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 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.

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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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5 Strategy Based Games

“What do you want to achieve or avoid? The answers to this questions are objectives. How will you go about achieving your desired results? The answer to this you can call strategy.” William E Rothschild.

This week we have talked about ways to flex analytical thinking capabilities so as to become more adept at developing and executing strategic directives. One of the ways which has contributed substantially to my personal growth in strategic based thinking, has been its application in a variety of strategic games I have played. Most of these games have simple rules, and can be played by a broad spectrum of individuals ranging from children to adults. When we begin to scratch the surface of these rules, we notice more complexities. Strategy development follows similar lines. To develop and deploy an effective strategy is a challenging task. Listed below are five strategy based games through which I have learnt many valuable lessons.

1. Chess: This game teaches several fundamental concepts, such as preparation, patience and sacrifice, key proponents in development of strategic planning. Chess provides an ideal playing ground to practice, and hone skills needed in these particular segments. It teaches us to see patterns, which may lead to future positions, and how to take advantage of them. At the same time it forces us to continue looking at the bigger picture, to ensure that we are aware of all positions on the board, so as to take advantage of them. To read more about the parallels between chess and strategy please click here.

2. Bridge: Is a game which helps develop skills to work with others, communication, learning to trust instinct and, actual ‘table’ play. As a partnership based game, effective communication with your partner is critical so as to read and understand the partner’s hand. Developing and deploying strategic directives works in the same way. We have to learn to work together to formulate them, at the same time we have to communicate them effectively to the rest of the team, to ensure smooth deployment or play. To read more about parallels between bridge and strategy please click here.

3. Poker: Among the many things which can be learnt from this game are aggression, controlling emotions and attention to detail. Most of these qualities are also required to ensure successful deployment of any strategy. Without them, we see poor execution and unravelling of plans midway, due to the inability to master these factors. It is essential that we develop and be adept at understanding our own thresholds and abilities to find success. To read more about the parallels between poker and strategy please click here.

4. Monopoly: An all time favorite strategy based game, this gives players insights into negotiating, deal making and situational analysis. There are several strategies which players take to win at this game, unfortunately they are often short sighted. This is due primarily because we develop strategies based solely on the short term . These could be in the form of hitting quarterly targets or maintaining specific share price. Most of these strategies do not take into account long term implications of these decisions, which have the potential to be detrimental to the company’s future. To read more about parallels between monopoly and strategy please click here.

5. Risk: A game with an end goal of, world domination. It teaches players several principles relating to allocation of resources, partnerships and aggression. Most of these principles form the basis of successful strategies. The ability to fully utilize in-hand resources in the most efficient manner is a challenging task. Furthermore, to progress as an organization,  strategic alliances need to be formed to accelerate the rate of growth. These principles are covered in the game, in a simple yet effective manner. To learn more about parallels between risk and strategy please click here.

On the journey as an entrepreneur, learning has to be an ongoing factor. Using creative methods to exercise analytical and thinking capabilities helps to see situations from different angles. This equips us with the ability to make better decisions, be more productive and reach our goals faster. 

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Risk

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.” Sun Tzu

Competing for world domination is what the game of Risk is all about. This is a military based game, where players put their respective armies against each other. The game provides each player with the ability to be involved in strategic maneuvering, brings in an element of luck with the dice and gives ample opportunities to form and break alliances. In a way, it simplifies all the complexities of war, into a simple game where the player with the greatest foresight and a little luck, usually emerges victorious. Unlike Monopoly, this game allows for more creativity and imagination due to the movements allowed on the board. Playing straightforward strategies leaves you exposed, and vulnerable to attacks. 

This interesting game has quite a few parallels to the world of business and strategy:

1. Allocation of Resources: Each player has a finite amount of resources allocated to them. The placement of these resources is a critical aspect of the game. One may choose to have loosely scattered armies all over the board, they may decide to fortify certain key positions with the bulk of their resources, or they may aim to use their resources collectively and be aggressive. Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages, a similar predicament occurs in the real world when we develop strategies. The deployment of limited resources is critical to whether the overall strategy will be successful or not.

2. Partnerships: Conquering the whole world, even in a game, is an arduous task, one that can rarely be done alone. The game calls for players to partner together, to improve their chances of winning and become a more feared adversary. Without these partnerships one is usually outflanked or outnumbered, and an early exit in the the game is imminent. The same principles apply in the real world. In order to reach goals and objectives, partnerships are an essential component. Choosing partners carefully and correctly is vital to ensure the success of any campaign.

3. Aggression: In my experience of playing this game, the opponent who chooses to fortify a small portion of the board heavily, usually faces eventual defeat. Opponents who choose a defensive style of play, lack the creativity or willingness to go out of their comfort zones, fearing the unknown. Unfortunately such behavior is punished heavily in this game as well as in the real world. When pursuing goals and dreams, being aggressive is often vital to acheive them . Focusing efforts on offensive strategies instead of defensive ones will bring a greater share of victories, rather than defeats in my opinion. 

In the game of Risk there is an element of luck, due to the requirement of rolling a dice. Once the dice is rolled, nothing can be done to change what was rolled. What we do have control over, is how we react to what we may have rolled. In life we have the same choice. We cannot change the hand that we have been dealt. What we can change is how we choose to play it. Remember to keep your end goal in mind, and formulate short term tactics to reach it.

 

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Monopoly

“Monopoly is a game which calls for long term strategic planning in order to succeed. “ Anonymous

There were very few games as exciting as Monopoly when I was growing up. It was by far one of my favorite board games, I still enjoying playing it today. There was something about the game, which drew me to it, maybe it was the immense satisfaction I got from figuring out how to convince my opponent to make a deal, the thrill of watching my opponents land on my hotels or just plain winning. I do believe that playing this game from such a young age was, to an extent, instrumental in developing my passion for business and deal making. As I grew older I began to notice the parallels between the board game and business. 

Listed below are some prominent parallels:

1. Negotiation: Monopoly requires players to make deals for swapping properties or other concessions during the course of the game. Very rarely do players want to give up something which they know will put them at a disadvantage in the game. It all comes down to how convincingly you negotiate and structure deals, so that they fit into your plan and appear to be favorable to your opponents as well. Individuals act in similar ways in the real world, and an ability to close a deal comes down to your negotiation and persuasion skills. 

2. Situation Analysis: In the game of Monopoly, it is critical that you adjust strategy according to the number of opponents as well as the nature of their behaviour patterns. Going ahead blindly and acquiring every piece of property you land on without a set objective, will place you at a definitive disadvantage. When developing business strategy, the same concerns have to be taken into account. Not paying attention to these factors, creates exploitable vulnerabilities in your plan. 

3. Integrity: Sometimes individuals will say just about anything to close a deal. In Monopoly this could be, “I will let you off three times on my hotels”, “We can share profits on this property” or “I will never charge you on this square”. However, I have seen these promises broken many  a time and a friendly game turn sour. In a game revolving around dealmaking, one’s word is really all there is. If no one trusts you or your word does not carry weight, no one will want to make a deal with you. The same rule applies in all aspects of life as well. Keeping true to your word will give your team reason to believe in you, will give investors the confidence to invest in you and will allow you to sleep well at night. 

Looking ahead and adjusting strategy according to forecasts is essential in the game of Monopoly and the game of life. One has to learn to trust gut instincts, and be confident in how to move forward. Keeping your word and honoring deals is mandatory. Understand your opponents and learn what drives them. At the end of the game of Monopoly there can only be one winner, make sure you have the drive and ambition to be that person. 

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Poker

“The most common mistake in history is underestimating your opponent; it happens at the poker table all the time.” David Shoup

Poker is a game associated with luck and random chance by most people. The immense media attention has contributed to a large extent, to the explosion in the number of poker players during recent years. The rules of the game are fairly straightforward, any amateur can be taught the game in no time. Due to this low learning curve, this game has witnessed a massive influx of players who just want to “try” their luck at it , so to speak.  Admittedly, there is an element of luck to this game, as there is with most card games. However, this element of luck creates a deceptive illusion, and beginners finds themselves losing rapidly to the more seasoned players. The fact of the matter is,  understanding probability stakes and an innate skill for reading people’s faces provides stronger players, with a huge advantage in this game. 

There are a few parallels that can be drawn from the game of poker to strategy and business. Some key elements I drew from the game are:

1. Aggression: Calculated aggression in the game of poker, forces other players at the table to react to your style of playing. Done correctly, this enables stronger players to manipulate many situations to their advantage. In business, and specially strategic development, the same theory applies. If one remains passive in outlook and allows external factors to disrupt the game plan, progress will be slow. One has to be an instigator to bring change, and one needs to pursue goals aggressively to reach them. Sitting back and expecting things to happen is a flawed strategy.

2. Controlling Emotions: The players at a poker table who allow their emotions to override logic and rationale, are the first to lose their chips. There are very few games I have played, in which controlling emotions plays such a vital role. It has taught me a great deal about patience and keeping a level head even when things become terribly long. Developing such patience can help greatly in all aspects of life, and provide a distinct advantage over those who lose their cool too quickly.

3. Attention to Detail: The game of poker is about gathering as much information about other players as possible. This could be their betting patterns, gestures or even the way they talk. Poker, does to a large extent boil down to how well you can read your opponents. Players who are able to identify patterns earlier in the game, can win, regardless of what others may be holding in their hands. In business and strategic development the same rules apply. The inability to understand your competition and identify trends leaves your organization at a great disadvantage. 

Developing keen insights about your opponents, and understanding your own personal threshold limits can be extremely valuable assets. By the same token, knowing when to accept defeat and when to keep your calm is equally important. This game punishes those with large egos, and rewards those who are able to keep their emotions and egos in check. Life works in very similar ways, the sooner we get adept at understanding these intricacies, the sooner we can reach our goals.

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Bridge

“A winner listens to his partner’s point of view; A loser just waits until it’s his turn to express his own.” Anonymous

Bridge is a game that was played regularly by my grandparents and parents. As a result, I learned this game at a very young age. I still have many fond memories of sitting beside my grandparents while they played their weekly bridge game at our home. It was fascinating to see the dynamics between the four individuals who were playing. Being a team based game, I remember being told how critical it was to carefully select partners and develop relationships. Like any team based game there were arguments and disagreements over how certain hands were played, which actually added an exciting dynamic to the game. 

On the surface, bridge appears to be a simple game with set rules of how to play the 13 cards each individual is dealt. However, that is only the beginning. There are many intricacies and conventions which arise when you begin to talk about bidding tactics, counting cards, table play and being able to read your partners as well as the opponents. Some parallels I can draw from bridge in comparision to strategic thinking are:

1. Teamwork: Without teamwork bridge cannot be played optimally. It requires both partners to have established understanding of each other’s style of playing  as well as the  conventions they follow and play to. From a strategic point of view one can draw parallels to business teams, as it is easy to tell which teams work well together as compared to those who don’t. When a team is not looking at ways to improve communication and productivity together, they are missing out on massive potential. Therefore establishing team building skills through games like bridge can be extremely beneficial.

2. Communication: Bridge is all about communicating with your partner the strengths and weaknesses of your hand , and then go on to play the hand optimally. However, the bidding process is complicated and requires a deep understanding of bidding styles and conventions as well as interpretation of your partners bids. The team which is able to communicate most effectively is usually the one with a substantial advantage in the game. Strategically, the same conclusions can be reached regarding communication. If teams do not communicate effectively they will suffer as  a result. On the other hand effective team communication can develop into defining competitive advantages over peers.

3. Instincts: Trusting your gut becomes easier with time and experience. Initially there is doubt about one’s instincts even when it appears to be a logical sequence. In bridge one needs to accurately place  one’s opponents cards relative to bidding and past rounds. There needs to be confident dependence on one’s ability to trust one’s counting & retentive skills as well as instinct in the placement of cards. This develops ones ability to rely on one’s instinct with greater comfort. Trusting your instincts when developing and executing strategy is necessary. Without it, you lack the confidence and ability to communicate effectively with the rest of the team. 

Bridge is an enjoyable game which sharpens analytical and team building skills. Unfortunately it is not a mainstream game and therefore does not enjoy the popularity of other card games such as poker. Nonetheless, it is a game I recommend, so learn it and play it as recreational activity among your team.

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