Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

Where Did the Day Go?

The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time.” Franklin Field

Since the start of this year my plate seems to be extraordinarily full. Days go by so quickly that it is becoming difficult to keep track of what is being accomplished and what things are being left behind. My action days are getting mixed up with my preparation days and everything seems to be moving too rapidly. Whenever I experience times like these I need to actually take a step back,  stop auto piloting for a while and stop to reflect about what is really happening. If one does not do this, you get lost in the moment and one day blends into the next and pretty soon the day, week, month or year has passed you by. A story I re-read at such times is this one. It helps me put the bigger picture in perspective and clearly shows that the bigger things in life are what one needs to be focused on. If we continuously  work on developing the little things, we forget the big rocks and after a while there is no more space for them.

Last year I wrote about the time management philosophy I follow which includes a mixture of preparation days, action days and relaxing days. In the last quarter of  ’08  I started to integrate  GTD  a lot more into my life. Apart from the usual split of days for that system I also do three other exercises. The first one of these is to set some big goals for the month, chunk them down into smaller ones to be done weekly and lastly chunk them even further into mini steps to be done on a daily basis. The daily basis steps comprise of my “Most Important Tasks” for the day. These range anywhere from 2-4 tasks. It is important to take consistent action on the goals we are working on. Although I have some large yearly goals such as writing a book this year, I tend to keep most of my goals on shorter time frames. This adds the often much needed sense of urgency and stops me from procrastinating.

When I start to lose track of time it is either that I am focusing too sharply on micro goals and have forgotten the bigger picture, or the fact that mini steps are taking longer than usual thereby dragging my day.  General frustration builds up when you work hard but do not get the results that need to be there. Being a highly result oriented person, when I begin to miss daily or weekly targets, flashing red flags force me to take a step back and re-evaluate what am I doing wrong, and gauge whether the path  I have selected is truly the one I want to continue on. Having such built-in systems helps keep me on track, focused and provides the sense of motivation to get things done.

Start with simple steps and goals and steadily increase their number and complexity as you become more adept. Hopefully you will get more things done and see your productivity sky rocket.

Related Posts:

An Inspirational Story

5 Steps to Manage your Time Better

5 Steps to Get Things Done

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A Great Customer Service Experience

“One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth doing is what we do for others.” Lewis Carol

I have been a GoDaddy customer for as long as I can remember. Somehow years ago when I bought my first domain they must have been the first one which popped up in my Google search. I have had limited interaction with their customer support department and usually only call when I am traveling or if I think of a domain name on the go, and want them to process my order. One can expect to be kept on hold a fair amount of time during peak hours, however this problem has become better recently. Whenever I call, there is the usual protocol for verification and the operators are usually helpful and I get my order processed very quickly.

Yesterday I called them up to register a domain and when the operator answered there was something different about her manner and voice from the very onset. She greeted me and made a conscious effort to get the pronunciation of my name right which can be a bit difficult for some people. During the course of the call we had a pleasant discussion of the importance of renewing personal name domains for a large period of time and she  made a concerted effort to make a larger sale without seeming too pushy. There was so much life and passion in her voice that I really didn’t mind and subconsciously became a lot more open to some of the suggestions she was giving me. All this simply by making an extra effort and showing  enthusiasm, thus differentiating the service entirely.

I have noticed that it takes very little effort to go from average to good customer service. If your business has a lot of direct contact with customers and prospective customers through  the phone, make sure that you provide them sufficient training to ensure that they give your customers the best service possible. Taking customer service from good to exceptional requires a lot more effort. Most of it must originate from the customer service representative. Are they truly passionate about what they are selling/servicing? This clearly came across from the GoDaddy representative who answered my call yesterday and I felt that service which had been good, has suddenly become exceptional.

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The Little Things

“People expect good service but few are willing to give it.” Robert Gately

I was having a meal at a restaurant today (Nandos) where I experienced a very high and professional level of service. This is a place I frequent occasionally. On some occasions the level of service is high for a mid tier eating place where the emphasis really is on turn-around time on the tables. However there have been occasions when the level of service has left a lot to be desired. Thinking about it today as we were being served and looked after by the individual assigned to our table, it really takes very little effort to make such an experience turn around from an average one to one that gets me blogging about it. There were a couple of things that I think were done really well:

1. We were greeted with a smile and asked about our day. That just made the entire relationship get off to a good start.

2. I wanted to make some difficult changes to what I was ordering and he made sure it got done without getting flustered. He did not give me a flat out yes or no when I asked him whether the changes could be done. He merely said he would do his best and let me know as soon as possible. Needless to say the changes were made and I was very happy when I got my meal.

3. During our meal he checked up on us a few times. He was never hovering around the table while we were eating, but was always there when we needed something.

4. Upon presenting the bill he asked us to fill out a feedback form on his service during the meal. This was a person who was serious about the job he was doing and was making sure that he got feedback to ensure he could do better.

The things listed above can surely be duplicated relatively easily among the staff of a restaurant. It depends largely on management to ensure that their staff provides customers with superior service and provide them the necessary training to help deliver it. The importance of good customer service is paramount irrespective of your  line of business.

Are you doing all that you can to ensure you give your customers the best level of customer service possible?

Related Posts:

Non Financial Metric #1: Customer Satisfaction

5 Steps to Better Customer Service

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Get a Fresh Perspective

A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment. John Wooden

During difficult times we tend to get so caught up in our problems that we begin to lose sight of the bigger picture. We keep putting out multiple small fires without really finding their root cause. This leads to feelings of frustration and helplessness. Whenever I have been through times like these, I have found getting a fresh perspective from an outsider very helpful. This could come from a mentor, a business coach or even from individuals whom you hold in high regard in your network. They are able to provide you with advice and feedback on your current situation by looking at the bigger picture. What has always been most helpful for me during these sessions was the ability to put things back into perspective. We often tend to make situations appear a lot worse than they actually are.

Some major advantages you can enjoy with a business coach or mentor are:

1. Experience: Being relatively new to business, there are many things I am not fully aware of. My mentors have always been a source of wealth and information regarding difficult situations. This also has the ability to help you avoid making the costly errors they may have made in the past.

2. Accountability: A leader/coach helps creates an entity you have to be accountable to. They are there to push you on when you become complacent and quick to tell you what you may be doing right or wrong. This has often provided me  with the motivation to push myself harder and achieve results that I may not have without them.

3. Networking: Lastly if your mentor or coach is well connected they instantly become a channel for quality referrals which can boost revenues during slow times. I have repeatedly tapped into this network to generate leads and business when other avenues were not performing up to mark.

Where does one find these coaches and mentors? Well I did it through networking when I was at university, through events, workshops and seminars. I also researched individuals who had excelled in the same industry and dropped them an email. You will be surprised how many people are willing to help if we just care to ask nicely. Use platforms such as Linkedin and tools such as twitter to connect with individuals with more ease. Getting a coach or mentor’s perspective during difficult times may be just what your business needs.

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Mismanagemnt of Competing Interests

“Wearing the same shirts doesn’t make you a team.” Buchholz and Roth

Reflecting through the past couple of the ventures I have been part of,  this was one of the things which struck me as a vital cause for a team’s eventual downfall. The issue of managing competing interests is prevalent in most teams and organizations. However in teams which include many ‘stars’, this issue gets amplified. The reason being that stars are always on the look out for new opportunities, they are approached by many individuals who want them to be a part of their ventures and they are also approached by headhunters who are scouting for senior positions. In short these individuals have many options available to them from the onset and pinning them down to work on one business is very difficult. Multiply this issue by the number of stars in the team and there is substantial work to be done by the leader.

Looking at the bigger picture, a misalignment of interests is something that start-up companies have to deal with very often. From the very beginning, founders want different things from the venture. When investors come in, they have a different set of objectives and the employees of the venture will have another set of objectives. The entrepreneur needs to manage all of these competing interests by making sure that channels of communication are kept open and as candid as possible. It is when these competing interests are kept under wraps that they tend to blow out of proportion when brought to the surface.

Therefore in conclusion we have to accept the fact, that every team will have to deal with it’s share of competing interests. In dealing with them it is important not to allow any member of the team to use those interests to undermine the positions of others or to leverage themselves unfairly. Also, mismanagement of competing interests will lead to a drastic reduction of the focus of the team member. This further amplifies the problem, and soon the team finds itself moving away from each other. With transparency the team will be able to get a better idea of how it should proceed and who should stay on the team and who should leave. This can only be possible when a culture of candor has been embedded into the team. This leads me to the next factor which is the lack of the candor.

 

Filed under: Management, Teams, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Non-Financial Metric #2: Employee Loyalty

“I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation is how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people.” Thomas Watson Jr.

Volumes of books and years of study materials have been developed to enable managers to attract better talent and retain them. From an entrepreneur’s point of view there are several structural differences compared to those faced in larger organizations. First off, much of the time a new start up will have an untested product/service with a small team which may or may not have the relevant experience needed. What they do have is an intense passion for what they want to do, that is probably the only way they can attract quality talent. Even though they are convinced and on board, things do not become easier. Salaries are usually minimal, stress levels are very high and burnout thresholds are reached much earlier. Losing a critical member of a team for a start up can signal the end of the road. Therefore this metric has to be given due importance to ensure that goals are met. Listed below are a couple of steps that have helped me keep the employee loyalty index high at businesses I have been part of :

1. Full Disclosure of Position: When recruiting someone for your start up team, one needs to ensure that you communicate clearly what role they will have to play. We all know that at smaller start ups many different hats need to be worn during the course of the day. The individual needs to be comfortable with this and willing to put in the long hours which will be required. Salaries, equity stakes, confidentiality agreements and all other formalities should be openly discussed and negotiated before hand. If these factors are left to be discussed at a later date, there is bound to be trouble and the situation becomes sticky.

2. Open Communication & Fairness: Take for example,  two founders who want to add a new marketing individual to the team. Whether this individual comes in with a substantial equity stake or on a salary it is important for the founding team to keep communication channels as open as possible. I have noticed that when groups are formed or information withheld, it leads to a drastic decrease in loyalty as the feeling of being ‘part of the team’ is not there. Have regular feedback sessions to understand the sentiments of the team. Trust has got to be earned and the only way this can get done is by communicating and getting to know the individual better.

3. Development Opportunities: Do your best to give everyone the opportunity to showcase their skill sets as well as learn new ones. I have been pleasantly surprised many a time when I found that a technical team member had some pretty extraordinary presenting skills or marketing insights. At a start up there needs to be strong focus on getting your team members to open up and move out of their comfort zones. If they don’t feel like they are growing and getting experience, which they would not have received in large organizations, chances of them defecting increase dramatically.

4. Fair Compensation & Reward: As hard as we attempt to get people to work for as little as possible in lieu of a big pay day, down the line, chances are they are going to react at some point in time. First off, compensation and rewards need to be discussed before adding the individual to the team. They should have a good idea what to expect to make, as well as how they will be compensated with non cash benefits. There will be times when cash flows are thin and payroll expenses may not be met. This is a time for open communication and ways of compensating them differently, greater equity or the ability to work part time needs to be offered.

Employee loyalty is directly linked to customer loyalty and corporate profitability. Whether you are a new start up or an established one, this measure needs to be continuously monitored. Sub indicators such as burnout thresholds are critical to ensure that you know when to apply the brakes. It is undoubtedly a challenging juggling act and becomes harder as the team begins to expand. By monitoring this metric from the beginning a start up has a substantial advantage and can use it to develop a sustainable competitive advantage.

Filed under: Advice, Hiring, Strategy, Teams, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Non-Financial Metric #1: Customer Satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Advice, Communication, Customer Service, Strategy, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Steps to Better Negotiations

“Any business arrangement that is not profitable to the other person will in the end prove unprofitable for you. The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.” B. C. Forbes

Most of us take part in some form of negotiation everyday. In life, skilled negotiators are able to close better deals, and reach mutually acceptable agreements faster. Ever since I undertook this entrepreneurial journey, negotiations seem to have become common place. I have come a long way from my early negotiations, at that time, very often I did not get the best deal possible . Experience however is a great teacher, and although I have made many mistakes in the past, I have also learnt much, which has honed my negotiation skills . Listed below are some key steps to be undertaken during negotiations, to ensure that a mutually acceptable agreement is reached quickly, fairly and efficiently.

1. Motivations & Interests: At the heart of every negotiation, each side has a set of motivations and interests which enable them to take  certain positions on issues. Before beginning the negotiations, identify  your personal motivations and interests for resolving the issue at hand. Internal clarity helps greatly to communicate your message. Next, we need to understand the other side’s position, as also why they have taken it. What are their motivations and interests on the particular issue? The initial round or rounds of negotiation need to include candid discussion to ensure as clear a picture as possible. To read specific examples please click here.

2. Focus on the Problem: The entire objective of negotiating is to find a mutually acceptable consensus. To ensure that this objective is achieved, we need to keep the process as simple as possible. This requires us to understand each other’s perceptions to ensure that we are on the same page. It also requires us to keep emotional baggage off the table. Lastly, we need to ensure that during the negotiation process both parties communicate clearly, and listen attentively. At the same time, we need to be aware of non verbal communications as well. Being focused on the issue and not deviating ,greatly improves the speed at which to reach an agreement. To read more specific examples please click here.

3. Develop Options: The objective of the option development phase is to arrive at a set of mutually viable and beneficial options. To reach this objective much collaborative work is required. We need to have several candid sessions whose sole purpose is to chart out maximum number of options. Each side has to ensure that its position’s and interests are clearly communicated, with the entire focus on how to maximize expectations by working together on a macro level. To read more specific examples of developing options please click here.

4. Alternatives: These are options which form our backup options if negotiations break down and agreement cannot be reached. Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available alternatives related to the issue at hand. Then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. Alternatives are vital negotiation tools and need to be used tactfully to ensure that a fair agreement is reached. To read more specific examples of alternatives please click here.

5. Objective Criterion: These are benchmarks which provide a fair assessment to rate particular options against. Negotiations which use objective criterion’s usually result in fairer agreements. Therefore it is important that before one begins negotiations, criterions are researched and decided upon. Whether it is for purchasing a business or negotiating a salary increase, one needs to identify quantifiable metrics which can help make the decision making process easier and fairer.To read more specific examples please click here.

Negotiations are usually not very straight forward. Much of the time, emotions get in the way which complicates matters dramatically and frankly confuses both sides on procedural matters. To say that we need to keep all emotion out of the picture is not possible. What we need to do is to exercise a great deal of self control, and constantly put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. Only once we begin to see negotiations as a two-sided process will we be able to progress to becoming a more skilled negotiator. I wish you the best of luck in all your future negotiations.

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Objective Criterions

“Here’s the rule for bargains: ”Do other men, for they would do you.” That’s the true business precept.” Charles Dickens

Most of us have at some time, played the high-lowball game during negotiations. For example, a while ago I was attempting to buy a domain I wanted. The seller had a listed price of $500, I put in a lowball offer of a $100 dollars straight off the bat. The $100 I offered, had no actual basis and was nearer to the $200 or so I wanted to actually pay for the domain. The seller and I had a number of correspondences back and forth, and a deal was struck around $230. Did I get a good price? Was my reservation price, one that had a logic basis? Unfortunately I could not answer any of these questions.

It therefore got me thinking, that having objective criterions are necessary to ensure that both sides get an optimal deal. In the case of the above example, companies such as Sedo are able to calculate the true worth of a domain through several established criterions that include, estimate of the domain name’s value, list of recent comparable sales, search engine friendliness, branding potential, legal situation and even, possible buyers. This estimation establishes the true worth of a domain. If the had seller relied and gone with such a report from a trusted authority, stating the domain estimate at $500, I would have had very little room to negotiate a price which was substantially lower. We can therefore see, that by adding objective criterion’s to negotiations, we can optimize the value created on the whole.

It is therefore recommended, that whenever you enter into a negotiation, be it changing terms of payments with your supplier, a salary increase for your staff or the sale of your business to a private equity firm, do research regarding the metrics that can be used fairly, to add objectivity to the negotiations. It is important that the criterions proposed are acceptable to both sides. A key characteristic of skilled negotiators is, they are always prepared. They know their underlying interests, the options available,  available alternatives, and a list of objective criterions to reach an optimal agreement for both sides.

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What are your Alternatives?

“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” ~David Russell

How does one assess whether one is really getting a good deal or not? To answer this question one needs to have a deeper understanding of the alternatives available. Lets say for example, we are negotiating a salary increase with our employer. We want an increase from $50k to $60k. We bring up the topic with our employer, who immediately refuses the suggestion blaming the current economic climate. We could be an extremely valuable resource for the company, but without any available alternative we have very little leverage in this negotiation. However if we do some research about market rates for our profession and may even float our resume around to get an idea what our market worth is we could arrive at a figure which gives us a better understanding of our market worth. With this figure we now have a foot to stand on during negotiation.

Alternatives however are rarely as straight forward in complicated deals where one is negotiating the sale of a business or better terms of payment from suppliers. They do however give us an important edge to see how far we can actually push during negotiations. Lets say for example I am selling my car and my reserve price is $20k I meet a seller whose maximum limit is $30k. In this case any price above my $20k reservation price will be a positive outcome for myself and likewise any price below $30k will be a positive outcome for the seller. This brings out the objective of negotiations which is to achieve a better deal than not negotiating at all. Revealing your alternatives during negotiation is usually not a good strategy unless it strengthens your position at the negotiation table. It is important to remember that alternatives should not be used to apply pressure or force the other side into a particular decision. They are markers to help us make an optimal choice.

Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available choices related to the issue at hand. I then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. It is important to not use ones alternatives to apply pressure tactics to induce the other side to give in. Such tactics may work in the short term, however repeated use of such strategies will hurt your future chances of getting a better deal. One needs to be fair and ensure that each side is benefiting from the agreement to ensure better long term results.

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