Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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6 Steps to turn ideas into realities

Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.Thomas Edison

Eureka! I haven’t heard someone say that in a long time but I know for a fact, whenever a reasonable idea enters my mind eureka is being echoed through my entire subconscious. Its that spark of hope that you may just have stumbled upon the next big thing. Without the spark we usually run out of gas, like when we reach a critical point whilst developing an idea. The steps which follow have provided me with the hope and inspiration to carry on when things get tough. I hope that they will do the same for you.

1. Passion, Passion, Passion!: If you don’t have this before venturing into the unknown then I would advise on staying put for a while. The journey you are embarking on is a long and difficult one, but highly rewarding. Having the motivation to get up after you fall countless times is essential. In my experience that only comes with this absolute burning passion to succeed, to prove the naysayers wrong, to prove to yourself that you have what it takes to win and most importantly a passion for life. As cliched as that last sentence may sound please make sure you have this quality in you before taking your idea any further. To read more please click here.

2. Find the people who care about your idea: Ask yourself the question “Would anyone care about what we are wanting to do?”. From experience this initial market research for your idea is the key , the reality check for the space you are wanting to venture in. A simple test would be to google your idea. You will be amazed as to how many people may be building or have built complete businesses around your concept. This will provide you with key information on how to move forward and in what way you could fulfill this need in the market place with your concept. To read more please click here.

3. The ABC of business begins with an N: The N represents the customer and/or market need. After your preliminary research, you will now reach a critical stage in which you will have to put down a lot of your ideas and research in writing. The NABC approach provides a framework for doing that in an extremely effective manner. It has become my default evaluation model. Once we identify the need we can move on to A where we talk about how we will approach the market. After which we reach B where we will document all the benefits vs costs for our idea. Lastly C will involve listing down competition and evaluating how best to add greater value as compared to our competitors. You will now have your value proposition. To read more please click here.

4. Focus…have you got it?: This is where a lot of first-timers stumble. For you to be successful you have to pinpoint the one area that you will commit to do better in than anyone else. Say for example at InnovoGS we operate in the human resources industry where services provided can be as diverse as doing simple data entry for payroll processing to restructuring the entire organization structure through consulting. We focus in the recruitment department and use psychometric tests to help organizations make more informed staffing and developmental decisions. We have focused solely on building our competencies in this one aspect for the last 15 months. Once we reach a certain level of competency in this department we have plans to move laterally to outsourcing functions related to recruitment. For us to offer virtually every human resource related consultancy service would dilute our initial focus and we would not have made the progress we have. Making sure you stay focused in the early stages of your venture is essential. To read more please click here.

5. Innovation Champions: Every venture needs at least one individual who has this awesome passion for the idea. He/she is the sort of person who infuses everyone with a contagious sense of euphoria and enthusiasm when they speak about their venture. They help team mates through the bad times and are having the most fun at the celebration party when they win their first contract. An idea without this champion would be lost and fall off the wayside when things become tough. If you are serious about the idea you are working on make sure there is at least one champion. To read more please click here.

6. Venture Alignment: In two words this is basically aligning your “core values” with your venture. When there is a disconnect between what you truly believe in and what you are actually doing there can’t be any sustainable long term success. You need to make sure you partner with people who share your core values, get idea champions to make sure everyone is on the same page and to continuously keep checking your value systems. From a long run perspective this is what it is all about. The best of ideas have amazing short term success but if there are vital building blocks missing from the foundation the structure isn’t going to last. To read more please click here.

I cant believe 3 weeks have already gone by. I want to thank all my loyal readers for yet another fantastic week. Thank you for all your emails and comments. I am accepting topics which you would like covered in the next following weeks for the blog. Please leave a comment on this blog and I will get back to you on whether I will be writing on the topic and by when. Best of luck!

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Venture Alignment

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

Look at some of the most successful companies in the world, such as Toyota where they aim to produce the highest quality automobile at the lowest possible cost using standardized production facilities or Microsoft which aims to enable people and corporations reach their potential through technology. When you have such a clear vision of where you are going, how you are going and most importantly why you are going, it all starts to make sense. The storming phase is when you are diving deep into your idea and creating a NABC for it, you have to keep your core values in constant alignment with your venture. A disconnect at this stage is often overlooked due to the fact that we want to ensure that our business is a success,  incorporating strategies that fall in grey areas where it is difficult to tell black from white is not  a winning strategy.

A good example is when you promote yourself incorrectly to get attention. Say your organization has core values of reliability, integrity and respect. If you go out and publish an advertisement for your service with words such as “guaranteed success”, “100% reliability” or any other claim which you cannot backup with reliable and valid evidence you are starting off on the wrong foot.  Using  such strategies may yield amazing short term results, however if they go against your core values, success will be short lived.

When discipline is selected as a core value make sure everyone in the organization or team are ambassadors for that particular trait. They have to believe and practice them first before they are able to go and preach them to others. These habits end up making all the difference between success and failure. You have to ensure that core values are aligned when forming your idea.

For the companies which I work with, I strive to ensure that we follow continuous value creation for our customers. This has enabled us to keep our focus on the most important aspect of the business while keeping our values in check as well. A culture of continuous development and innovation is a key for a company’s success in the long run. Without this you will most likely enjoy some short term success and be left in the dust in the future. Making sure we have set these cultures, practices and core values from the very beginning of a project is critical.

If you are the idea champion for your current project make sure your venture is aligned with your core values. Find out what other people on your team are thinking and whether you are all on the same page. Get all of this out in the open at the start. You are responsible for the change that you want to see in the world. Taking 100% responsibility for your life and projects that you are working on is the first stepping stone for making the impossible…possible.

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Innovation Champions

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ”Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion. Muhammad Ali

This week we have talked about some pretty serious matters. I feel I have not really done justice to the idea conceptualizing exercise. As you can tell from prior posts, it is a complicated and difficult process. From the outside, the entrepreneurial world looks like a boat load of fun and to tell you the truth sometimes it isn’t all that it is hyped up to be. In the end it all depends on how badly you want to succeed and why? Having what it takes to be a champion for your idea is what it is all about. If you have ever been part of a project, group or business venture where everyone in the group didn’t want to change the world in one way or the other then you weren’t surrounded by champions. From my own experience, when I float an idea and truly become passionate about it…..there is no stopping me. Innovation champions are those individuals who spread their concept and idea to the rest of the world with such passion and enthusiasm that it becomes contagious.

For every idea to succeed I feel there has to be one or more idea champions. They are the individuals who hold their ground when things get shaky, are there for team members who may be losing hope and are committed to the project a 110%. Champions surround themselves with similar partners. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak and Bill Hewlett had Dave Packard to name some very famous ones. So this leads us back to the post where I talked about how critical it is to partner correctly. The process of just throwing a bunch of people together and wishing for the best isn’t a very effective strategy. There needs to be a disciplined process, put into place by the team champion to ensure that everyone works effectively. This is something which I have recently started to do myself and it has got some great results. Make sure that when you get together with your team there is a purpose. Document it and reach some clear action steps and results when concluded.

To sum it all up, innovation champions are not out there only to make money. That is not the primary motivator for them to come to work everyday. They come because they believe in what they are doing, they believe it has the capability to bring about change for the better. Passion and enthusiasm is their driving force. Successful startups have a bigger vision as to where they see themselves. They are not afraid to fail, at the same time, they never give up. They relentlessly pursue their goals and objectives through successful partnerships and constant feedback. So if you are thinking about taking an idea from concept to realization make sure you have what it takes. If you think you do, and believe me everyone does, make a decision to become a champion today!

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