Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

The Secret to Success

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Unfortunately there is no magical formula or path to guarantee success. Reading autobiographies of some of the most successful people in the world and engaging in conversations with successful entrepreneurs, the one common tread that is always brought up in one way or other, is their level of persistence. This theme is stressed upon vigorously and they reiterate how they nearly gave up, but something told them to keep going on. I am reading the “Second Bounce of the Ball” by Ronald Cohen these days, a founding member of the private equity industry, and he brings up this point in one of the early chapters of his book. In the first couple of years of setting up his business he lost both of his partners because they did not think the business was going to survive. However he kept faith and persistence in the inner conviction that he was onto something and kept plugging away. Success came 7-8 years into his venture but at the end of his career he was managing $2ob.

Starting an enterprise is hard work. Everyone knows that, but I think many of them underestimate just how challenging it actually is to get a venture past the break even point into profitability. However, plugging away on a venture without changing the strategies that are not working, is obviously not very smart either. Listed below are a couple of pointers to assist you push through the challenges and achieve the goals and results you want.

1. Clarify your goals: I have reiterated this point many a time on my blogs. Before starting any venture, ensure you know what you are working towards. What is the final end goal? What do you want to achieve, and by when? Make your goals as specific as possible and ensure that they are measurable and time bound. Without clear goals, chances are that you will lose steam half way, begin to doubt yourself and lose faith in the venture. You need to be emotionally and mentally connected with your goals and believe with conviction that you have the abilities to reach them.

2. Have a Plan: If you set a goal for your business to achieve a $1m in profits in 3 years time of selling your product/service, then chart out a plan how you plan to achieve the goal. What are the steps that need to be taken? What are major milestones that need to be achieved along the way? What resources will you need to realize your plans? What are your backup strategies if you are unable to hit some of your mini goals? A plan is a critical element in keeping you focused and provides much needed motivation during those rough times.

3. Partners: These could be your business partners or they could be associates from your mastermind groups or mentors who help push you when the chips are down. When you are riding solo and business is not going as planned it can get very lonely, frustrating and demotivating. Without an adequate support system even the most persistent and determined individuals can falter. Make sure you have partners who will be there to catch you in case you fall and will help you get back up again.

4. Shrug of Negativeness: How many times have you heard someone shoot down a business idea that you may want to pursue or tell you that the economy is so bad that your chance of succeeding is negligible. As an entrepreneur you need to be able to shrug of this negativity without letting it affect your mental capacities. By surrendering to external circumstances we will find ourselves paralyzed and often unable to think or act correctly. Have faith and believe in what you are doing  rather than other people, let concerned people give you feedback and take it from there.

Success is usually the last person still hanging on when everyone else has given up. It takes patience, persistence and a level of self confidence that enables you to weather the storms when the going gets tough. Remember not to fight through the challenges blindly without adjusting your strategies along the way. If you really believe that what you are wanting to achieve is possible and you can do it, you are more than half way there.

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What do you do when you fall?

“Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” Alfred (Batman Begins)

I was having an interesting discussion with a friend yesterday about the economic climate and the alarming rate of business closures in multiple sectors. We were sharing personal stories about how we had dealt with difficult times in our respective businesses and what things kept us plugging away even when it seemed to be the end of the road. I am sure you understand that problems are part and parcel of starting a new business or being part of a new venture. Some problems will be larger than others but you never really quite run out of them. When you solve a specific challenge in a particular segment of your business it does sometimes manifest itself in another aspect of it.

For example, suppose your business is struggling with sales generation. After brainstorming and overcoming that problem, the next challenge is often managing the inflow of new orders which the business may not be equipped to do. This forms a cycle where it is possible to continue moving forward and facing new challenges as they appear. However, it is not usually as simple as that. There are three potential stages we can go through when facing a challenge.

1. Ignore it: How many times have we been faced with a problem either of a personal nature or in a professional aspect of our life and chosen to ignore it. There have been many times that I can personally recall where we knew something was wrong with the way our business was doing a certain process yet we never changed it. Wanting a different reaction from the same action is unfortunately something that many of us find ourselves doing when we do not want to move out of our comfort zones. We pretend that our problems do not exist or are not affecting us and hope for a miraculous change. Unfortunately that usually never comes and most of the time we just end up amplifying the problems.

2. Blame somebody: This is probably the most used excuse whenever we are faced with a problem. The economy is bad, my partner cheated me, we lost our star sales person, we do not have the funds or I am not skilled enough. This is another easy way to deal with problems. We shift the blame to anyone we can, including ourselves sometimes in the face of problems we cannot pass on. This creates a detrimental and negative cycle that ends up sapping all motivation and drive we may have left in ourselves and we let our environment condition us in whatever way it deems fit. This is giving up  control in our lives by burying our head in the sand.

3, Solution: The most productive thing we can do for ourselves whenever we face a problem is to correctly identify it, document where it is stemming from, brainstorm with individuals who will be able to pinpoint pain areas and develop a set of options that can help us deal with them. As start ups, we go through some tough challenges such as getting your first big reference customer, securing funding or convincing a star player to join your team. We have to look at each of these problems with an open mind and no matter how many times we fall down, we must learn the lesson inherent in the fall, then learn to pick ourselves up again.

Most of the things discussed in this post may appear extremely obvious. I mean who wants to admit that they are actually not dealing effectively with a problem that they may have in their life. I recommend getting a piece of paper and writing down all the major problems that you may be facing in life right now whether of a personal or business nature. Next, identify how you are dealing with these problems. We are often surprised to discover that we focus so much on the fact that we have these problems, that we forget to think of  necessary solutions. In order to move forward we need to understand that problems are a natural part of life, the quality of our lives however depends primarily on how we deal with them.

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How Focused Are You?

“Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” Anthony Robbins

The pace of our lives is increasing on an almost daily basis. Sometimes I just don’t know where the day goes between phone calls, emails, blogging and dealing with customers. What happens though is that we tend to begin autopiloting a lot of daily tasks and instead of working towards our goals we get stuck in just maintaining the state we are in. I have seen people maintain this state for years, months or weeks on end without realizing that they are just not making any significant progress in their lives. Yet when you talk to them and ask about their schedule and business it is usually packed. I have gone through several periods like this myself and I think one of the most significant changes that I made to my daily schedule was adopting the GTD methodology. For those of you not familiar with the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology please click on the link below to a series explaining it.

The GTD methodology has helped me tremedously in keeping my eye on bigger goals while making sure that all the mini steps that need to be completed are clearly marked out as well. Early last year I started reading Leo Babauta’s  Zen Habits blog seriously. He also follows the GTD methodology and has modified the original methodology in some places. One of the modifications that really helped me was his concept of setting the three most important things that one needs to accomplish in a day. Instead of having your usual to-do list which can often be a little overwhelming, he trimmed it down to 3 things that would have the greatest impact on your day, week, month and year. This has helped me prioritize my action items and has helped me in getting a lot more of the critical things accomplished, sooner rather than later. 

Focus is a key success factor that is found in all great individuals. Whether they be entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers or even bloggers. The ability to concentrate our energies on activities that yield the highest output will result in accomplishing our goals faster and with greater efficiency. This being the start of the new year I would highly recommend integrating the ‘3 most important things list’ to your daily schedule and see whether it makes an impact on your life. I wish you all the best of success in 2009. 

Related Posts:

5 Steps to Get Things Done

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Inspiring Entrepreneurial Story

“I’ve always learned on-the-job, in real time. A problem comes up; I research it, and try to solve it. You can’t study to be an entrepreneur; you have to develop those skills day in day out. “ Tom Szaky

I have memories of going to a video rental store over the weekend when I was around 6-8 years old. The video store was called Star Video and when they gave us the videos they were packed in a paper bag which had the logo of a restaurant called Barbeque Tonite on it. The restaurant was the final aim of the owners of this small video rental franchise that had a couple of locations. The owner’s son used to school with me  and was a friend. Eventually they opened a small restaurant that served traditional barbeque food and very wisely paid an exceptional amount of attention to detail and quality. The place could probably hold a maximum of around 50 odd people in those early days. Fast forward to today, the restaurant has witnessed an absolutely explosive level of growth. Today it probably has a capacity of at least 500+ customers spread over 4 floors. They have a limited menu but the quality has remained evenly and  exceptionally good, this has kept most of us coming back for more week after week.

Seeing the level of success of this restaurant, many have attempted to replicate it, as close to them as possible, to cash in on the spillover since there are always  huge crowds waiting to get into the place. However, none of them have succeeded in coming close. Having dinner there tonight, I was once again amazed at the level of success that they enjoy and whenever I visit their restaurant it renews my faith as an entrepreneur. The owners knew from the very beginning what they wanted. The vision to be the leading provider of local barbeque food was something that each of them were passionate about and they figured out a way to raise money for the venture. Once they had managed to do that, there was no looking back.

There are two important lessons from this story. The first is, before you start whatever you want to,  ask yourself  “Is this something that I am truly passionate about?” If the chosen line of business is something you are passionate about, the next step is the need to articulate a vision for the business you want to run. I have made the mistake of not thinking through the second aspect with enough detail on several occasions and have paid a price for it. Without a clear vision one usually spends a lot of time going round in circles not quite knowing which direction to take. This problem is overcome when you think things  through and know and visualize exactly what you want. During the course of working it out practically things will change somewhat but the fact that there is a guiding principle from the very beginning is essential for starting on the right foot.

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My Top 5 Posts for 2008

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Herman Cain

The first day of the new year is always a special time. It is like you have a fresh start, and can start off with a clean slate. Undoubtedly the forecasts for 2009 are not as rosy as the year before. However, I believe that we are all in charge of our own future. If we want it to turn a certain way, we have to make a conscious and concentrated effort to make sure we do whatever we can to ensure we achieve what we want. It is a lot easier to sit on the sidelines and just accept the fact that it is going to be an extremely difficult year and do nothing about it. If however you do want to bring about a particular change in your life, there is really no better time to start than…. now. Listed below are my top 5 series posts, traffic wise. I hope they will help make 2009 a great year for you.

1. 8 characteristics of Ideal Business partner

2. 5 Steps on How to Make a Decision

3. 5 Steps to Write a Customer Value Proposition

4. 5 Steps to Creating Winning Teams

5. 5 steps to Ensure Effective Meetings

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Navigating Through Difficult Times

When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” Peter Marshall

These days it seems wherever you turn there is talk about how the world is crumbling to pieces. We have undoubtedly witnessed a lot of turbulence over the last couple of months. With the way things are going I believe it is going to be a while until we see an upturn in the global economy. Now there are a couple of ways we can face this reality. We can either face this difficult period with our chin up, or we can give into the critics and lose all hope. In the end the decision lies squarely with us. Like many individuals and companies, quite a few of my investments have been hit by the current financial meltdown. It is an eerie and most disturbing feeling to see your assets crumble and have very little control over the course they take. However whenever I have experienced such times I always seem to come out a little stronger, and appreciate what I have a lot more.

As a business owner we have to continuously face challenges. This is not limited to external events alone, it could be a new competitor or the loss of a vital business partner among other reasons. The fact of the matter is that we have to learn how to deal with these challenges in an effective manner to enable us to recover from them. A great book has been written about broader challenges faced by companies around the world called “Stall Points” by Derek van Bever and Seth Verry. The book provides a wealth of information regarding common stall points faced by companies and their impact.

In this week’s series I will talk about some broader points to help navigate the difficult times which one will undoubtedly face. I will walk you through some basic steps I go through whenever I am faced with a difficulty of some sort. In the end however, it all boils down to your attitude and your personal outlook on life as a whole. If we are not able to take our head out of the sand there is very little one can do, and this will result in further losses and our failures tend to become self fullfiling prophecies. We have to avoid this attitude at all costs! If anyone reading this would like to share their story of a personal victory during a difficult period of time it will be much appreciated.

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First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do you Network?

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

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

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

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

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5 Components to build Trust

“Self-trust is the first secret of success.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

This series started with a post regarding how the trust I had in PayPal was shaken when my account got compromised. In life, our trust in people and businesses will often be tested. That is life, and we have to accept it. The fact of the matter is, without trust, we would not get far in life. The trust building process comprises of several components. Each of them plays a vital role in the process, and provides us with  benchmarks to help achieve the level of trust required. 

1. Integrity: Integrity is based purely on the actions and decisions we make in life. They reflect who we are and what we stand for. Three measures to use to benchmark our own level of integrity are ; firstly, are we congruent in our thoughts, words and actions? The second one is, do we honor our promises and commitments to ourselves and others? The last one, do we possess the courage to stand up for our values and beliefs in the face of resistance? These questions can serve as a guide to learn more about personal and business integrity levels. To read more about trust and integrity please click here.

2. Competence: Competence is a pre-requisite for the process of trust building. An individual or business is deemed competent in a particular skill set when they have proved themselves adequately. However, for a new startup, without a track record, this is a challenging task. Competence needs to be communicated through actions in a younger team. Using academic credentials, talents and skill sets or references can be used to help prove a younger team’s ability and capability. To read more about trust and competence please click here.

3. Consistent Communication: We have all come across businesses where senior management says one thing, middle management says another and the customer service representative says something completely different. When there is inconsistency in communication, building trust will be an arduous task. As younger startup companies, we have to instill the importance of consistent communication, from the beginning of our operations. This includes the alignment of senior management’s agenda, marketing strategies as well as how customer service representatives are supposed to interact with clients. To read more about the importance of consistent communication and trust please click here.

4. Genuine Concern: An individual or business can have high levels of integrity, be competent and communicate with consistency, yet, a lack of genuine concern for others or your customers, will dramatically slow down the trust building process. I believe a genuine concern for your customer with honest intention is the ‘x-factor’ in the trust building process. It is important that we get a deep understanding of our clients needs and wants and craft our strategies around them. It is only when we are able to communicate the importance of this component to the rest of the team in the form of actions will we actually notice results. To read more about trust and genuine concern please click here.

5. Results: Results and past performance speak louder than any number of words. The world today benchmarks each and everyone of us to what we have achieved. Therefore, as young entrepreneurs, we must pay a great deal of attention to proving ourselves and showing tangible results. These can be in the form of academic achievements, extra curricular achievements or projects where we have documented results. It is important to become result and action oriented. When an individual has a reputation of getting the job done well, the ability to gain the trust and confidence of peers, investors and customers is enhanced. To read more about trust and results please click here.

Building and maintaining trust is a challenging task. It requires constant attention, and the slightest of slips in our behavior has severe negative impact on the level of trust. As we all know, once a vase is broken it can be put back together, but it will never be the same. The components talked about in this post are foundational elements in the trust building process. When we have the trust of a customer or friend it dramatically changes the dynamics of the relationship, to one where a lot more can be achieved. As entrepreneurs, we must strive to develop a reputation of one who can be trusted. This will have a phenomenal positive impact on the level of business as well as your life. 

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Results

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” Henry Ford

As a young entrepreneur, some questions you hear repeatedly from prospective customers are, “Who is currently using your product/service?” or “How many users do you currently have on your system?”  These questions are asked with the aim to establish whether the prospect can trust your business to deliver what you are pitching, and whether the team has the appropriate capabilities and skill sets. Not many individuals want to be the first customer to test a brand new product/service, it is hence up to the entrepreneur to convince the customer why they should use their product/service. The question that arises is “How does an entrepreneur convince a customer to trust him to deliver on his word?”. I believe the fastest way to do this, is to reference past performance and results, and use them as benchmarks to make a convincing argument. 

Results and past performance speak louder than any number of words. The world today benchmarks each and everyone of us to what we have achieved. For example, take an individual with high levels of integrity, extremely competent, communicates consistently and has a genuine concern for what he/she is doing. However, if this individual does not have a track record of delivering when given a task, chances are that they are not going to be given a chance to step up to the plate. Therefore, as entrepreneurs, we have to constantly look for ways to prove to customers, stakeholders, investors, employees and the media that we have what it takes to succeed. We cannot wait around for things to happen or wait for the ‘right’ opportunity. Action needs to be taken, and positive results need to follow. Will we always get the results we want? Unfortunately not. However, if we persevere and pursue what we want to achieve relentlessly results will follow.

Some areas where younger entrepreneurs can display results they have achieved are:

1. Academics: This works well when you are raising early stage angel or venture funding. If one has achieved success in the form of honor rolls, awards or other recognition for academic pursuits, they should be included in some way in your pitch. From a customer’s point of view, having someone with deep theoretical knowledge about your product/service adds great value.

2. Extra Curricular: Including any information about areas such as sports, debate societies, student unions or charitable efforts one has been part of, also adds value.  A personal example is,  when I co-founded an entrepreneurship society at university, which has since grown from 10 members in Singapore, to over 2500 spread across all of Asia today. It was through this platform that I gained a valuable network, and built trust with many of my mentors today. Other examples could be contributions to charitable organizations and events, and funds you may have raised for them.

3. Projects & Initiatives: Results can only be achieved when you take initiatives and actions. Highlight areas where you took an initiative, such as, starting a blog, a website, a store on ebay, freelance projects or any other example where you have documented results. Such projects go to show that you are willing to go the extra mile to reach you goals. 

Once the business has established customers, continue to track results through all business processes. Take responsibility for all the results you get, be they positive or negative. I have found that the learning process is specially instructive when we do not get the results we want. I have repeated this many a time, there is no failure, only feedback. Once you have established a solid track record, and have been identified as a result oriented team member, the level of trust your peers will have in you, will sky rocket. 

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