Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

5 Steps to Better Conversations

There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

In today’s fast paced world, we may have many virtual conversations, but, we are losing the ability to sit across a person or a group of people and have a real conversation. We are pre-occupied with the myriad of things happening in our life, or are constantly being beeped by one of the many gadgets we carry. This does not bode well for our generation, because a breakdown in the ability to communicate in the real world can have disastrous repercussions. We see that today in the increase in divorces, suicides and depression related illnesses. Somewhere along this rapid technological progress, we are losing touch with the fundamental bonds which hold us all together. The art of conversation is one such bond, it has been pivotal in our development. Listed below are five steps, to assist and benchmark conversational and communication skills.

1. Knowledge: When it comes to being a good communicator, knowledge is a defining aspect. Without it, we can talk without actually saying very much. When an individual is knowledgeable, it comes across even when you talk to them about the most trivial of subjects. One must constantly keep learning and growing. With the proliferation of information today, there are so many ways we can keep ourselves abreast on current affairs as also increase our knowledge on subjects we are interested in. To learn specific tips on how to increase your knowledge base, please click here.

2. Confidence: Being confident about oneself is an integral part of being a good communicator. Without this characteristic, knowledge will not help you to communicate in an effective manner. To assess our confidence, we have to identify instances where we lack the confidence to take a stand or share an opinion. Watch the best communicators in the world and visualize yourself communicating in similar manners. We have to get rid of negative thoughts which give rise to self doubt. At the same time, we have to keep a fine balance between being confident and over confident. To learn specific tips on how to increase your level of confidence, please click here.

3. Clarity: Without clarity, the message we want to communicate can get lost somewhere in translation. This will result in both the speaker and audience getting frustrated and tune out. There needs to be substantial and adequate thought put into the organization of our ideas. At the same time, we need to make sure that the language we use is not too convoluted that it confuses rather than impresses the audience. Lastly and most importantly, pronunciation is of critical importance. These factors put together, form the basic foundation of clarity of speech. To learn about each component in greater detail, please click here.

4. Enthusiasm: No one really wants to talk to someone who is sick of life and has lost the passion for living. Individuals who attract us are those whose body language, tone and words express their zest for life. They have a certain type of energy around them which makes just about anything they say a lot more enjoyable. Since 93% of all conversation is based on non verbal cues which include your body language and tone, it is essential that we pay more attention to them to ensure that our conversations are an accurate reflection of our persona and the message we want to convey. To learn more about these three factors, which determine the enthusiasm level in your conversations, please click here.

5. Listening: The art of listening is a dying art in our world today. Conversations are constantly and rudely interrupted, or the audience distracted, either due to information overload in their minds, or one of the many gadgets on them, which keep beeping or ringing. In order to become better listeners there are three areas we should focus our attention towards. Firstly, are we actively listening to the conversations we are part of? Secondly, do we have internal filters which are impeding our listening to the entire message. Lastly, are we paying attention to the subtle clues in each conversation conveyed through tone, body language and choice of words? To learn more about each of these three areas, please click here.

As an entrepreneur we have to work towards making great first impressions to colleagues, investors and customers. Our conversational skills are a large component of the overall impression we project. We have to ensure that we are conveying the impression we wish to. The steps provided above should assist in evaluating your present conversational skills and subsequently used to benchmark how we measure up on each one . Better conversational skills and abilities will not only increase the quality of your professional relationships, it will do wonders for your personal relationships too. I wish you the best of luck in all your future endeveours.

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Are you listening?

“We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.” Anonymous

The art of listening is a dying art in our world today. Conversations are constantly and rudely interrupted, or the audience distracted, either due to information overload in their minds, or one of the many gadgets on them, which keep beeping or ringing. Somehow no one seems to be listening anymore, yet, everyone seems to be talking a lot more. The fact of the matter is, listening is not the easiest of exercises. It requires large amounts of patience, a willingness to learn from the other person and most importantly, to have respect for the other person’s point of view. However, in the fast paced world we live in today, everyone seems to want to get their two bits in, and has frankly stopped caring about what the other person is saying or feeling. Conversations structured like this are the worst sort of one-way monologues one is part of. Developing skills to be a better listener takes years to master, listed below are some steps to assess one’s current level, and then work on them further.

1. Active Listening: Have you ever spoken to someone and the other person appeared to be distracted or not really there? This creates a level of frustration in the speaker, and eventually they lose interest in sharing their opinion because they are not being heard. When an individual is listening actively they are constantly either reaffirming the thoughts of the speaker with nods or the occasional “uh-huh”, when unclear they are paraphrasing what is being said and getting clarification. Taking an active interest in what is being said, helps the speaker to communicate their thoughts more actively. How active a listener are you?

2. Filters: All of us have interests and hobbies that we like to talk about and get other opinions on. We also know which subjects are not of interest to us, and chances are we will tune out when someone starts speaking about them. When put into the context of listening, this is extremely selfish behaviour, and we end up only talking and listening to people who interest us. In the real world this is difficult as we do have to listen to people who talk about their interests. We have to closely monitor these filters and do our best to eradicate as many of them as possible. Remain committed to keeping an open mind and avoid making judgments based on personal filters. Are you filtering too many conversations?

3. Clues: As mentioned in the last post, non verbal communication constitutes a large part of overall conversation. We have to train ourselves, not only to listen to the words the speaker is using, but also take note of the tone of voice and body language. We have to know when to empathize and when to give constructive feedback. Chances are, if we have not really been listening to the conversation as a whole, we would have missed these cues, which result in miscommunication. There will be times when  speakers get frustrated that the individual is not listening to what they are saying, and the listener is clueless about why the person is so angry (Happens a lot between men and women). Are you paying attention to all the clues?

I have a mentor who does a great job at listening. I can sit in front of him for hours, and somehow thoughts come easier and communication is a lot more fluid. Even though there is minimal input on his part I ‘know’ he is listening. Imagine if you could have such conversations with your colleagues, investors and customers. As an entrepreneur, we have to keep our ears peeled all the time to ensure that we are staying on top of the game. If you are listening, the probability of success is a lot higher.

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How Enthusiastic are you?

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have all had that one professor or lecturer in school or college, who put everyone to sleep. His/her monotonous delivery, made it impossible to pay attention to the material being taught. There are also many individuals who have a strained manner of speaking. They have either lost interest in life, or have sunk into a routine which impacts their passion for life negatively. When we come into contact with such individuals, they tend to drain our energy too.  Were an entrepreneur to ever get stuck in such a rut, the impact for his/her business could be disastrous. I mention passion repeatedly in most of my series, as being critical for success in any aspect for life. We have to avoid getting bogged down when difficult situations arise, to keep our chin up is essential. Keeping a positive outlook is vital to keep enthusiasm levels high. Some factors by which we can measure levels of enthusiasm in a conversation are:

1. Body Language: If you pay attention to great communicators such as Steve Jobs,  notice their gestures and overall body language when they are communicating. It is a known fact, that using gestures when speaking helps the brain connect thoughts faster. Our overall body posture is an integral part of the total message we want to deliver. For example, if one were to stand with drooping shoulders and speak in a non expressive manner when pitching to a VC,  we will send a  wrong subliminal message. Pay attention to your body language when speaking, it is a major component of your overall communication delivery.

2. Tonality: I did a NLP (Neuro Linguisitic Programming) course a couple of years ago where a large chunk was dedicated to the importance of tonality. A variety of tones can be used to communicate the same message, in many different ways. If you have ever heard or watched Anthony Robbins, notice how he uses tonality to communicate with the audience at different levels. Sometimes, his pitch is fast and highly charged to get the audience fired up to his level,  other times, he drops the level of his voice to communicate at a different level when he wants to appeal to your subconscious. Pay attention to your tone when you next communicate with someone. Are you mixing it up enough?

3. Words: Extraordinary, Amazing, Revolutionary these are just some of the words that Steve Jobs uses in his keynote addresses when he introduces new products. With the correct choice of words, one is able to flavor communication in a manner that helps the audience relate to what you are saying. Imagine John F. Kennedy saying “Do good things for your country,” instead of “Ask not what your
country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” The choice of words and how they are put together in a sentence, impact greatly on the intensity and meaning of what you are saying.

When I was with toastmasters we were taught the 55% 38% 7% rule. The rule simply says that 55% of communication is through body language, 38% through our tone and 7% through the words we use. Unfortunately we pay too much attention to the 7% and forget about the importance of the 93%. To become a great communicator, we have ensure that we pay attention to the entire 100% and deliver it with enthusiasm and passion.

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What did you say?

mad“Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people. Jim Rohn

Ever been in a conversation where you have no idea what the other person is saying? I am sure many of us have been part of such conversations. These are the conversation where the speaker goes on and on about a particular topic, without any purpose or direction whatsoever, or when the speaker loses the audience on account of the banal tonality and language. In business, when such a person addresses a customer, investor or even his/her own team, chances are he creates a negative impression about his/her capabilities. Such an individual will find it difficult to be taken seriously, or be in a position of leadership. Unfortunately, not too many individuals focus on improving the level of clarity in their communication abilities. Listed below are three areas I believe a conscious effort should be made to monitor.

1. Thought Organization: I had a business partner who was very knowledgeable and confident. Yet, whenever he would start talking the entire group would just tune out. He would essentially start rambling, and regularly drifted away from the topic being discussed. This became a huge distraction for the team and it was also incredibly frustrating. During evaluations the point was brought up, and he made a conscious effort to pay greater attention to organizing his thoughts. It is important that one has a clear purpose when they share an opinion. It doesn’t need to be perfect, however it should highlight ones point of view clearly and concisely.

2. Language: Fancy terms and words should be used sparingly in one’s conversation. These are often used to display the breadth of ones vocabulary, and often instead of impressing the audience it confuses them. When using technical or industry specific terms, make sure that they are presented to an audience which understands them. A conscious effort must be made not only to keep the language simple, but to also remember to keep your sentences short. This makes the overall delivery of your communication clearer as well as much easier to understand.

3. Diction: The tone of your voice when communicating is very important. An individual could be speaking about something very interesting, however if it is delivered in too high or too low a pitch which is too high or too low it will lose its impact and the audience. Sometimes we get very excited or habitually start speaking faster and lose the clarity in our delivery. These instances need to be identified and worked upon to improve our overall communication abilities. As practice evaluate yourself on three factors, volume, pitch variation and pace.

Clarity in communication is critical. Without it, getting or holding the attention of an audience is very difficult. A concentrated effort must be made to make sure that when communicating, our thoughts are thought out and delivered in the same manner. This will not only help get your message across much faster it could be the difference between closing and losing a customer.

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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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Who is on your team?

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth

The success of any startup depends on the quality of the team executing the plans. It comes down to having a team who complements each others strengths and weaknesses, has the ability to work cohesively together and most importantly, has the same core beliefs and values. To communicate this to a potential investor or assessor of the business, requires a deep understanding of oneself and one’s team mates. A clear segmentation of the roles each person will be playing and why that particular person has been chosen for that role is essential.

The answer to this question should include reference to the following:

1. Experience: The first things which needs to be established is the team’s past experience and achievements. This will assist an understanding of where they are coming from and whether they have the required understanding of the market and skill set they will be responsible for. Wherever possible, support your answer with specific details including return on investments (ROI), market share growth, sales figure or any industry rewards and recognition achieved. Past tangible results need to be highlighted.

2. Leadership: This point needs to be stressed to showcase  possession of the necessary skills to lead and motivate a team. Highlight experience, responsibility and motivational skills from the past. Forward looking investors need to know whether an individual has the ability to motivate a team during hard times, and push them further when things are going well.

3. Roles & Responsibilities: From the very beginning there should be clear allocation of responsibilities. Even though at the beginning everyone has to wear multiple hats, it is important that they are responsible for the part of the business where their strongest skill set is used.

The points mentioned above highlight some key areas to develop answers around. Ultimately, investors invest in teams, not business ideas. Use this opportunity to promote your team as much as possible. Be clear, concise and focus on results and tangible evidence of the team’s great ability to work well together.

Related Articles:

Steps to create a winning team

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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.

Related Articles:

How to write a marketing plan

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What is your business model?

“Great companies first build a culture of discipline…and create a business model that fits squarely in the intersection of three circles: what they can be best in the world at, a deep understanding of their economic engine, and the core values they hold with deep passion.” Jim Collins

In essence what this question is asking is, how does your business make money? To answer this question you must explain comprehensively how the different functions of your business fit together to make a profit. A good business model must satisfy two very simple core criterions, it must be based on it’s target market demand and must make financial sense. As simple as these two criterions may seem, many businesses, specifically in the “internet” era fail to pay attention to them.

One example is that of Webvan. They wanted to take grocery shopping, online. Great idea, huge demand from customers, however, it failed the financial test. The numbers did not add up and after spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the company was forced to close down. Another example of where the story did not make sense, is a company called Flooz. It wanted to convert real money to virtual currency to be used for spending online. After $35m, they found out that customers did not really feel comfortable with the idea.

The litmus test to put to business models, must cover:

1. Does it meet customer needs?: Is there a large enough target market segment willing to buy or use the product/service that the business is wanting to sell? It is essential that business models make sense and that there is a large potential target market.

2. Do the numbers add up?: Firstly, are the forecasts and projection based on solid foundations? Many a time when assessing businesses, I come across assumptions that seem to have been pulled out of a hat and  projections that are quite unrealistic. Secondly, have they taken the costs of doing business into account realistically? In the end, if the numbers do not add up and the business does not have a good plan, the chances of success and making money are very slim.

3. Is the business model scalable?: Investors and potential partners are always more interested in a business which has the ability to scale. Look into the future to see how the business model can be expanded and what it will cost the organization. If IPO and becoming an attractive takeover target is your goal, the business model has got to be scalable.

4. Can the business model be easily replicated?: Almost all models can be replicated. However, how much does it cost, and how long before your competition catches up? Look at DELL, it developed a business model which was very difficult for its competition to replicate because of its existing distribution channel agreements. Hence, even though the model could be replicated, they chose not too because they could not match it.

Listed above are a few things to keep in mind when developing an answer to the above question. It is important to clearly communicate how the business will make money, what assumptions the forecasts are based on, and whether it has the ability to scale. Investors are looking for something unique yet simple. It is challenging to find this balance, however if you do, success is right around the corner.

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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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