Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lack of Candor

“You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” Indira Gandhi

I have written about the importance of candor in earlier posts. When teams are unable to communicate effectively, problems start manifesting themselves from all angles. Most start up teams comprise of 3-5 individuals who usually work in very close proximity. When these individuals are unable to speak their mind or voice their opinions, tension begins to build up. I have noticed that this phenomenon occurs more where teams are comprised of individuals from the east rather than the west. I do believe this has much to do with culture. In Malcom Gladwell’s new book ‘Outliers’ his research validates this claim, delineating how Asian cultures affect the way an individual is supposed to communicate with another. It is about not ruffling feathers and ensuring that a status quo be maintained.

As a direct result of this mindset, conflicts are avoided at all costs. This further intensifies any frustrations plaguing the team. Lets face it, no one wants to be the one to bring bad news to the table. This is more the case when the team comprises of friends or associates you have been working with for an extended period of time. The feeling that there is a lot more at stake compels us to push these frustrations deeper. As a result of this almost unnatural behavior, the competing interests I spoke about yesterday begin to surface. Alternative routes available to team members start to become more attractive and this leads to greater diffractions in the team.

Lack of candor is a serious issue, one I have personally witnessed many a time. Writing about it is one thing,  putting yourself out there and talking about this uncomfortable situation is a completely different matter. To a large extent, the development of a culture of candor is dependent on the founders or individuals leading the group. It is only when all team members are comfortable talking about these matters and are assured that their comments and feedback help the team progress, will one see greater buy in from everyone. Undoubtedly this will require stepping out of your comfort zone. The benefits far outweigh the downside in this matter. More importantly, the future of your team may depend on it.

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Non-Financial Metric #1: Customer Satisfaction

”The single most important thing to remember about any enterprise is that there are no results inside its walls. The result of a business is a satisfied customer.” Peter Drucker

Acquiring customers is a challenging task and takes days, months and even years to do. Once you have acquired customers a sense of complacency often sets in. One feels the hard work is done and now we can sell to this client for a very long time. How I would like that to be true. Unfortunately, as we all know the real world works differently. Acquiring customers is the first step, providing value and satisfying the customer is where the actual work begins. It is a well known fact that acquiring a new customer is 5-10 times more expensive than retaining your current customer base. Therefore as business owners we have to do whatever we can to ensure that we provide substantial value and our customers are satisfied with our products or services. Listed below are a couple of steps to help measure customer satisfaction:

1. Identify Touch Points: A customer comes in contact with your product or service either directly or indirectly. Measuring indirect contact such as interaction with other customers or reading online reviews is challenging to track and measure. However we can keep a much closer eye on direct touch points such as websites, telephone operators, retail stores, office or any other points where the customer is in direct contact with us. To do this we need to build a list of all possible touch points and track them closely to see where and how our customers interact with us.

2. Selecting Sub Metrics: A customer satisfaction index is made up of several sub metrics which contribute to a final score. For instance speed of service, perceived quality, and pricing and trust are a few sub metrics one can use. The selection of these sub metrics will depend on the type of product or service to be provided, the type of touch points used and any other factors which impact directly on  the interaction between the customer and the business. It is important not to overload oneself with too many metrics. Select them carefully,  understand and align them with what you deem necessary for an accurate customer satisfaction score.

3. Select Measurement Method: Once we have selected the metrics, we have to select the best way to measure them. Some of the commonly used measurement methods are surveys, focus groups and live observation. These are effective in collating information in a reliable and valid manner. Depending on the size of your sample and the amount of information that needs to be collected,  select a method which has the ability to generate a reliable and valid result.

4. Technology: With the advent of the internet, collecting information from customers at major touch points has become easier. Many website have incorporated feedback widgets which allow the customer to leave their comments and opinion, some websites have live operators which interact with customers to get their feedback and other tools such as, http://www.getsatisfaction.com. This provides a community platform where customers publicly rate and talk about the service. As entrepreneurs we need to leverage these tools to get information faster and more reliably from major touch points.

Once data is collected, there needs to be a structured way to process and assess the business. Unless the business can use the data collected to enhance customer experience, there is little point in undergoing such an elaborate exercise. It is therefore essential that you have  a clear idea about what you want to measure and why from the very beginning. Align your goals and targets in selecting appropriate methods.

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5 Tips for Better Networking

“It’s not what you know but who you know that makes the difference.” Anonymous

As an entrepreneur, networking has been an essential part of my journey and growth. However, even if you are not an entrepreneur, networking is something each one of us should be doing at some level. Networking provides us with the opportunity to reach out to individuals from all walks of life with whom we share similar passions or interests. We also meet individuals with whom we have very little in common. Either way, through this interaction we grow as individuals and start to see the world from a multi-faceted view point, rather than just our own. To some of us networking and conversing with strangers is easier than it is for others. However we must all make an effort to put ourselves out there and see what develops. Listed below are a couple of tips which have helped me become a more effective networker:

1. First Impressions: These are formed quickly, we need therefore to be vigilant about how we present ourself, and our attitude and overall body language. When meeting individuals for the first time, take an active interest in what they do, see if there is potentially anything you could do to assist them. It is important that we do not come across as pushy or just wanting to get the other person’s name card and move on. 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. To learn more about creating the right first impression please click here.

2. Business Cards: These are a vital component of effective networking. They have the ability to form a link between two strangers and potentially help that link grow into a mutually beneficial relationship. One needs to pay a lot of attention to the design of business cards and make sure that all the information is legible and well presented. Always carry an ample stock of your business cards and give them out liberally. When exchanging business cards, if required, ask politely for potential referrals. Lastly, business cards are essential, if you are not associated with any company, have personal name cards printed for yourself. To learn more about the importance of business cards please click here.

3. Following Up: This is a critical aspect of effective networking. Exchanging business cards is only the creation of link, it is our responsibility to convert that link into something greater. Three tips for following up more effectively include the 48 hour rule, which is essentially making sure that you follow up with a contact within the specified period to keep the link alive. Secondly, make it a point to follow up in context to the conversation that you had with the individual. Lastly, periodically follow up with individuals on your contact list whom you have had limited contact. To learn about each tip in greater detail please click here.

4. Building Online Networks: Online business networking is skyrocketing these days. With a plethora of websites being added almost daily, one is able to connect to just about anyone from around the world. Three ways to plug into the world on online networking is, joining Linkedin a leading professional networking site, creating a twitter account to connect with people in your niche and lastly, begin blogging to get the attention of your target audience. It is essential for today’s entrepreneurs to be plugged into the online networking cloud. To learn more about each of the services outlined above please click here.

5. Building Offline Networks: I believe developing a strong offline network is just as important as building an online one. Through these activities one is able to connect with a host of individuals around a common point of interest. It also helps bring balance to our busy lives, specially since more often than not our professional lives seem to completely take over. Join groups and events related to the business that you are in, or join social work projects that may be of interest to you or a group to play sports or social games together. These activities help increase your business networks as well as help you grow personally as an individual. To learn more on how to develop offline networks please click here.

Networking effectively, takes a lot of patience and time. We have to work on developing our networks every day by reaching out to people we have connections with as well as adding new connections. There is a need to add value to the people whom you know for those actions to be reciprocated. I would really like to get to know the readers of my blog and find ways we can help each other grow. You can find links to connect with me below.

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Building Offline Networks

“More business decisions occur over lunch and dinner than at any other time, yet no MBA courses are given on the subject.” Peter Drucker

I discussed online networks in some detail yesterday. Today I will cover the importance of developing offline networks. These networks require us to put ourselves out there to find opportunities through which we can grow professionally as well as personally. When I mean offline networks, I am not restricting them to only business mixers or rotary functions. To me, offline networking involves a host of shared activities with individuals who share the same passions and interests as I do. I believe developing a strong offline network is just as important as building an online one. Through these activities one is able to connect with a host of individuals around a common point of interest. It also helps bring balance to our busy lives, specially since more often than not our professional lives seem to completely take over. Some segments to look into to develop offline networks are listed below:

1. Business: Having set up one of the largest network of entrepreneurs in Far East Asia, I have witnessed first hand how effective joining an entrepreneurial club or society can be. The ability and opportunity to actually meet a host of people enables one to create stronger connections a lot faster than developing them online. I recommend entrepreneurs look into entrepreneurial clubs and societies as I believe they can be a most beneficial. Other than this,  keep a look out for networking events in your industry where you have the opportunity to meet a host of different individuals. I was introduced to most of my mentors through such events.

2. Social Work:
If there is a cause which is close to your heart or an organization you think is doing great work, I recommend joining them to see if there is anything you can do to assist them. The entire aspect of social entrepreneurship is an area in which many individuals are doing excellent work to ensure a better tomorrow. Joining such efforts adds breadth to your network and opens up avenues usually unavailable through traditional routes.

3. Sports & Games:
Before my ventures completely absorbed me I used to be a regular cycling enthusiast. Along with a friend, I set up the cycling club at my university and we would cycle regularly over the weekends. It was great to get outdoors and get some exercise, it also helped clear the mind and once again meet some very interesting people. I learned a lot about team work, perseverance and even leadership through this activity. If not a sport, there are a host of other activities such as chess, bridge or poker where one can both network and have a good time.

Developing offline networks is an important aspect of the overall development of one’s personality. Even though at times it feels that there are just too many things to do, don’t let these activities take a backseat, find time for them. I feel having strong offline networks is specially important in Asia since there is greater emphasis on meeting face to face. Thus for an entrepreneur in this region, a balance needs to be formed between online and offline networking activities.

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Business Networking Online

“During the past year, the total North American audience of social networkers has grown 9 percent compared to a much larger 25 percent growth for the world at large. The Middle East-Africa region (up 66 percent), Europe (up 35 percent), and Latin America (up 33 percent) have each grown at well-above average rates.” Comscore

Online business networking is skyrocketing these days. With a plethora of destinations being added almost daily, one is able to connect to just about anyone from around the world. For someone new to online networking it can be a bit intimidating. With all these tools out there, deciding which one to select and build upon can be a tricky decision. Prior to 2008 I used to rely a lot more on offline networks than online ones. This was primarily because I miscalculated the effectiveness of online networks. Ever since I started blogging earlier this year my eyes have truly been opened in discovering the true potential of online networks. Through these networks I have made some great friends, been introduced to some amazing companies, have been referred business and been able to raise funding for some of my projects. Listed below are some of the tools I use:

1. LinkedIn: This is the web’s leading professional networking destination and it is witnessing tremendous growth. I use linkedin primarily to do reference searches due to the nature of my work and have started using it to develop leads for business development. I have even started using it to identify talent to facilitate the recruitment process. I strongly recommend entrepreneurs to join this network as I believe it can greatly facilitate the development of your business. If you would like to connect with me on Linkedin please click on the link found below.

2. Twitter: This is a micro blogging tool which facilitates short communications between individuals, a group of people or the public as a whole. Essentially twitter users, post short messages detailing information in reference to their line of work or life generally. These messages can either be public or private. Other users are given permission to follow the updates of specific individuals, so as to be constantly updated about their activities. As I write this, it seems like a pretty silly concept and that is what I thought at first. However since becoming a more active user I have seen how these updates can be a source of great information, at the same time it gives you potential access to people whom you normally would not br accesing. I suggest joining it and seeing whether it is something which appeals to you or not. With its explosive growth these days, twitter is quickly becoming the destination to be online. To follow me on twitter please click on the badge below.

3. Blogging: When I started this blog I was unaware of how I could use it as a networking tool. However as time went by I was contacted by a host of very interesting individuals from all walks of life. Over the course of these last ten months of blogging I have made a host of close friends through blogging and actively reading other blogs in the same niche. In the world we live in today, blogging is very quickly becoming an instrumental tool through which one can attract like minded individuals. This can be a great source to find potential partners, employees, investors and even mentors. To begin blogging I recommend selecting a niche and then writing relatively regularly to build a following.

The deal with all of the tools I have listed above is that for them to create opportunities we need to work very hard to constantly build upon them. An empty linkedin profile will not attract anyone, twitter without relevant and interesting updates will not create any meaningful interaction and a blog which is not regularly updated will not become a hub of activity. We have to make a commitment to build our profile online, this is not something which is developed overnight. Like the real world one needs to build a reputation which is trusted and eventually become an authority who is constantly being referred to. I would really like to connect with the readers of this blog and see how we can assist each other in either a professional or personal capacity.

View Usman Sheikh's profile on LinkedIn

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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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