Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

What is your competitive edge?

“The essential element of successful strategy is that it derives its success from the differences between competitors with a consequent difference in their behavior.” Bruce Henderson

The next logical question after hearing an initial elevator pitch is about the competitive advantage. What can you do that your competitors will have a hard time duplicating or catching up to? This is not the easiest question to answer, as most products and services can be replicated quite easily.

To provide a concise and clear answer to the question above, keep three segments in mind:

1. Customer Needs: Having a deep understanding of what the customer requires and wants from the product/service you are providing is critical. For such an understanding, the target segment of your business must be clearly demarcated, their expectations known, and their core needs clearly documented through research, feedback and surveys. It is only after such a thorough analysis can you develop a strong competitive advantage.

2. Competitor Capabilities: Never say your business does not have any competition! There will always be competitors, directly or indirectly. It is important that you understand how they are serving your target market. Gauge the benefits the target segment gets from their product/service. Research the areas they are unable to serve. What entry barriers have they created to the market? Where are they most vulnerable? What complaints do existing customers have with their service?  You need answers to all these questions to formulate a good answer.

3. Our Capabilities: After identifying the customer and the competition, a clearer understanding emerges for focusing and building competitive strengths . Efforts have to be made to operate in areas where your competition has difficulty in reaching the target customers. To help carve out such a segment you require a  strong team, patentable technology, strong alliances or any other factor to differentiate you from the rest.

Focus on these three factors will enable you to come up with the ‘where’ and ‘how’ to provide to your target segment. When you look at companies such as Amazon with their one click ordering system, Google with their patentable technology and algorithms or Toyota with its production system, notice how these great companies have been able to develop great competitive advantages in the face of excessive competition.

The answer to this question will hold the key to whether your business is going to be a long term success or not. Without an initial competitive edge, a company has slimmer chances of making it very far. They will have difficulty in getting investors to infuse money and a harder time getting customers to develop a level of trust in what they have to offer. What is your competitive edge?

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Why does your organization exist?

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” Peter F. Drucker

The answer to the question above involves two fundamental factors, clarity of purpose, and passion. Without these two factors, one usually ends up listening to convoluted stories without the vital x-factor. The answer to this question is sometimes also called an elevator pitch. This is a concise snippet about one’s business and should be enough to intrigue a potential investor. Other than for investors, it can be used for customer presentations, networking events, or any other platform to introduce your organization. Failure to get the answer to this question right, usually means you will not get the opportunity to be asked other follow up questions. It is therefore vital that the answer to this question is carefully drafted and rehearsed to perfection.

A couple of key factors need to be addressed in your answer :

1. The Problem: Correctly identify the problem area  your business is attempting to target and alleviate. Having numbers and research indicating size of the problem is an added bonus and adds weight to your argument.

2. Customer Value Proposition: The next part of the pitch must cover how your product/service is going to address the problem, and what your competitive advantages are in relation to your competitors. Many CVPs are not formulated correctly, are often vague and abstract and leave potential investors or customers at a loss to understand it comprehensively. To read more about how to develop a good CVP please click here.

3. Team: If you have any outstanding team or board members who are well known and respected in your particular industry, mention them during the pitch. In the end it all comes down to execution, and having industry veterans backing you is a huge bonus.

The answer to this question should be given in less than 2 minutes, ideally. It is therefore essential to spend time perfecting the pitch and making sure that it is concise, clear and full of energy. One of the most important parts of the pitch is the opening sentence. This is usually called the “hook”, it must be cleverly drafted and be able to grab the audience’s attention instantly. Practice the delivery of this answer as much as you can, the feedback you get along the way should be incorporated into the pitch. In the end a well executed elevator pitch could help secure that venture funding you require.

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Assessing a Business

“These two questions are the fundamental questions in strategy. How can you understand your industry and your competitive environment, and how can you understand how to position your company within that environment?” Michael Porter

Being able to assess your own company as well as those of the competition correctly is a skill every entrepreneur must develop. This skill helps look at the state of a current business objectively and ensure it is in line with what it started out to do. If it has changed along the way, you need to be able to identify the reasons for the change correctly, and  justifiably, for whether it has served the company well. Very often, well thought out organizations, have simple targeted reasons for existing and cater solely to those needs in an effective and efficient manner. When a company attempts to manage too many fronts without adequate resources, unnecessary complications arise in their business model.

Like any other skill this one will take time, commitment, and experience to master. I am involved in the assessment of some start-up ventures due to my linkage with several entrepreneurial clubs and societies. Over the years I have come to rely on a couple of basic and fundamental questions when assessing a business. These are simple questions which are aimed at the core of the business, where it wants to be, and how it plans on getting there. As a business owner myself, I continue to ask myself these same questions about the businesses I manage, to ensure that we are on track for where we want to be and have adjusted our strategy correctly, in light of any changes which may have occurred along the way.

Over the course of this week I will go through five basic questions which can be used to assess a company at a very basic level. I hope they will help those who use these questions and will enable them to channel their thought process in a more structured manner when assessing a business. In the near future, case studies will be added to this blog, these will be ideal to test one’s understanding of this week’s blog series. If anyone would like to have their company or business model assessed please send me an email at blog(at)usmansheikh(dot)(net). I will be more than happy to take a look at them and send you some feedback.

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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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Market Risk

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