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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Navigating Through Difficult Times

When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” Peter Marshall

These days it seems wherever you turn there is talk about how the world is crumbling to pieces. We have undoubtedly witnessed a lot of turbulence over the last couple of months. With the way things are going I believe it is going to be a while until we see an upturn in the global economy. Now there are a couple of ways we can face this reality. We can either face this difficult period with our chin up, or we can give into the critics and lose all hope. In the end the decision lies squarely with us. Like many individuals and companies, quite a few of my investments have been hit by the current financial meltdown. It is an eerie and most disturbing feeling to see your assets crumble and have very little control over the course they take. However whenever I have experienced such times I always seem to come out a little stronger, and appreciate what I have a lot more.

As a business owner we have to continuously face challenges. This is not limited to external events alone, it could be a new competitor or the loss of a vital business partner among other reasons. The fact of the matter is that we have to learn how to deal with these challenges in an effective manner to enable us to recover from them. A great book has been written about broader challenges faced by companies around the world called “Stall Points” by Derek van Bever and Seth Verry. The book provides a wealth of information regarding common stall points faced by companies and their impact.

In this week’s series I will talk about some broader points to help navigate the difficult times which one will undoubtedly face. I will walk you through some basic steps I go through whenever I am faced with a difficulty of some sort. In the end however, it all boils down to your attitude and your personal outlook on life as a whole. If we are not able to take our head out of the sand there is very little one can do, and this will result in further losses and our failures tend to become self fullfiling prophecies. We have to avoid this attitude at all costs! If anyone reading this would like to share their story of a personal victory during a difficult period of time it will be much appreciated.

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5 Key Non-Financial Metrics

“Companies that establish clear lines of sight to the metrics that matter and then make sure that employee behavior is aligned with those metrics can create enormous value growth.” Tony Siesfeld and John-Paul Pape

Over the past two weeks I have been discussing both financial and non financial metrics. They both have their place in helping manage businesses better. I find non-financial metrics fascinating and am inclined to look at them for guidance in comparison to financial metrics. Unlike financial metrics which are purely numbers performing in different segments, non-financial metrics provide much deeper insights into the inner workings of the business. They help understand why certain financial metrics turn out the way they are and what changes can be brought about to improve them. Some however find safety in numbers and are less inclined to rely on these relatively intangible measures. As entrepreneurs we have to look after the business on multiple fronts. We must have the ability to quickly assess several key components on a regular basis. Outlined below are five relatively generic key non-financial metrics. They can be applied to all sorts of business models to help you gauge the level of progress being made from a dashboard view.

1. Customer Satisfaction: Acquiring a customer is only the first step, providing value and satisfying the customer is where the actual work begins. It is a well known fact that acquiring a new customer is between 5-10 times more expensive than retaining your current customer base. To measure customer satisfaction comprehensively we need to take into account all major touch points where the customer will be interacting with our business. Subsequently we will need to choose several sub metrics such as perceived quality & value, trust and loyalty to accurately gauge their satisfaction levels. These can be measured through a variety of tools such as surveys, focus groups and observations. To learn more please click here.

2. Employee Loyalty: Employee loyalty has been directly linked to the customer’s loyalty and corporate profitability. Whether you are a new start up or an established one, this measure needs to be continuously monitored. From the very beginning employees must be told what to expect when they join the firm. They need to be made part of the inner circle to avoid alienating them. Growth and development opportunities must be presented to keep their motivation levels high and lastly they need to be compensated fairly for the work they are doing. Each one of these sub measures needs to be monitored along with several other key indicators such as burnout thresholds. To learn more please click here.

3. Innovative Index: Innovation is measured very differently in various organizations. I believe innovation relates to the ability of an organization to continuously improve on its existing product/service ranges as well as to develop complementary assets around them which will enhance their core products. This will help create multiple lines of business and will keep the business afloat when a core product faces strong competition or a recessionary pressures. To learn more about this metric please click here.

4. Market Share: There is substantial evidence which states that market share is directly related to ROI. With an increase in market share a business can expect to benefit from economies of scale that ultimately lead to better operating margins. A business therefore becomes stronger by gaining market influencing powers and equipping itself with quality management teams. To measure a business’ market, one needs to first understand the industry, competitors, customers and other market factors which have a direct impact on it. Through the understanding of these measures we can calculate how much the total market is worth and then determine our share. Accordingly we can then measure how we grow market share over a period of time. To learn more about this metric please click here.

5. Execution of Corporate Strategy: Business all comes down to execution. Without this critical component we can make all the plans we want and prepare for every possible scenario and achieve very little. As business owners we set ourselves targets and construct strategies to reach them. The next step requires one to implement strategies through a set of tactics. This is the step that separates the talkers from the doers. Don’t get me wrong, careful planning, thoughtful preparation and taking calculated risks is very important. However it should not restrict someone from taking action. To learn more about this metric please click here.

Listed above are a set of non-financial metrics which I believe can be applied to most business models. Apart from these metrics, a business needs to be careful of other measures which are critical to their particular business model. In the end these metrics should not be the end all and be all of the organization. Their purpose is to primarily provide management with the ability to look at several key segments of the business and get an idea about their performance. I believe the correct use of these metrics helps us not only to become better leaders but also impacts positively and dramatically on the business. I would really like to know what non-financial metrics you are using and which industry you are in. Feedback and comments on the metrics provided above will be greatly appreciated.

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Non-Financial Metric #5: Execution of Corporate Strategy

“There is value in careful planning and thoughtful preparation. However, until there is execution, no plan is flawed; no preparation inadequate. Execution spotlights all.” Chip R. Bell

Business all comes down to execution. Without this critical component we could make all the plans we want and prepare for every possible scenario, but achieve very little. As business owners we set ourselves targets and construct strategies to reach them. The next step requires one to implement these strategies through a set of tactics. This is the step that separates the talkers from the doers. Don’t get me wrong, careful planning, thoughtful preparation and taking calculated risks is very important. However it should not restrict someone from taking action. When it comes to measuring how effective an ability to execute has been, we have to look closely at the following:

1. Goals: As mentioned many times on this blog, to be able to reach our goals they need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time specific (SMART). Many times when I have been unable to reach my target goals it has been due to the fact that I left one of these important components out. When this happens there is a complete break down in the execution process as the strategies we select will be flawed and thus will result in the use of inappropriate tactics. Therefore be very clear with the goals and targets which one creates.

2. Strategies: Good strategies comprise of objectives, scope and competitive advantages. Through goals we can establish what the business wants to achieve. For example say, our business wants to increase traffic on our website by 10% over the next quarter. The strategy for such an objective could be something like “increase traffic on our website by 10% over the next quarter by tapping into the the 18-25 demographic in Europe through leveraged relationships with our European affiliates.” If we were to leave the statement at tapping into Europe we would still be missing the “how?”.

3. Tactics: In the last statement we mentioned we would leverage our relationships with our European affiliates. Tactics need to translate this into reality by chalking out ways on how this can be achieved. For example, we could participate in some seminars next quarter in Europe, we could equip our affiliates with additional marketing material or we could even provide greater financial incentive to reach targets. What is important is that our tactics are aligned with our strategies which are aligned with our goals.

At the end if we were not able to reach goals then we need to go back and re-evaluate where we went wrong. This review process needs to take place on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly basis. As a startup it is imperative that we continually evaluate how effectively we are executing and where we are facing the biggest impediments. When such a culture of accountability and execution is developed it turns into a huge competitive advantage.

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Non-Financial Metric #4: Market Share

“Failure to gain market share even with superior costs is failure to compete. This failure is also a failure to achieve even lower costs.” Bruce D. Henderson

There is substantial evidence which states that market share is directly related to ROI. With an increase in market share, a business can expect to benefit from economies of scale that ultimately lead to better operating margins. Therefore a business becomes stronger by gaining market influencing powers and equipping itself with quality management teams. Keeping track of market share is an important indicator in evaluating how business stacks up against the competition and how it progresses over time. In the early stages of starting out, a venture market research is a critical component of developing a business plan. This is usually a challenging exercise, because information regarding industries and markets is often not readily available. Listed below are some steps I use to evaluate the market and set market share targets accordingly:

1. The Industry: One needs complete information regarding growth rates of a particular industry. What are it’s historic trends? What were the revenue figures for the segment? Have any major technological innovations taken place in it recently? Is the industry very segmented? These are some preliminary questions of interest and importance when looking at an opportunity in a particular industry.

2. Competitors: This is an important segment, one in which you need to document as many direct and indirect competitors in the market place as possible. Look at their teams, products/services, pricing and any other marketing collateral which you can find. Remain constantly vigilant about your competitors, this is a must for any company regardless of size. Create document files which can be referenced easily, this will come in handy during later sections, when you are positioning and promoting your product as well.

3. Customers: Evaluate the target demographic that is going to be targeted. Is the segment growing? What are the current options that they are using in place of the product/service you will provide? How are they currently purchasing the product/service?

4. Market Factors: Are there any external factors which have a deep impact on your target market? These can be government policies, market consolidation and volatile raw material costs. The presence of these factors can have a substantial impact on your target market and must be taken into account.

Ultimately approximate size of market will be gauged. The most common metrics used for broad approximations are, sales by revenue & sales by volumes. Once we know an approximate size of the market we can set targets for ourselves. This metric can then be tracked periodically to ensure that we stay on course and alert to any fundamental market changes.

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