Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

My Big Challenge for 2009

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison

I have been thinking about my goals and aspirations for 2009 for the last couple of days. I have been setting goals for various aspects of my life. When I reached the category of personal goals, I began thinking on similar parallels to my goal of starting this blog in 2008. I believe starting this blog was one of the most rewarding goals that I have set to date. It has come to a point that I am motivated on a daily basis to write something and if I don’t, it feels as if I have forgotten something during the course of the day, in short I miss it! While thinking about this I began debating the idea of possibly writing a book in 2009. It would be a book about entrepreneurship and detail the major joys, hurdles and learning experiences I have had on my journey so far. The primary objective would be to assist others out there who are wanting to start a business or have started a business recently. After thinking about it in depth, I know that such a book would have been of great help to me when I was starting up a couple of years ago. I have thus decided to set myself the goal of completing the e-book version by Dec 31st 2009.

I realize there are many “How-to” books on starting a business as well as entrepreneurship in the marketplace today. My only gripe with most of them has been that they are very technical in nature and instead of always inspiring someone to take the leap, they often lead to self doubt. The objective of my book would be to provide advice on some of the biggest lessons I have learnt during my entrepreneurial journey. That would include setting visions, finding the right partners, the importance of marketing, how to manage cash flows and other very expensive lessons that I have learned over time. After reading this book I hope the reader will be able to see entrepreneurship from a 30,000 ft level as well as some of the intricacies that need to be addressed during the first year of starting up.

I would really appreciate feedback from readers of this blog about whether this is a book that would be of interest to you and what you would want to learn about, and see included in such a book. Your feedback will be critical in assisting me to choose the right focal point of the book. I look forward to hearing from you either through email at blog (at) usmansheikh.net or in the comment section below.

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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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How Confident are you?

“It took me a long time not to judge myself through someone else’s eyes.” Sally Field

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. We see this in every day life, ranging from professors, colleagues, friends and family members. Many of them have vast knowledge bases, yet, when it comes to sharing an opinion or taking a stand, they back down. Confidence is however, something that we can acquire. It takes a lot of hard work and persistence, on the flip side, there are great returns. If you find yourself lacking in the confidence department, the following couple of steps which helped me, may be of assistance:

1. Weakness Identification: The first step requires us to accept the fact that there is a self confidence problem that needs to be overcome. Many individuals refuse to acknowledge this, unfortunately  this denial hinders progress . It is important to identify the scenario and related feelings, which make us uncomfortable. This may be a cocktail party, a networking session or a presentation. It is important to identify the situation and one’s reactions. Once equipped with a comprehensive listing of areas we need to work on, we can move to the next step.

2. Visualization: Before beginning your journey, be clear about where you want to go. Do you want to give flawless presentations in front of thousands of people, be the center of attention at parties,  engage in highly intellectual discourses, or be comfortable in a group conversations? Whatever your end goal is, look for individuals who excel in that segment and visualize yourself being as comfortable as they are in that particular situation. This step provides the brain with an end goal,  and makes it easier to get there.

3. Goals: Building self confidence takes time, so enjoy the journey. I strongly advocate setting mini goals instead of larger ones. For example, the major goal could be to give a presentation to 20 people at the next quarterly staff meeting. Mini goals could include, practice presenting in front of the mirror for 15 minutes daily, give presentations to friends and family, give a presentation to a few colleagues, all of which will finally help you reach the end goal of giving the staff meeting presentation. It is important to take notice of the progress made along the way.

Tips:

Knowledge Base: As mentioned in the last post the larger and broader your knowledge base is, the more confident you become. I have met many confident people who lack a credible knowledge base, unfortunately this results more often than not, in meaningless and rambling conversational monologues, putting you in the find the next exit opportunity spot.

Self Doubt: Many a time we over analyze things. I know this is something  I used to do a lot, and it severely hindered by ability to communicate effectively. We have to take possible negative outcomes out of the picture, and focus on the positive. This impacts positively on your confidence level, and the ability to communicate clearly.

Over Confidence: Unfortunately over confidence results in an individual seeking to overshadow all conversations they enter into. This results in a monologue rather than a dialogue. There is a fine balance between under confidence, confidence and over confidence.

During this journey a feeling of liberation and empowerment comes into play when words begin to come easier, and more importantly, sharing opinions or taking a stand is no longer scary. Conversations become easier, and slowly, speaking becomes an enjoyable exercise.

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How Knowledgable are you?

“To be master of any branch of knowledge, you must master those which lie next to it; and thus to know anything you must know all.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Ever been stuck in a conversation where the person speaking on a subject knows absolutely nothing about it, yet goes on and on like an authority? Or, when everyone is discussing a topic you are absolutely clueless about. Images of Joey from the sitcom “Friends” comes to mind. To solve this problem Joey went out and bought a volume of an encyclopedia set! It worked to a point, however, it limited him to a single alphabet of subjects which hindered his ability to add value to most conversations. This is a common dilemma faced by many people today. Thirst for diversity of knowledge for the average individual has shrunk dramatically. We remain limited to a select few areas of personal interest, and put very little effort in pursuing knowledge out of that realm. To be honest, I have been guilty of it too. For a while my world drifted around business, entrepreneurship and commerce.

I got absorbed into acquiring as much knowledge as I could in these fields, and it impacted my ability to hold meaningful conversations about anything other than that. When I realized this inadequacy, I made a conscious effort to enlarge the scope of my interests. With the proliferation of the internet, all the information  we could ever need is now readily available to us. We have to use this great resource along with other traditional mediums to continue to expand our horizons. Some things I have added are:

1. News: Prior to re-adjusting my scope for knowledge, news to me meant the latest financial updates from around the world. There was little interest in other topics such as politics, international events and other broader news. This has now changed, and I have become a news buff, with news feeds coming in from different sources throughout the course of the day, on a wide array of topics. Some sites I get live feeds from throughout the day are Google News, Digg, Reuters, Huffington Post, BBC. These are some feeds  I have set up and upon which I now rely to get updated on world happenings on a daily basis.

2. Books: I have become an avid reader now, averaging about a book every 3-4 days. Developing this habit has been pivotal in both the development of my thought processes in business as well as the broadening of my overall scope. Reading provides the ability to look at things more analytically and at the same time, allows more flexibility in thought processes.  Regular and diverse reading helps in being better informed on a myriad of subjects which in turn results in being able to speak on a diverse range of topics confidently. Notice that individuals who are able to carry conversations well are those who are well informed, and know a thing or two about what they are talking.

3. Experience: However, although we read and learn from books and studying,  practical knowledge is often acquired through life experiences. An important distinction to be made here is that experience in isolation is just a series of events that have taken place in the past. Knowledge is what we deduce from those experiences, making them learning experiences. Many individuals go through life having very little to say about their journey. Others have written volumes about it. The difference is our ability to  distill what we learn from these meaningful events.

When it comes to being a good communicator, knowledge is a defining aspect. Without it we can go on talking without actually saying very much. When an individual is knowledgeable, it comes across even when you talk to them, even if it is the most trivial of subjects. Knowledge and the confidence derived thereof  gives them the ability to connect the dots faster, and bring meaning and purpose to what they say. I strongly encourage everyone to make a conscious effort to keep learning and acquiring knowledge at all stages of life. This is an ongoing process which will not only improve the quality of your conversations, it will have a lifelong impact on the quality of your life.

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Awkward Silences

“To speak and to speak well are two things.  A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks.” Ben Jonson

We have all experienced awkward pauses at some time or other, when conversation runs dry between people. Some of us may have experienced them more than others. Personally, I enjoy a one on one conversation a lot more than those in larger groups. However, as I have progressed on my journey as an entrepreneur, I find that speaking effectively to one individual, a small group or a large auditorium full of people is a most critical skill, one which everyone should work hard to develop. If one were to do research on some successful people in the world, we would discover that most of them have the ability to speak and communicate exceedingly well. This skill gives them the capability to inspire, inform, convince, even entertain their audiences in most situations.

As entrepreneurs, we have to be proactive when interacting with people. A common scenario is a networking session where you do not know anyone in the room. If we retreat to a corner in the room and not interact with the individuals at the mixer, we would have wasted several opportunities to find prospective clients, investors, mentors, even friends. Other situations where the inability to converse and structure our thoughts can negatively impact the impression we aim to transmit are investors pitches, meetings with mentors, or staff meetings. At lighter social occasions such as dinners, weddings or parties, we need to hold  conversations, share opinions and thoughts. At each of these, we require the the ability to speak personably and effectively.

There is a big difference between speaking well, and just talking. The two should not be confused. Talking without much thought and just for the sake of talking, can have major ramifications on our personal and professional life. Over the course of this week, I will outline some basic components of the ability to speak and communicate effectively. This is an art we can develop if we are committed enough. The steps which will be discussed in the coming week, are distinctive  traits and aspects I have noticed in successful speakers. I look forward to your comments and feedback on this series.

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