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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Getting a Reality Check

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Anaïs Nin

I hear it everyday from someone or the other. “Things are so bad right now, I don’t know how we are going to make it through next year.” One of my usual follow up questions is how the current downswing affected their business? There is a usually a pause for a while and then I get generic answers such as, “no one will buy our product/service”. All this talk of negativity has become viral to the extent that just about everyone is telling you how bad things have become without really rationalizing to themselves what this means to them and their respective businesses.  I do also come across individuals who are aware of the implication of the current downswing on their business, but have shut out the possibility of looking for ways to navigate themselves through this time.

Every business owner needs to give his/her business a reality check during these turbulent times as soon as possible. During the good times we become complacent, inefficiencies tend to set in, payroll gets inflated and expenses hit the roof. When all of a sudden things go from one extreme to the other, we begin to panic and do not know where to start from. There are four main business areas one needs to look into when assessing their business:

1. Customers & Sales: A common first reaction to the recession seems to be that suddenly their customers are going to stop buying. There needs to be a thorough analysis here. Start with understanding your customer’s needs and requirements. How has this changed due to the current climate? What can you offer them which suits their needs at the moment? It could be a longer payment plan, a scaled down version of your product/service or a completely new product line altogether. Other steps could include shifting more business online where you have lower overheads and increased margins. Steps need to be taken to get closer to your loyal customers and to do whatever it takes to ensure that their business remains with you.

2. Human Resources: Take a closer look at your current talent pool. Use performance benchmarks to analyze which employees are making the cut and those who are not. Low performers need to be weeded out and one needs to get closer to your stars. Your stars are critical to your future business success. Provide opportunities for your staff to train themselves with new skills. Adjust your recruitment practices and utilize tools such as linkedin to help identify talent in your network.

3. Operations: During boom times a business tends to add extra expenses. These may be in the form of increased perks, higher head counts and fancy offices. All these expenses need to be analyzed carefully and cuts need to be made wherever possible. Google which is well known for such perks, was forced to cut quite a few of them in the past couple of months due to financial pressure from shareholders. In other sectors, identify ways to move inventory faster. Also look into outsourcing non core functions which could be done at a fraction of the cost by a third party vendor.

4. Finances: I recently wrote a series on financial metrics. I would recommend paying attention to the ones mentioned in my series along with others which are reliable measures for your business. Redo your sales forecast and projections and set realistic goals in accordance to industry averages. Avoid any large outlays which do not justify a reasonable ROI. At times like this, cash is king, and one should do whatever one can to remain liquid. Increase credit terms with suppliers and vendors, ensure customers are preferably paying  a large amount upfront or soon after purchase. Subscription models are a good and stable form of revenue and should be looked into.

Most of the things I have written about above should be done on a regular basis whether we are in a boom or a bust cycle. However research shows, on average the pain of a loss is about twice as much as the joy of a gain. I know I can identify with that. In good times it is easy to take for granted all the things which are working out right. The true test of a business owner comes during nasty downturns like the ones we are in, and the ability to deal with them effectively.

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5 Steps to Manage Startup Risk

“I think that only daring speculation can lead us further and not accumulation of facts.” Albert Einstein

In the first post of this series, I added a video which stated life = risk. If we shield ourselves from all sorts of risks by staying in our small comfort zone we will not be living life fully. It is our perrogative to find a balance to ensure that we live life to its fullest. The points below relate how to find that balance when starting a business.

1. Market Risk: Our world is in a constant state of flux and with mind boggling technological advancements taking place, we have to be constantly aware of the changes taking place around us. This requires us to monitor our competitors, be in touch with our customers and suppliers, and watch for trends which could potentially make your business extinct. To read more about how to manage market risk please click here.

2. Operational Failure: All companies operate on a set of processes. These processes drive all avenues of business, ranging from Internal operations, business development, sales, marketing and execution to name a few critical functions. When these processes are not optimized or closely scrutinized a business will not be able to scale effectively and reach its target goals. To read more about how you can avoid operational failure please click here.

3. Financial Risk: Without financial controls a business loses its foundation and is on shaky grounds even when the company is making steady profits. Ensuring that you have sound and reliable financial controls in place will allow you to minimize your exposure to financial risks and allow your business to grow more effectively. To read about how you can add financial controls to your startup please click here.

4. The People Risk Factor: You hear it all the time, “Our people are our most important asset”. Its like a mantra that has been wedged into our sub conscious and is constantly repeated from board meetings to your daily staff meetings. However, I am always surprised that though this is such an important asset, very few steps and measures are taken to mitigate the risk associated with this asset. To read more about how you can add effective control measures to mitigate these risks please click here.

5. Lessons in Risk: Having been in this line of work for some time now there have been several risk factors which I have witnessed or experienced first hand. These cover the time you should start, what the risks of starting without a plan are and the kind of risks you have to deal with on a daily basis. To read more about these lessons please click here.

In life and business, if you stop taking calculated risks, or if you let doubt  paralyze you, moving forward becomes close to impossible. It is only when you make mistakes that you learn from them and eventually move forward. Along the way we have to manage the types of risk faced and ensure that we take precautionary measures to avoid risking it all if we do not know where we are headed. Once you know what you want and how you want to get it, take action , because thinking ‘what if’ is just about the worst thing you could do to yourself!

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Personal Experiences With Risk

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” Paulo Coelho

The risks mentioned in prior posts provide a framework on mitigating risk in various divisions of business. Some of the risks and counter measures mentioned in this post are general and some those I have personally encountered during my journey as an entrepreneur. 

1. Start as early as possible: The younger you are , the lower the  risk level when embarking on new startup ventures. This is a point in life when you do not have many personal responsibilities and can hence take on greater leveraged risks, for greater payoffs. There will never be a right time. If you wait around for it, you drastically reduce the level of risk you can take . 

2. Don’t start without a plan: Starting a business is a lot of fun and very exciting, however, if you do not have a solid business plan which has been well researched and developed, get working on that first. I am not a fan of shotgun startup ventures who are clueless about where they want to go and how they plan on getting there. 

3. Learn to trust your gut: There will be times when the plans looks too good to be true on paper, but your gut feeling is to be wary. On the other hand ,there are times when the pieces do not fit into place initially, yet, your gut says this is worth exploring. Learning to trust your gut allows you to hone into your inner guidance system and intuitive capabilities.

4. Don’t forget your core values: We are constantly faced with challenges where compromising on core values could lead to substantial benefits. However, going down that path poses great personal and moral risk . I have personally known someone who went down this path and ended up losing everything that mattered in his life. It was an incident which left a deep impression. Compromising on core values is one of the greatest risks you can take and one where the consequences are long lasting & long term.

Some of the concepts mentioned in this posts have many counter arguments. Such as the first one, which is to start early. Some argue that it is better to get some work experience before venturing out into the startup world. Others believe in just starting a business and hoping to eventually make some money. I would really like to hear what your thoughts about this are. Look forward to hearing from you.

 

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The People Risk Factor

Our mission statement about treating people with respect and dignity is not just words but a creed we live by every day. You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management.” Howard Scultz

You hear it all the time, “Our people are our most important asset”. Its like a mantra that has been wedged into our sub conscious and is constantly repeated from board meetings to your daily staff meetings. However, I am always surprised that though this such an important asset, very few steps and measures are taken to mitigate the risk associated with this asset. As a startup this is one of the most dangerous sort of risk we are exposed to, due primarily to our size. When a critical team member or employee leaves, the entire business can be brought to its knees. Listed below are a couple of risk control measures you can use to protect this asset .

1. Strict selection policies: At early stages, startups are usually 2-3 individuals who know each other and are comfortable spending days on end locked up in an office, working on the next big idea. Adding new partners or employees represents a large undertaking, and requires serious looking into . If you make the mistake of adding the wrong individual, productivity in the office takes a nose dive and the cost of replacing the employee is high. So use this list along with your own requirements to ensure that you select carefully.

2. Ironclad contracts for new employees: A lot of private data is shared regarding costing, pricing and internal processes with new employees. Many startup companies fail to get employees to sign non compete and confidentiality clauses. The risk of losing an employee to a competitor with your trade secrets represents a phenomenally large risk against which you should take counter measures .

3. Quarterly one of one reviews: I usually have quarterly reviews with most of the individuals whom I work closely with . This is an open and candid session where I learn about their level of satisfaction, frustrations and other problem which may be hindering them from performing up to mark. These sessions provide critical feedback and allow you to take precautionary measures to ensure you do whatever is necessary to retain your most talented performers.

4. Provide training and development: Most startups run on strict financial budgets, however if they have used strict budgeting controls as stated in my previous post, a budget for training and development should be in place to provide your team with training ,which will help improve their productivity and skills. This helps in creating stronger bonds between management and employees. It also increases the overall morale and productivity levels of the organization.

5 Fair rewards & recognition: If your team is generating high levels of growth for your organization they need to be compensated fairly. In some startup companies, which are not heavily venture backed this can be a challenge as funds are usually very tight. However, management needs to ensure that performance and rewards are tightly linked. If they are not, you stand a high level of risk to lose your rainmakers. To read more about rewards and recognition please click here.

We have to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we cater to our team wherever possible. It is a difficult juggling act to manage expectations and requirement, at the same time maintaining an environment where productivity and morale is high. If not correctly maintained there can be nasty repercussions which can bring your organization to a standstill and expose it to extremely high levels of risk. However if it is correctly managed, this asset becomes your organization’s competitive advantage, and paves the way for greater achievements.

 

 

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Financial Risk

“Before you can really start setting financial goals, you need to determine where you stand financially.” David Bach

In most businesses I have been part of todate I have been lucky to have partners who excelled in the field of financial control. Over the years I have come to realize that without these controls a business loses its foundation and is on shaky grounds even when the company is making steady profit. Once you have a financial accounting system in place and have reliable data regarding the forecasts, budgets and the companiy,s cash flow, your teams gains a morale boost knowing that the business is supported by strong numbers and an understanding of the numbers that have to be hit to keep everyone afloat. Listed below are a couple of a pointers which formulate the basis of this foundational core to reduce the risk of your business going under, due to lack of financial control.

1. Using an accounting system: One of the first things you need to do if your business has a sizable inflow and outflow of finances is to buy an accounting system. For those without financial background this provides a professional framework to operate in and to record in detail the financial health of your business. I have used Quickbooks  and it has proved to be a relatively simple and robust accounting system.

2. Forecasting: This provides the business with goals and direction and an outlook for goals that need to be realistically achieved. Doing yearly and quarterly forecasts provides the team with numbers that need to be hit to ensure steady and profitable growth. Without them, you are aimlessly wandering from quarter to quarter and never really hit any targets. Most importantly your goals must be SMART, setting unrealistic expectations will only result in decreased morale.

3. Budgeting: If you have set forecasts and goals for the company, they must be adequately supported by funds to ensure they are met. This is difficult for early stage startups and one of the primary reasons so many venture backed companies burn through their initial funding. There need to be strict controls to ensure that you use your budget as a control measure thereby avoiding hemorrhaging cash through miscellaneous expenses which are fund consuming .

4. Cash flow: The inflow of funds in your business must exceed the outflow . Even though the concept of cash flow is simple to understand, it is a  primary reason why many small business fail. By not correctly managing the flow of funds you will be placed in awkward situations where you will not be able to meet expenses. Review your policies on customer credit and negotiate favorable terms with your suppliers. Keep checking that your expenses are being matched by your revenue and if possible, develop a cash cushion to weather you through the difficult times.

If you have not implemented these basic controls at your startup, I strongly suggest that you take steps to integrate them into your daily operations. This will help provide everyone in the team with a transparent picture of the health of the company. Initially it will take  time to set up all the controls and will take some getting used to. However it will be well worth the effort. Take control of your finances today because lack of financial control should not be the reason you go out of business!

 

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