Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

How does one build a brand?

“A brand is a set of differentiating promises that link a product to its customers.” Stuart Agres

I believe a brand is the emotional link we have with a particular product or service. It aims to differentiate a product/service from the rest in the same category, by leveraging on its competitive advantages. Eventually, customers develop mental images and perceptions about the product/service, and this is what helps them during their purchasing decision. Without these associations, all product/services in a particular category seem homogenous and the customer is not able to distinguish one from the other. For example, at the supermarket there is an entire wall dedicated to toothpaste, yet somehow Colgate and Crest seem to stand out from the rest. Both these brands have invested a lot of time and money in positioning their product in a particular way to get our attention.

How would an entrepreneur with a boot strapped budget build one of these world class brands? My answer to this question is, solid foundations, focused strategy, consistency and perseverance. World class brands are not built overnight. Brands such as Starbucks, Apple and BMW has taken each organization many years to earn its right to be perceived in a specific manner by all of us. They have focused on giving their customers a superior product and service. What we take away from these examples is that, to create such a brand we need to begin with a strategy right from the onset of our venture. We need to identify specifically how we want to be perceived, how we plan to stand out and the sort of personality our product/service should have. 

In the end, the goal is to create a strong sense of brand loyalty among customers. This loyalty will convert itself into recurring future streams of income. During the course of the next week I will talk about basic steps to look at when building a brand. I think this is an aspect many younger startups do not pay enough attention to at the beginning. This is a major mistake, as we have to be constantly aware of the image we want to portray. This image is developed through our product/service, customer service, website, packaging and any other interaction with our target segment. I look forward to your feedback and any insights regarding the development of brands. 

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5 Steps to Assess a Business

“Strategy is not just a plan, not just an idea; it is a way of life for a company. Strategy doesn’t just position a firm in its external landscape; it defines what a firm will be.” Cynthia A. Montgomery

As a business owner one needs to continually assess one’s own company as well as those of the competition. It is essential to have the ability to look at the larger picture and see what is working, and what is not. If you are younger start-up company looking to raise money, or attract potential team members, you need to have well thought out answers to key questions which will be asked. Listed below are five key questions which I believe every business owner must be able to answer.

1. Why does your organization exist?: To answer this question, one needs to have clear understanding of the problem the organization is wanting to solve and how it plans to do that. The answer needs an opening sentence which has the ability to get the other person interested instantly, and wanting to know more about the business. To read more about answering this question please click here.

2. What is your competitive edge?: This question requires you to identify three main components, customer needs, competitor capabilities and your own organizational capabilities. This will help to clearly identify the space your organization is going to be operating in, and your customer value proposition. To read more about the answering this question please click here.

3. What is your business model?: In essence this question is asking how your business makes money. The answer to this question requires you to clearly pin point your target market, financial estimates, scalability and originality. All assumptions and forecasts used in the answer must be based on extensive research. Investors see far too many hockey stick projections, without substantial evidence of how and why demand will pick up to reach those estimates. To read more about answering this question please click here.

4. How do you acquire customers?: The answer to this question is all about your marketing strategy.  Clearly outline metrics used to measure performance, market positioning and price point strategies. These objectives and strategies need to be translated into executable tactics through your promotional campaigns. Avoid using generic answers when answering this question and focus on key metrics you  want to achieve, and how. To read more about answering this question please click here.

5. Who is on your team?: This question requires you to tell the assessor the business plans for execution. The answer to this question is I believe, by far the most important aspect of assessing a business. One needs to mention the teams past experience, achievements, leadership examples and responsibilities. Highlight strengths and how they will be used to help reach your target goals. To read more about answering this question please click here.

One needs to have the answers to these questions, always prepared. They require much initial hard work and research,  the benefits however, far outweigh the time spent on them. One needs to remember to be clear, concise and confident when answering these question. It is all about passion for the business and the industry one operates in. This passion must be conveyed when talking about one’s organization. In the end if the story makes sense, numbers are fairly correct and you have managed to assemble a talented team, success is closer than you think.

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How do you acquire customers?

“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” Jack Welch

The reason I ask this question is to understand how the business plans to market itself to its target segment. As mentioned earlier in my blog posts, very often start-up companies fail to sufficiently develop a well thought out, go-to-market strategy. Relying solely on a website, brochures and short run publicity tactics is not advisable. The assessor needs to understand explicitly what the marketing objectives are and what strategies they will use to reach those targets. To correctly answer this question, develop a marketing plan for the business which will help create a concise answer summarizing your goals.

The following information needs to be included in your answer.

1. Metrics: The answer to this question must be supported by  key metrics which will benchmark marketing strategies. Potential investors are looking for specific details such as market share figures, customer acquisition costs, customer lifetime value, customers required to break-even, and quarterly targets. These metrics must be established early in the answer to give it greater credibility.

2. Positioning: Next, establish positioning and the reason why that particular stance was chosen. Being specific about your target segment and clear on positioning is essential for any marketing plan to work effectively. Choosing a generic target segment like SME’s may appear appealing, however, most do not have the resources to tackle such a large target segment on their own.

3. Price Points: It is always good to know the rationale why a particular price point was used in the strategy. Setting correct price points requires a lot of data collection in the form of surveys, feedback and industry reports to establish credible and  optimal price points. Setting it above or below industry norms must be done with adequate reasons and supported by marketing tactics.

4. Promotional Tactics: After clearly establishing your objectives, positioning, and price points, it is essential to explain how they will be achieved. This relies on the promotional activities a business uses to reach its target segment.  Consistency in promotional tactics is a critical component to establish .

The ultimate objective when answering this question, is to come across as someone with deep knowledge about the industry they operate in, and a clear picture of how they are going to carve out a niche for themselves. The points listed above should serve as guiding points to help you formulate an answer which will help establish this.

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How to write a marketing plan

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A Marketing Secret

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.” John Quincy Adams

The secret to getting the most out of your marketing plan is to remain patient. It is not as easy as it sounds however, and I have broken this rule many a time in the past. This lack of patience is due largely to the fact that most startup organizations have fairly loosely defined marketing plans. If you allocate $X per year on “marketing” activities, the chances of earning substantial returns on your investment is wishful thinking. Therefore, before beginning any marketing activity please map out your marketing plan in detail and allocate appropriate funds and metrics to the plan. Having a marketing plan is one thing, sticking to what you have charted out is a completely different ball game. 

I would like to clarify a couple of false notions that people have about marketing,

1. Instant Results: One should not expect a TV ad campaign which was screened over the weekend to help achieve quarterly target sales. Marketing is not a magic pill, which will the generate the results you want instantly. It takes time, effort and most importantly consistency to get the results that one is looking for.

2. Marketing is a Cost: I like to treat marketing as an investment, made into your organization. If one treats marketing as a cost, unfortunately it becomes one of the first things to get cut during tough times. Like any investment made in technology, infrastructure or talent, marketing must be treated similarly, to get maximum return on investment.

3. Marketing is not Advertising: I get this one a lot during discussions. A core fact is, advertising is just one tactic which can be used in a total marketing mix. Restricting your perception of marketing solely and totally to advertising will not get the required results .

The secret behind companies who are able to market themselves successfully is patience. Once they formulate a strategy, they remain committed to carrying it out to the end. Do your best to remain consistent in the messages that you send out, ensure you send them out regularly. Once the messages are out there, be patient, results will follow!

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5 Steps to Writing a Marketing Plan

“As real estate is location location location, marketing is frequency frequency frequency.” Jay Conrad Levinson

Marketing is a critical component of any business strategy. Unfortunately, it is not often given the importance it deserves. This is due to a multitude of misconceptions. For starters, it is treated as a cost instead of an investment. Using this stance, it is often one of the first things to take a cost cut when controls becomes tighter. Secondly, younger organizations hardly ever commit to long term campaigns with consistency, primarily because of lack of instant results. Along with a few other misconceptions involving lack of expertise and experience, marketing is often left on the back burner. If you are a startup or an upcoming organization, please bring this component to the fore.  Listed below are five steps to get your marketing strategy in place, with a plan.

1. Situational Analysis: Prior to starting any marketing campaign, it is essential you do a thorough analysis on the industry you want to operate in. Facts such as market share, growth, trends and economic policies are critical pieces of information. Next, find out about the entrenched competitors. Who are they ? What is their market share ? How fast have they been growing? Find out about major distributors in the industry, discounting policies, strategic alliances and any other information that may help you get a better understanding of where you may want to take a stance. To read more about doing a thorough situational analysis please click here.

2. Marketing Objectives: Every plan needs to have specific goals and targets that it wants to achieve. Use this section to plan what your organization’s major marketing objectives need to be. This could include market share, customer acquisition, customer retention, website traffic or expected ROI on certain marketing tactics. These need to be thought through, and be strongly linked to major objectives set out in your business plan. To read more about setting marketing objectives please click here.

3. Marketing Strategies: This section is a major component of the entire plan. The marketing objectives outlined in the previous section, need to be translated into strategies now. This is best done by segmenting the market, and identifying areas that can be most effectively targeted.  Correctly positioning yourself in the market place, and ensuring a differentiation strategy to the entrenched competition will be an added help. To read more about correctly formulating marketing strategies please click here.

4. Marketing Tactics: After formulating broad strategies regarding marketing stance and positioning, we need to convert them into executable actions. These can be done effectively using the 4P’s structure, which helps identify executable strategies for the product, price, placement and promotion. Each section can have specific strategies to help market the product/service and reach designated targets. To read more about specific marketing tactics please click here.

5. Marketing Budgets & Controls: The last section requires the marketing budget to be structured. This budget must be strongly correlated to marketing objectives and be allocated accordingly. There needs to be a strong focus on controlling costs and creating feedback loops to ensure that relevant information is being gathered, to help identify the most effective tactics. This budget must be treated as an investment and should therefore be pegged to ROI figures. To read more about marketing budgets and controls please click here.

These five steps constitute a simple marketing plan. The entire objective of this exercise is to bring structure to marketing activities, as well as to have clearly defined goals for what we expect it to do for our organization. Marketing is not limited to super bowl ads or billboards in Time Square. It requires you to be creative with the limited budget allocated. It must be used in such a way that activities are continuously monitored and tracked, and at year end, provide a significant ROI. Just make sure you stick with the marketing plan and do not bail out halfway through. Two things your plan should incorporate, consistency and SMART objectives. Best of luck!

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Marketing Budgets and Controls

“An important and often overlooked aspect of operational excellence is regularly comparing actual costs to budget assumptions – not just the numbers in the plan. Understanding assumption deviations will help improve the accuracy of future forecasting.” Bob Prosen

Budgets are a necessary evil, they draw boundaries to ensure we know how far to go with the marketing plan. With entrepreneurs , the boundary perimeter is often small and limited. This calls for ingenious tactics to make full use of creative and deal making mindsets. The budget of a marketing plan is directly correlated with objectives set by the team. The progress towards those objectives, must be monitored constantly by using control measures. These measures act as feedback mechanisms to help identify each tactic’s input. There are a few things I like to keep in mind when in the midst of setting budget and control measures:

1. Are our objectives and marketing budget in sync?: For a new business, it is important to outline realistic and attainable marketing objectives. I am all for optimistic and large goals, however, often these objectives are set without necessary resources allocated for realistic follow throughs. When discussing numbers, this is a good time to go back to objectives, and see whether attaining a 3% market share with your marketing budget, is a realistic target.

2. Have we committed more than 35% of our budget to one particular tactic, if so, is it justified?: I once had the misfortune of committing a large part of my marketing budget to running print ads in a particular magazine, specific to my target market. Unfortunately it didn’t go as well as planned, since then, I have made sure that committing a large part of the budget to one tactic or promotional activity is based on substantial research.

3. Have we established tactic specific controls?: As entrepreneurs we do not often have access to a lot of funds in our marketing budgets. It is hence essential, to ensure that control measures are established for every tactic, to maintain monthly or quarterly monitoring. If you notice the tactic is consistently not delivering as planned , adjust the plan accordingly. Having control measures in place also forces the responsible individuals to provide constructive feedback.

4. What is our expected return on investment (ROI) on our marketing budget?: This is a complex topic, and has been written about widely. To keep it simple, we have to look at our marketing budget as an investment rather than a cost. Whenever we make an investment, we look for a certain ROI to justify it. We must do the same for our marketing budget. Keep tracking your investments meticulously, and see how to improve on your investment to ensure your expected ROI. This must be discussed with the finance people at the company. I have found, they remain impartial and are able to see the forest from trees.

A well defined marketing budget can be the difference between, a good and a great result. If you have not developed one for your company, there is no better time than, now. It is important to keep in mind, that funds are wisely invested, and that you have the ability to adapt to feedback along the way.

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Marketing Tactics

“We can never have enough strategies. We have enough tactics but not enough strategies.” Matthew Dowd

After all the research and strategizing is done,  the strategies need to be translated into executable actions. It is important to remember that without the effort that goes into correctly identifying strategies for your business, marketing tactics will not work. Their success is largely dependent on how clearly and thoughtfully the strategies have been laid out. Once you have established goals, objectives and marketing strategies based on segmentation, positioning and differentiation,  selection of marketing tactics can begin. The first thing that comes to mind about tactics, the 4P’s ( Product, Price, Placement, Promotion ). The next thing that comes to mind is the lecture I had regarding them, then it becomes fuzzy.

I am all for structured frameworks, however, structured frameworks should enable you to develop executable strategies. If they become roadblocks, you have a problem. So keeping the 4P framework in mind you can devise tactics to drive sales and push your company further. These are four questions I like to ask when determining marketing tactics:

1. What is unique about our product/service that our customers should know?

For example, the MacBook Air did really well ( I really admire Apple’s corporate branding efforts). They brought out an ultra portable laptop and when it was revealed to the world, it came out of a manila envelope. Such a simple, yet effective introduction, made this product the talk of the town.

2. What is our price point strategy and why?

As mentioned earlier, competing on price is a losing strategy, one which entrepreneurs frequently use unfortunately. The inability to set correct price points can make or break a business. Pricing strategy must be based on comprehensive market research and comparison. Take a look at the competition,  then take a decision on how you want to be perceived by the market. Use pricing as a strategy to help slot you in a particular segment in the customers mind.

3. How are we going to get our product/service to our target segment?

According to objectives regarding volume, there needs to be identification of channels, to reach those targets. Do a thorough analysis of available channels of distribution, target those which can be used most cost effectively. However, keep in mind, the more channels you open up, the more resources required. Choose your channels carefully, focus on developing them to reach their potential.

4. How best can we promote our product/service to our target audience?

This is the segment that entrepreneurs need to get creative about. We usually don’t have large marketing budgets at our disposal, hence need to come up with ingenious ways to promote ourselves. One book which I would recommend to entrepreneurs with tight marketing budgets is “Guerrilla Marketing” by Jay Conrad Levinson. It is full of ideas which can be used by organizations on tight budgets.

These questions should help spark conversation,  and get you to think about marketing tactics to be used. Remember, remain focused on bottom line objectives, it is easy to slip into heated discussions about specific tactics and forget about end goals. Marketing can be simple and complex, it is advisable that at the onset of your entrepreneurial ventures, to keep things simple!

 

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Marketing Strategies

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” Sun Tzu

Strategy and tactics formulate the heart of a marketing plan. What happens is, these two sections are often thought of as one. This is a critical error. These two segments are interlinked closely, they do however, serve two very different purposes. The marketing strategy segment, uses marketing objectives discussed earlier, as end goals, which need to be achieved. In order to reach those goals it is not however advisable, to start planning how many brochures you require to be printed, or your next marketing seminar. Before you go into any of these detailed tactics, you need to take time out to think through the best ways to reach your goals. Some important points to keep in mind when developing your marketing strategies are;

1. Market Segmentation: Identify a niche in the market where you will be able to use your strengths to their maximum potential. I know first hand, treating everyone out there, as a potential customer is appealing. However, as a startup with limited resources, you need to focus on one segment initially. This will allow you to consolidate your efforts and resources. It is true, putting all your eggs in one basket may appear risky, but experience says, a startup needs to be focused from the beginning, getting distracted by other potential opportunities usually gets you into deeper water than can be handled.

2. Positioning: Once you have identified the segment you will be operating in, the next step will involve a most important aspect of your marketing plan; positioning. Who is your target customer and why? What benefits can you provide to them as compared to taking a completely different positioning stance? For example, If you are developing a new media company, have you positioned yourself in a manner which provides a certain segment more value?  Positioning will be a reflection of your organization identity. Make sure you do this step correctly, it has long term impact.

3. Differentiation: Once you have selected a segment, and certain market positions, you are likely to find direct and indirect competition. This is the time to think how you are going to differentiate yourself from the others. For example, if you selected the educational segment of the market for your company events and positioned yourself to specialize in planning graduation ceremonies, what will set you apart from other events and companies who provide the same services? Some differentiation points could involve the development of a unique alumni website or specialized gifts for every graduate. The last thing you want to do is, differentiate on price!

Use this section to develop a strategy which will complement the objectives that you have set for yourself. It is very important that these go hand in hand to ensure desired results. By selecting a narrow niche or one too overpopulated with strong competition, will make reaching your targets that much more difficult. Once you have outlined a strategy, you are ready to drill down to specific tactics through which your strategy will be deployed.

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Marketing Objectives

“The major reason for setting a goal is for what it makes you accomplish. What it makes of you will always be the far greater value than what you get.” Jim Rohn

Using the opportunities identified in the situational analysis post, we will construct the next part of the marketing plan, which includes establishing objectives. These objectives will serve as beacons to be used as guides when developing specific strategies. It is important that these objectives should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time specific. Without clearly identifying targets, is like throwing darts blindfolded. Listed below are some broad segments, for which specific objectives should be established:

1. Market Penetration: Using data collected during the research phase, should give an approximate idea of the market share held by the competition. Sometimes this data is difficult to come by, in the past, my teams and I have drawn up simple lists of our major competitors when adequate information was not available. The point of this task is to identify the competition, and set realistic targets of where you want to be on that list. The important part is setting a target. GE set targets of being number one or two in a particular segment or exiting the business line.

2. Marketing Metrics: When setting yourselves objectives, it is important to use key benchmarks which you can continuously compare yourself with. These objectives can be pegged to major activities such as website traffic, newsletter sign-up rates, number of queries, pipeline activity, deal closings or sales staff turnover. These numbers will be a reflection of whether your promotional strategies are paying off or not. More importantly you can develop your promotional strategies around these numbers as well. If your current website is attracting a 1000 visitors daily, what will it take to hit your website traffic objectives of 2000 visitors? When establishing these metrics make sure they are realistic and attainable.

3. Financial Objectives: The company CFO is always wary of the marketing budget. The reason being, there are often no clear financial objectives justifying marketing plans. This section of your plan should outline specific financial targets that need to be achieved when devising your plan. This would include turnover targets, profitability targets as well as improvement of product/service margins. At the end of the quarter or year, there should be justification for the expenditure incurred on marketing. It is important for a startup with limited resources to think this section through carefully. Usually the opportunity cost is high, it is imperative that it is used correctly.

It is upto the team to set objectives in such a manner, that responsibility for certain key metrics and objectives, is person specific. It is that individual’s responsibility to continually monitor  progress and provide feedback to the team. This will create a culture where responsibility will be shared, and more importantly, will help the team realize the importance of good marketing. If you have developed a business plan, use this section to support the financial objectives outlined in it and make sure that your marketing objectives are in sync.

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Situation Analysis

“A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble right at his door.” Confucius

Marketing was one of the more exciting classes I took at college. There was however, a part of the marketing course that required a massive amount of research and data collection. Looking at the title of this post, I remember vaguely, a class I took, where we talked about this topic at great length. I say vaguely, because in all probability, I must have tuned out when the word “macro economic factors” was used. Don’t get me wrong, finding out about macro conditions before entering a particular industry is critical. However, my only complaint was, the discussions were too detailed. I experienced this when we started writing our first couple of marketing plans as well. When you go into minor details, you begin to lose focus on the end goal, a balance needs to be maintained here.

Listed below are some of the critical things I look at when doing a situational analysis:

1. The Industry: Before going any further, you need information regarding the growth rate of the particular industry. What are it’s historic trends? What were the revenue figures for the segment? Have any major technological innovations taken place in it recently? Is the industry very segmented? These are some preliminary questions of interest and importance when looking at an opportunity in a particular industry.

2. Competitors: This is an important segment, one in which you need to document as many direct and indirect competitors in the market place as possible. Look at their teams, products/services, pricing and any other marketing collateral which you can find. Remain constantly vigilant about your competitors, this is a must for any company regardless of size. Create document files which can be referenced easily, this will come in handy during later sections, when you are positioning and promoting your product as well.

3. Distributors: Is the industry dependent on any major suppliers or distributors? If this is the case, then find out maximum information regarding their operations, team, pricing and discounting practices. Developing strategic partnerships with key distributors in the market place can become a very strong competitive advantage in the market place. Dell has executed this superbly in partnerships with Intel and Microsoft.

4. Internal Assessment: If you have already developed, or are in the process of developing a product/service line, this section will highlight where you stand in the current market place. Through this section, a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis is available. This analysis will also help identify your strengths, and pinpoint where you should avoid competing in the market place.

Using data assembled in this section, you will be able to identify, where you face major threats and where the most opportunities lie. It will also help you gauge market demand with a closer and more precise perspective. This step requires considerable searching and scouring for data, do this as a team,  it becomes a little more exciting!

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