entrepreneurs, the same issues kept coming up in one form or other. The core message behind all of them was the same, to get the team to work right, certain factors need to be in place along with hardwork and persistence. We have all been in teams where team cohesion is problematic, it is always an extremely frustrating experience. Hence first off, selection of team members/partners is an extremely important aspect, one that needs to be given a great deal of attention. Call it co-incidence, my post on 8 characteristics of an ideal business partner is the most visited post on this blog. However, even after you have reviewed your prospect partners using the 8 step process, there is still a likelihood of things not working out. Listed below are 5 things to look out for to measure the health of your team:

1. Mismanagement of Competing Interests: When a team comprises of many ‘star’ performers they are bound to have multiple offers on the table. When these offers begin to interfere with their performance and their  commitment to the project at hand, problems begin to arise. If these are left unmanaged they will slowly set seeds of mistrust and suspicion in other team members, this has a destabilizing impact on the entire team. It is important that these competing interests are brought to the table and are not used to leverage a team member’s position or interfere with their commitment. To read more about managing competing interests please click here.

2. Lack of Candor: The ability to communicate effectively is one of the core reasons why some teams succeed and others do not. When a team is unable to communicate their thoughts, suggestions or feedback openly, tensions arise. Being candid is every team members responsibility to themselves and to the rest of the team. This is not always the easiest path to take and many a time one will need to step out of their comfort zone to say it as it is. However when all is said and done, it is the things which are left unsaid that destroy a team from within. Set up systems where everyone is given the opportunity to speak freely and easily. To learn more about the importance of candor please click here.

3. Lack of Trust: In any relationship trust is a must, without it there is no team. In my opinion there are degrees of trust which need to be developed within a team. Expecting your team members to have 100% trust in you and your abilities from the get go is wishful thinking. Trust needs to be earned. The ability to trust someone depends on their shared core values, self confidence and risk tolerance. Mismatches in these components will result in a slow build up of trust. Low trust teams are very fragile and the slightest of hiccups can have severe ramifications. To learn more on how to build trust please click here.

4. Lack of Accountability: When team members talk more than they actually do, problems are bound to arise. Without clear objectives on what each team member is responsible for a culture for execution cannot be formed. Without such a culture certain team members may ride on the coat tails of others just to get by. Every team member must be held accountable for what he/she has been given responsibility. Inability to meet commitments, needs to be reviewed and appropriate action taken. To learn more on the importance of accountability and how to create it please click here.

5. Consistent Poor Results: If a team is consistently unable to reach targets and goals, the team and entire business model needs to be looked into. Many teams linger on even when results are clearly not being produced. This puts an enormous strain on the team and eventually leads to unpleasant defections and confrontations. This issue must be dealt with as soon as possible and strategies and tactics revised. If the team is unable to produce the results it needs, it is best to figure out how and where the team should  go from there. To learn more about how to deal with consistent poor results please click here.

The points listed above are I believe leading factors why some teams fail. One of the factors that I have not included in this series is a lack of good leadership. This is an issue that I think needs to be tackled in a separate series. Also, unlike the problems listed above this issue does not have any easy answer which says follow steps 1, 2 and 3 to help overcome the issue. Good leadership is a rare commodity. It all goes back to team selection and who is chosen to be the leader. If there is a problem at the initial selection stage then the team has a lot more to be worried about. The issues highlighted in this post are in the context where even though the team and team leader were correctly selected, the team still fails. I hope to get your comments and feedback on this series.

Related Posts:

8 Characteristics of Ideal Business Partners

Filed under: Advice, Communication, Finance, Strategy, Teams, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,