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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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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5 Steps to Write a Customer Value Proposition

“The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.” Thomas J Watson

A customer value proposition (CVP) is a direct reflection of how your organization brings value to your target segment. It helps them answer the fundamental question “Why should I buy from you instead of your competitor?” A well developed CVP has the ability to transfer your target segment’s attention to the distinctive advantages of your product/service, and the reason they should select it. If the CVP is generic and abstract, with fancy words which do not translate into tangible value for the customer, it is of no consequence. Listed below are five steps to help you develop a winning CVP.

1. Customer Identification: Who is your target customer? Instead of answering this question with generic answers such as multinational companies, teenagers or women, be more specific in your approach. An analysis outlining the customer’s needs and their current pain points is the need of the hour. If your product/service does not fulfill a need, it will be difficult for your organization to generate substantial traction. Therefore, the first step requires understanding your target customer and ensuring that the essence of your CVP reflects an unfulfilled need. To read more about customer identification please click here.

2. Distinct Advantages: What makes your product/service special? If your product/service is homogenous in comparison to the rest, chances of getting lost in the crowd are, high. Your product/service must provide customers with a simple and clear reason to choose your organization over the competition. This being a vital component of your customer value proposition, it is essential that substantial time and effort is put into identification and development of these edges. To read more about discovering your organization’s distinct advantages please click here.

3. Measuring Value: If your product/service does not bring tangible benefit to your target customer, chances of recurring business is diminished. During customer research, you will discover pain points for your customers. These need to be addressed by adding metrics to monitor positive changes through your product/service. Once the customer understands the value you bring to their organization, they are able to select you with greater ease and provide recurring business. To read more about measuring the value brought by your product/service please click here.

4. Sustainability: With the claims made in a CVP, an organization is making a promise to its target segment. This could be in the form of creating efficiency, increasing productivity, stimulating sales or even making life easier. When the customer selects your service, they expect to receive the benefit promised to them. It is critical that organizations understand what it takes to keep those promises, and to continually make good on them. Making big claims is the easy part, delivering on those claims is what sets the winners apart. To read more about sustainability of your CVP please click here.

5. Competitor Comparison: Every company has their strengths and weaknesses. However most companies are so engrossed internally, they forget to pay attention to their competition. For a CVP to be most effective, it must clearly provide the prospect with a reason to be selected over another competing product. It must bolster its strengths and play against their competitors most exposed weaknesses. With the constant changes taking place in our world today, do not lose sight of the competition, always remain vigilant about all potential and major changes. To read more about competitor comparison and your CVP please click here.

Developing a good CVP takes time and effort. It is not something which can be done in a single day. It requires a thorough analysis of your industry, competitors and yourself. A comprehensive understanding of market dynamics and the industry’s pain points will help construct a CVP which addresses market concerns and bridges it with solutions. A well developed CVP can be a great source of inspiration and motivation for the entire organization. Make sure you allocate adequate time and resources for its construction.

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Competitor Comparison

“Concentrate your strengths against your competitor’s relative weaknesses.” Paul Gauguin

Your customer value proposition (CVP) needs to be benchmarked against your competitors. Prospects will always ask the question “Why should we choose you over them?”. As mentioned in earlier posts, ensure a distinctive advantage, tangible metrics and a proposition which is sustainable over a period of time. When formulating a CVP the competition must always be kept in mind. Irrespective of whether you have experienced success relatively quickly or whether it has taken a longer period of time, the tendency to become complacent  is always there. It is at these moments that we are at our weakest, and our vulnerabilities exposed.

When initially constructing your CVP, it is vital to do a sweep of all the local competition. This will enable you to:

1. Position yourself: It is important to position yourself correctly in relation to your strengths and the competition’s weakness. We are always looking to operate in that sweet spot where our competitors are at a disadvantage, and target customers are able to make a clear and easy choice about whom to choose and why.

2. Focus: There are areas, where our competitors have clearly developed strong competencies, which make it difficult for new entrants to penetrate. After a thorough analysis, the aim should be to collect all the vulnerabilities in the competition’s defense and amplify them. This is best done by focusing marketing and research efforts to ensure development in areas where the competition is at its weakest.

3. Understand trends: By continuously monitoring the competition, a keen insight into future trends in your industry is developed. This enables developing core expertise in those areas before the competition and can put you in a strong position to potentially disrupt the market. 

Once the analysis is complete, the wordings in your CVP should reflect the strengths of your organization in comparison to those of your competitors. With the constant changes taking place in our world today, do not lose sight of the competition, always remain vigilant about all potential and major changes. 

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Keeping Promises

“Never promise more than you can perform.” Publilius Syrus

Imagine if FedEx did not get your package to its target destination overnight! Would you use or recommend the service to anyone again? Probably not. As customers of products/services, we expect them to deliver on their promise. Inability to match expectations, results in unhappy customers, and more importantly, negative word of mouth publicity. Such publicity is viral in nature, can spread like wildfire, and could well mean the end of the road for your organization. Deciding to play it safe and not putting anything on the line, chances are you will never really stand out in a crowd. A fine balance has to be maintained to ensure customer satisfaction, while ensuring your organization is able to stand out in a crowd.

Look at renown brands in the market place today, notice the promises each is making. Volvo promises safety, Energizer batteries promise to last longer, Domino’s promises to get you your pizza in less than 30 minutes and Disney promises entertainment for the entire family. Each one of these companies makes a commitment, then ensures they deliver on the promise. Anyone of them, failing to consistently deliver on their promise, would not find their name on the list above. Many companies however, make big promises these days, come through initially, but are not able to make that commitment a sustainable one. 

When developing your customer value proposition (CVP) and committing to increase efficiency, boost productivity or bring a smile to your customers, it is critical to lay a solid foundation to continually provide those experiences. Making big claims is the easy part, delivering on those claims is what sets the winners apart. Carefully think through promises to your clients, ensure the ability or develop the capability to deliver on those promises on an ongoing basis. Remember, all it takes is one major fall to bring down everything you have worked hard to build. 

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Measuring Value

“The trouble with measurement is its seeming simplicity.” Anonymous

If you have ever pitched a product or service to a prospect, there is no doubt you have heard the question “How is this product/service going to help my organization?”. If the reply to this question is abstract, vague and includes words such as speed, efficiency or productivity, without any tangible figures or results, closing the deal will be a challenging proposition. When I say tangible results, it does not mean they have to be precise, they should however provide the prospect with something to create a frame of reference. For example, Domino’s Pizza gets your pizza to you in less than 30 minutes, FedEx gets your packages to its target destination overnight and M&M say, their milk chocolate will melt in your mouth and not your hands. Three world renown companies, each with a differing degree of measurement attached to their product/services. 

The bottom line is, if your product/service does not have the ability to bring tangible benefit to your target market, chances of success are slim. The question coming to mind now, should be, “What sort of tangible benefit can my product/service provide my target market?” Entire books, courses and seminars have been created around this one critical question. If a company is able to answer this question with a tangible benefit of great value to its target market, success is not far. However, answering this question is not as straightforward as it appears.

These are a couple of pointers to help start discussions around this particular question with your team:

1. Identification of pain points: An organization’s product/service is developed in order to address a certain pain point that the target market may have. Initially national post offices promised prospects that they would get their packages to their destination. The process was slow but efficient and there was no alternative. FedEx comes along, and addresses this pain point by promising to get your package to it’s target destination, over night. This example shows,  to get faster traction your product/service has to address correct pain points.

2. Establishing metrics: Once you have addressed a particular pain point, measure how it is superior to the  alternatives. FedEx aims to get your package to its target destination overnight. The stress is on the speed  of package delivery. Identify key metrics to ensure, that prospects will be able to clearly measure the benefits of using your product/service. There are many examples in the market place, mutual funds offer specific returns, sports cars tell you how fast they can go and some software promises specific increases in productivity. 

3. Case Studies: Actions and results speak larger than words. If you are a new company and have a product/service which has not been commercially tested, I strongly suggest you find your first pilot customer as soon as possible. Most established companies look at start-ups with suspicion, at the back of their minds, they wonder if you can actually deliver. I believe it is a justified stance and one which we need to learn to live with. To counter it, find a customer, do a commercial implementation and track just about everything you can. Afterwards, analyze which metrics have value and focus on those.

This is by far one of the most challenging steps one has to take in the development of a good customer value proposition (CVP). Much time needs to be spent in identification of correct metrics and related data collection. However it is well worth the effort. The next time you pitch your product/service to a prospect remember to tell them exactly how you will be benefiting their organization. It will clearly increase the probability of closing the deal, the incremental increase however will depend on how well you have mapped out your CVP. 

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