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 Navigate through Difficult Times

There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative. W. Clement Stone

The global economy these days is not in the best of shapes. There are endless stories circulating about how the world as we know it is about to come to an end. I was at a workshop last week and someone was talking about the alarming rate at which Chinese factories were closing down. An older gentlemen who had recently set up his first business turned to me and said “Doesn’t all of this affect you as an entrepreneur?”. I explained to him how the businesses I was involved would not be directly affected and in the end it was up to me to allow such news to affect me or not. Later on I decided to write a series about the question to articulate my thoughts on the matter. Listed below are five steps that every business owner should take to re-evaluate their business during these difficult times.

1. Reality Check: A reality check comprises of taking into account the performance of each one of your businesses major components. These include, sales & marketing, operations, human resources and finances. Each division needs be re-evaluated and adjustments need to be made to cater for the changed external environment. Adjustments can include adjusting your pricing models, laying off staff who are not performing, cutting back on unnecessary perks for executives etc. The primary objective of this exercise is to break each division down and build it back up to cater to the changes. To read the adjustments that need to be made to each division in detail please click here.

2. Communication Channels: Without clear channels of communication a business is in a constant state of flux. During turbulent times communication between management, employees and investors needs to be done at regular intervals. This is vital to diffuse the anxiety, frustration and stress that everyone may be feeling due to the current state of affairs. Mechanisms need to be developed to allow management to talk regularly to their star performers, group sessions need to carried out to get everyone on the same page and most importantly, senior management needs to continuously update the team. To learn more on improving your communication channels please click here.

3. Getting an Outsider’s Perspective: When things are difficult and we are busy putting off all the small fires in the business we tend to forget the bigger picture. An outsider in the form of a mentor or a business coach can assist in making sense of things when everything is in a mess. By leveraging on their experience and rolodex, a business has the capability to dodge pitfalls and possibly make some large sales. Also, having someone from the outside affirm the direction that has been selected and the tactics  being used can greatly enhance the confidence level of a team. To learn more about the benefits of an outsider’s opinion please click here.

4. Focus: As a small business we have to realize from the very beginning that we cannot provide every service under the sun. We need to find a niche where we can develop a competitive advantage that will differentiate us from the rest. During difficult times it is paramount that we focus our resources on our core product/services to achieve optimal results. During these times we cannot afford to experiment and lose sight of our regular clients. All efforts need to be geared to ensure that we provide as much value as possible to our existing clientele. To read more about the importance of focus please click here.

5. Positive Outlook: Our attitude towards the changes taking place externally or internally will decide how we navigate our way through these difficult times. We have a choice of either allowing the negativity to get to us and plague the workplace, or to put a positive spin on things. It is critical that the leader’s attitude be one of positivity and optimism. His/Her attitude is very important to the business as a whole and is used as a gauge by everyone else. To read more about the importance of having a positive outlook please click here.

The primary objective of the steps outlined above is to get everyone to think about their business and how the changes in the external or internal environment are going to affect them. I have relied heavily on these steps to help me navigate through difficult times. On the surface they appear to be relatively straightforward, however, I find that when we are down, our thought processes do not function optimally. Negativity seems to penetrate our thoughts and obvious answers elude us. I hope these steps will help you get started on your journey through the tough times ahead. I look forward to your comments and feedback.

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Positive Outlook

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Winston Churchill

When I selected this step I thought to myself, it is such a ‘cliche’ to tell people to remain positive during tough times. It is something which is repeated day in and day out and is, common sense. When things look bad hope for the best and things should get better. Sure, now tell that to someone who lost a fortune in the recent stock market crash or someone who was forced to shut his/her business down. When someone is hit with such a harsh blow and someone comes up to them and tells them everything is going to be alright, one can understand the frustration that he/she may feel with such a comment. Due to this reason I think it is necessary to provide enough space and time to digest what has happened. It is only through reflection that we can understand what went wrong and what we should avoid in the future. At this moment though, we have a choice to make. We could either remain depressed and frustrated or pick ourselves up and get back into the ring.

Along this journey, as entrepreneurs we are bound to fall many times. Some falls will hurt a lot more than others. However we need to learn to pick ourselves up and keep going. When you start your own business there is no longer just yourself to worry about. There will be partners, employees and possibly investors. Our attitude, whether we are the leader or someone who works at the business is very important. As a leader everyone looks up to you to determine how things are going. If we have a negative outlook our attitude would be a direct reflection of our mental state. This will in turn spread negativity through the organization and essentially bring it to a standstill. Therefore, it is essential that correct vibes are dessimated from the top down. It is also equally important to talk to your partners and employees during this difficult period and see if there is any way you could help them out if needed.

As mentioned in the first post of this series, our attitude towards the challenge will decide how we deal with it. Without a positive outlook our problems appear bigger than they are, things move a lot slower and people generally are a lot of less productive. Therefore it is critical that we ensure that our organization deals with the challenge in a healthy manner by talking things through, evaluating their current standing and then selecting the path to reach end goals.

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Communicating Effectively

“The difference between a smart man and a wise man is that a smart man knows what to say, a wise man knows whether or not to say it.” Frank M. Garafola

Will the business survive this downturn? Will I be able to hang on to my job?  Common questions on the mind of all business owners and employees alike in these difficult times. It is only natural to have an heightened level of anxiety during stressful periods. However, if we were to hold all of that stress within ourselves and not have an outlet to release it, things could become ugly very fast. People begin to talk, rumors about layoffs begin to circulate, productivity levels fall, anxiety increases and just about any call from senior management begins to imply that you are about to be fired. All of this can be dealt with reasonably through effective communication. Senior management needs to provide all stakeholders with a clear and candid message about the health of the business and where it is headed. If a culture of candor has not been created in the organization this can lead to uncomfortable and awkward situations. Such an environment needs to be created.

Listed below are some ways to communicate effectively during such periods:

1. One on one sessions: Ensure that you have individual sessions with key players on the team, assess their current needs and answer any concerns they may have. I have found this to be a most effective strategy as it gives the person concerned a platform and ability to speak his mind, at the same time enjoy privacy about his concerns.

2. Group information sessions: Individuals who are responsible for broader functions like operations, marketing, finance and human resources should give talks on how the current situation is likely to impact the business and strategies that can be used to get through this period. Once again this provides the ability for individuals to get an idea of the company from different angles and provides valuable feedback.

3. Layoffs: Firing people is never easy and is something I really do not like doing at all (I don’t think anyone really enjoys it). However, when it needs to be done it should be done swiftly and as soon as possible. Delaying the inevitable is not a smart strategy and only compounds the problem.

4. Updates from senior management: I usually send companies I am involved with updates after every quarter. When times get tough I increase the updates to a monthly or even bi-weekly schedule depending on the situation. This keeps everyone focused on what is important and on the same page.

Depending on the structure of your business I recommend doing whatever is necessary to ensure that everyone is able to bring their concerns forward. Whether it is through group meetings, online forums or one on one sessions. Mechanisms need to be in place so that communication is made feasible as easily as possible. Failure to do so will further deteriorate the business and one could end up losing a lot of key players.

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Focus

One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular. Anthony Robbins

During boom periods we tend to spread ourselves thinly over too many projects. This places a great strain on the business and dilutes the focus away from core business units. When times get tough I like to sit down with the team and map out priorities. What has been working? What has not been working? What do we want to achieve? When do we want to achieve it by? and, How will we achieve it? These are some questions I use to start up discussions and get everyone involved in the future direction of the business. As a small business we have to realize from the very get go that we cannot be everything to everyone. We have to pick our spots wisely and make sure we can cater to that one segment really well.

In the past I have made the mistake of drifting away from core business units one to many a time. It may be due to the fact that settling into a routine is something I do not like particularly. I need something different or exciting to be happening. Well after a couple of years as an entrepreneur I can attest to the fact if you keep changing the color of your business whenever you get ‘bored’ very little progress is going to be made. When you look at small businesses which succeed there is always a laser like focus on doing something much better than anyone else doing it. Also there is constant improvement on the product/service. One service which comes to mind is 37signals. They have a bunch of productivity apps which I highly recommend such as Highrise and Basecamp. 37signals has developed for itself a highly profitable niche. It keeps its products as simple as possible and has managed to amass a legion of fans.

Whether a business is experiencing a huge upturn or is stuck in a downward spiral, it is essential they maintain focus on what they set out to do. Select your niche carefully, build a product or deliver a service that brings value to your customers and do not lose sight of your end goals. The future of your business could depend on it.

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Get a Fresh Perspective

A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment. John Wooden

During difficult times we tend to get so caught up in our problems that we begin to lose sight of the bigger picture. We keep putting out multiple small fires without really finding their root cause. This leads to feelings of frustration and helplessness. Whenever I have been through times like these, I have found getting a fresh perspective from an outsider very helpful. This could come from a mentor, a business coach or even from individuals whom you hold in high regard in your network. They are able to provide you with advice and feedback on your current situation by looking at the bigger picture. What has always been most helpful for me during these sessions was the ability to put things back into perspective. We often tend to make situations appear a lot worse than they actually are.

Some major advantages you can enjoy with a business coach or mentor are:

1. Experience: Being relatively new to business, there are many things I am not fully aware of. My mentors have always been a source of wealth and information regarding difficult situations. This also has the ability to help you avoid making the costly errors they may have made in the past.

2. Accountability: A leader/coach helps creates an entity you have to be accountable to. They are there to push you on when you become complacent and quick to tell you what you may be doing right or wrong. This has often provided me  with the motivation to push myself harder and achieve results that I may not have without them.

3. Networking: Lastly if your mentor or coach is well connected they instantly become a channel for quality referrals which can boost revenues during slow times. I have repeatedly tapped into this network to generate leads and business when other avenues were not performing up to mark.

Where does one find these coaches and mentors? Well I did it through networking when I was at university, through events, workshops and seminars. I also researched individuals who had excelled in the same industry and dropped them an email. You will be surprised how many people are willing to help if we just care to ask nicely. Use platforms such as Linkedin and tools such as twitter to connect with individuals with more ease. Getting a coach or mentor’s perspective during difficult times may be just what your business needs.

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5 Tips for Better Networking

“It’s not what you know but who you know that makes the difference.” Anonymous

As an entrepreneur, networking has been an essential part of my journey and growth. However, even if you are not an entrepreneur, networking is something each one of us should be doing at some level. Networking provides us with the opportunity to reach out to individuals from all walks of life with whom we share similar passions or interests. We also meet individuals with whom we have very little in common. Either way, through this interaction we grow as individuals and start to see the world from a multi-faceted view point, rather than just our own. To some of us networking and conversing with strangers is easier than it is for others. However we must all make an effort to put ourselves out there and see what develops. Listed below are a couple of tips which have helped me become a more effective networker:

1. First Impressions: These are formed quickly, we need therefore to be vigilant about how we present ourself, and our attitude and overall body language. When meeting individuals for the first time, take an active interest in what they do, see if there is potentially anything you could do to assist them. It is important that we do not come across as pushy or just wanting to get the other person’s name card and move on. Will we always get the right impression across? Probably not, however, we have to do all we can to make sure that the signals we are sending are well aligned with the impression we want to create. To learn more about creating the right first impression please click here.

2. Business Cards: These are a vital component of effective networking. They have the ability to form a link between two strangers and potentially help that link grow into a mutually beneficial relationship. One needs to pay a lot of attention to the design of business cards and make sure that all the information is legible and well presented. Always carry an ample stock of your business cards and give them out liberally. When exchanging business cards, if required, ask politely for potential referrals. Lastly, business cards are essential, if you are not associated with any company, have personal name cards printed for yourself. To learn more about the importance of business cards please click here.

3. Following Up: This is a critical aspect of effective networking. Exchanging business cards is only the creation of link, it is our responsibility to convert that link into something greater. Three tips for following up more effectively include the 48 hour rule, which is essentially making sure that you follow up with a contact within the specified period to keep the link alive. Secondly, make it a point to follow up in context to the conversation that you had with the individual. Lastly, periodically follow up with individuals on your contact list whom you have had limited contact. To learn about each tip in greater detail please click here.

4. Building Online Networks: Online business networking is skyrocketing these days. With a plethora of websites being added almost daily, one is able to connect to just about anyone from around the world. Three ways to plug into the world on online networking is, joining Linkedin a leading professional networking site, creating a twitter account to connect with people in your niche and lastly, begin blogging to get the attention of your target audience. It is essential for today’s entrepreneurs to be plugged into the online networking cloud. To learn more about each of the services outlined above please click here.

5. Building Offline Networks: I believe developing a strong offline network is just as important as building an online one. Through these activities one is able to connect with a host of individuals around a common point of interest. It also helps bring balance to our busy lives, specially since more often than not our professional lives seem to completely take over. Join groups and events related to the business that you are in, or join social work projects that may be of interest to you or a group to play sports or social games together. These activities help increase your business networks as well as help you grow personally as an individual. To learn more on how to develop offline networks please click here.

Networking effectively, takes a lot of patience and time. We have to work on developing our networks every day by reaching out to people we have connections with as well as adding new connections. There is a need to add value to the people whom you know for those actions to be reciprocated. I would really like to get to know the readers of my blog and find ways we can help each other grow. You can find links to connect with me below.

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Building Offline Networks

“More business decisions occur over lunch and dinner than at any other time, yet no MBA courses are given on the subject.” Peter Drucker

I discussed online networks in some detail yesterday. Today I will cover the importance of developing offline networks. These networks require us to put ourselves out there to find opportunities through which we can grow professionally as well as personally. When I mean offline networks, I am not restricting them to only business mixers or rotary functions. To me, offline networking involves a host of shared activities with individuals who share the same passions and interests as I do. I believe developing a strong offline network is just as important as building an online one. Through these activities one is able to connect with a host of individuals around a common point of interest. It also helps bring balance to our busy lives, specially since more often than not our professional lives seem to completely take over. Some segments to look into to develop offline networks are listed below:

1. Business: Having set up one of the largest network of entrepreneurs in Far East Asia, I have witnessed first hand how effective joining an entrepreneurial club or society can be. The ability and opportunity to actually meet a host of people enables one to create stronger connections a lot faster than developing them online. I recommend entrepreneurs look into entrepreneurial clubs and societies as I believe they can be a most beneficial. Other than this,  keep a look out for networking events in your industry where you have the opportunity to meet a host of different individuals. I was introduced to most of my mentors through such events.

2. Social Work:
If there is a cause which is close to your heart or an organization you think is doing great work, I recommend joining them to see if there is anything you can do to assist them. The entire aspect of social entrepreneurship is an area in which many individuals are doing excellent work to ensure a better tomorrow. Joining such efforts adds breadth to your network and opens up avenues usually unavailable through traditional routes.

3. Sports & Games:
Before my ventures completely absorbed me I used to be a regular cycling enthusiast. Along with a friend, I set up the cycling club at my university and we would cycle regularly over the weekends. It was great to get outdoors and get some exercise, it also helped clear the mind and once again meet some very interesting people. I learned a lot about team work, perseverance and even leadership through this activity. If not a sport, there are a host of other activities such as chess, bridge or poker where one can both network and have a good time.

Developing offline networks is an important aspect of the overall development of one’s personality. Even though at times it feels that there are just too many things to do, don’t let these activities take a backseat, find time for them. I feel having strong offline networks is specially important in Asia since there is greater emphasis on meeting face to face. Thus for an entrepreneur in this region, a balance needs to be formed between online and offline networking activities.

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Business Networking Online

“During the past year, the total North American audience of social networkers has grown 9 percent compared to a much larger 25 percent growth for the world at large. The Middle East-Africa region (up 66 percent), Europe (up 35 percent), and Latin America (up 33 percent) have each grown at well-above average rates.” Comscore

Online business networking is skyrocketing these days. With a plethora of destinations being added almost daily, one is able to connect to just about anyone from around the world. For someone new to online networking it can be a bit intimidating. With all these tools out there, deciding which one to select and build upon can be a tricky decision. Prior to 2008 I used to rely a lot more on offline networks than online ones. This was primarily because I miscalculated the effectiveness of online networks. Ever since I started blogging earlier this year my eyes have truly been opened in discovering the true potential of online networks. Through these networks I have made some great friends, been introduced to some amazing companies, have been referred business and been able to raise funding for some of my projects. Listed below are some of the tools I use:

1. LinkedIn: This is the web’s leading professional networking destination and it is witnessing tremendous growth. I use linkedin primarily to do reference searches due to the nature of my work and have started using it to develop leads for business development. I have even started using it to identify talent to facilitate the recruitment process. I strongly recommend entrepreneurs to join this network as I believe it can greatly facilitate the development of your business. If you would like to connect with me on Linkedin please click on the link found below.

2. Twitter: This is a micro blogging tool which facilitates short communications between individuals, a group of people or the public as a whole. Essentially twitter users, post short messages detailing information in reference to their line of work or life generally. These messages can either be public or private. Other users are given permission to follow the updates of specific individuals, so as to be constantly updated about their activities. As I write this, it seems like a pretty silly concept and that is what I thought at first. However since becoming a more active user I have seen how these updates can be a source of great information, at the same time it gives you potential access to people whom you normally would not br accesing. I suggest joining it and seeing whether it is something which appeals to you or not. With its explosive growth these days, twitter is quickly becoming the destination to be online. To follow me on twitter please click on the badge below.

3. Blogging: When I started this blog I was unaware of how I could use it as a networking tool. However as time went by I was contacted by a host of very interesting individuals from all walks of life. Over the course of these last ten months of blogging I have made a host of close friends through blogging and actively reading other blogs in the same niche. In the world we live in today, blogging is very quickly becoming an instrumental tool through which one can attract like minded individuals. This can be a great source to find potential partners, employees, investors and even mentors. To begin blogging I recommend selecting a niche and then writing relatively regularly to build a following.

The deal with all of the tools I have listed above is that for them to create opportunities we need to work very hard to constantly build upon them. An empty linkedin profile will not attract anyone, twitter without relevant and interesting updates will not create any meaningful interaction and a blog which is not regularly updated will not become a hub of activity. We have to make a commitment to build our profile online, this is not something which is developed overnight. Like the real world one needs to build a reputation which is trusted and eventually become an authority who is constantly being referred to. I would really like to connect with the readers of this blog and see how we can assist each other in either a professional or personal capacity.

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Following Up

“Success comes from taking the initiative and following up… persisting…What simple action could you take today to produce a new momentum toward success in your life?” Anthony Robbins

In my previous post I spoke about the power of the business card. The truth of the matter is a business card  essentially gives you the ability to get the business card of another individual. There is much however that needs to translate this exchange and convert this link into a source of business or referrals for your business or yourself. I have known many power networkers who have a great ability to work an entire room and possibly get everyone’s business card. However most of them usually spend very little time with the person to find out more about them, and following up becomes a challenging task. When networking take time to find out more about the person. Be it their goals, aspirations, business or just  whatever they are willing to talk about and something you can bring when following up with them. This helps creates a better first impression and a stronger bond to assist in following up with the person.

Listed below are a couple of tips I hope can improve your follow up process:

1. 48 Hour Rule: Whenever I meet someone for the first time and we exchange information, I make sure that I follow it up with an email or call within 48 hours. If I do not send it out within this time frame, chances are that I will forget about the individual and reconnecting later is much more challenging compared to when both sides still remember the occasion they met at. I usually send an email to the individual as soon as I enter it into my personal database.

2. Context: It is important that whenever you are following up with a new contact that there is a specific context. If I shoot off an email which simply said “It was great meeting at the networking event, lets keep in touch.” chances are slim this person would be more than just another name in your rolodex. During the event or right after the event right a small note on either the name card or on your phone regarding the individual and something specific which you spoke about which you can follow up regarding. This adds a lot more weight to your email and increases the chances of possibly getting some business or referrals from the individual.

3. Rolodex Dipping: I got this tip from Christine Comaford and it has really improved my ability to leverage my network more effectively. Rolodex dipping is simply the act of randomly picking up someone from your Rolodex which you may not have contacted for a while and re-connect with them. It could be an informal email or call where I inquire about them or their business. I do this activity 3 times a week and it has kept my connection to long lost clients, partners, colleagues and friends alive. I would highly recommend integrating this activity in your weekly schedule.

Following up is a critical aspect of effective networking. Through these activities I have been able to sustain and grow my personal and professional networks while maintaining a strong foundation. It is only through the process of consistent following up can we convert a contact into someone a lot more valuable. Even though this is a very simple and straight forward process many people have not developed the discipline to methodically follow-up, this impact’s their business development activities .

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Can I have your business card?

“The way of the world is meeting people through other people.” Robert Kerrigan

Business cards are a vital component of effective networking. They have the ability to form a link between two strangers and potentially grow that link into a mutually beneficial relationship. The first time I really needed a business card was at one of my first networking sessions in college. Being relatively new to the networking scene at that point, I wondered how so many students were going about exchanging name cards. Eventually I got a hold of some them and was surprised at the information presented on these small bits of paper. They ranged from mini size resumes, information regarding student organizations they were part of, and more traditional name cards with information about their organizations. It was at this time a close friend of mine and I set up Synaptic Creations, my first company, in which I started out assisting students design and print name cards on an affordable basis on campus.

Coming back to the importance of business cards. There are a few tips and etiquettes I have picked up over the years, they have helped me during networking, I am sharing them with everyone:

1. Design: It is important that one chooses the paper, design and font carefully for business cards. One’s business card is an advertisement for the product/services you provide. It is important to maximize the space you have on the card and at the same time not to make it too cluttered. Choosing a very small text to display contact information should be avoided. If needed use both sides of the business card to convey your message.

2. Ready Stock: As an entrepreneur we should always be equipped with an ample number of name cards at all times. This applies especially for networking sessions, a place we are bound to pass out many name cards. Countless times I have spoken to individuals at networking sessions who apologize for not having name cards, or hoard them to give to the “right people”. This sends wrong signals  and should be avoided at all costs.

3. Presenting: In Asia name cards are presented and received with two hands. This is a sign of respect and the best part about such an exchange is that it provides an opportunity to look at the name card closely. Either way even if name cards are exchanged with one hand, we should take the time to look at the other persons card carefully as a sign of respect as also to see if there is anything of interest we could discuss further with them. One needs to make people feel important so that they share the same attitude towards you.

4. Referrals: Whenever you exchange name cards with someone who may not be in your line of work or industry, but has shown an interest in what you do, make it a point to ask politely for referrals. It is important to emphasise the politeness aspect. I have across many individuals who just go on and on badgering for referrals. This usually makes the other person feel uncomfortable and forces them to close up as they infer one is only wanting to take advantage of their network. Depending on the situation choose an appropriate manner and time on how to bring up the discussion.

Exchanging business cards is just the beginning of the relationship. It is as important to follow up with the individual and add their name to a rolodex or online depository. For management of my name cards I use a service called Highrise. It is a simple and neat tool which allows me to easily add data and provides access to my network from just about anywhere through my phone. It is hence essential to have a methodical way of managing one’s name cards.

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