Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

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.

View Usman Sheikh's profile on LinkedIn

Usman Sheikh's Facebook profile

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5 Steps to Better Conversations

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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.

View Usman Sheikh's profile on LinkedIn

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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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Selecting the Right Name

“When you think of the blur of all the brands that are out there, the ones you believe in and the ones you remember, like Chanel and Armani, are the ones that stand for something. Fashion is about establishing an image that consumers can adapt to their own individuality. And it’s an image that can change, that can evolve. It doesn’t reinvent itself every two years.” Ralph Lauren

If you think coming up with the next million dollar is challenging, correct selection for the name of your business is not going to be any easier. A name formulates the foundational base of your entire business. It communicates what you do to your target segment, what differentiates you from the competition and is ideally meant to instigate curiosity to find out more. A logical argument often used against this methodology of thinking, is that names such as Google, Amazon and Monster do very little to reflect what they do, yet, they have become mega brand names. The fact of the matter is, the businesses mentioned above were pioneering companies which revolutionized internet search, online shopping and online recruiting. They are built on very sound business models and due to the sheer superiority of their products/services they have become household names today.

Getting the name game right is something I have been giving more time towards, in my more recent ventures. We named our first design agency “Synaptic Creations”. I am not a biology student but picked up the word from a friend who told me synapses were the gap between two neurons, over which impulses lead to learning. It made sense at the time and we went with it. The word creations however, is too generic and reduced the ability for us to expand into other areas as well. It also confused some individuals who thought we may be some genetic based start-up. The name would fail several of the benchmarks I now have, for appropriate names for a business. It is important is to learn from mistakes made in the past to help you get it right the next time.

Most of the time, start-ups have to select their own name unless you have managed to secure some major early stage funding. If you have I would recommend NameLab or similar brand name consultants. If you are on your own, there are basic guidelines, namely, keep it short, keep it simple, avoid generic terms, the name should be easy to pronounce and spell and, should be unique. I do advocate a structured process to help you think in a more focused manner, which will in turn help you in deciding on a name which has been looked at from all angles, and has had major thought put into it.

Firstly, we need to think through the space we will operate in. Use questions to get your team thinking along the same wave lengths. These could include:

1. What would be the word you would want customers to associate your business with?

2. Who are you target customers?

3. What are the unique components of your business model?

4. How are you different from your competition?

5. What words best describe what your business does?

6. What emotions do you want your name to instigate in the customer?

Develop similar questions based on your business concept, and come up with as many permutations as possible by mixing and matching. Create a filtered list of names which passes the basic guidelines. If possible do a focus group or collect feedback from friends and family on the names you have shortlisted. This process will take a lot of time, so plan in advance for it so that there is no need to make a rushed selection. This is a name you are going to have to live with for a long time, you need to make it count!

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How to Position your Brand

“A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.” Al Reis and Laura Reis

When you walk into a supermarket with the intention of buying eggs, do you actually pay attention to the branding on the eggs or do you pick up whatever is available? I usually pick up whatever I find. However the decision is more complicated when I want to get a soft drink. Brands such as Coke and Pepsi have spent billions of dollars positioning their products as the only cola alternatives. A frame of reference has been created and no matter how many new rival products are introduced in this category, it is almost impossible to dislodge the current leaders. 7-Up did something very interesting with its positioning when it rebranded itself as the “Un-Cola”. Since it could not use the word cola in the customers mind, it reframed it’s positioning relative to its competition and took up a unique position in the minds of customers.

Naturally having the edge of being first in a certain category, has it’s advantages. However, competing in markets where there is already some competition, we need to figure out a way to convince potential customers, to use our product/service instead. This requires a lot of creativity and understanding for your target market and your competitors offering. As mentioned in prior posts, we have to take into account the sort of persona we want to project and what competitive edges we want to bring to the forefront. Take for example the rent-a-car business in America. Hertz had a large edge over the No.2 provider Avis. That was until Avis capitalized on its position by using the tag line “Avis is only No.2 in rent-a-cars, so why go with us? We try harder.” This statement dramatically helped the profitability of the company and more importantly helped customers develop a reference point between Avis and Hertz.

As a start-up organization we often cannot afford to pay tens of thousands to brand consultants to help us  develop positioning strategies. However all is not lost. The end goal is to own a word in the mind of the customer, or be able to communicate your business concept in 5 words or less. Much effort needs to be put into name selection and the use of words as discussed in the brand personality post. These will be discussed in greater detail in the next post in the series.

To get you started on what your product/service should be, there is a great positioning rule called the 4D Rule:

1. Desirable by the customers

2. Distinctive from the competition

3. Deliverable by the company

4. Durable over time

A well positioned brand will lie at the intersection of all four requirements.

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Why should I choose your brand?

“A product is something made in a factory; a brand is something that is bought by the customer. A product can be copied by a competitor; a brand is unique. A product can be quickly outdated; a successful brand is timeless.” Stephen King

Yesterday’s step regarding the personality of your brand, should get one thinking of all the factors that need to be covered to successfully attract your target customer. The next couple of steps will cover essential components which need to be thought through clearly when building a brand. The component I will talk about today is the answer to the question above, namely, your competitive advantage. If one cannot answer why a customer should select your product over your competitors, there won’t be a business to build a brand for. To answer this question correctly, one needs keen insights into the internal selection process of your target customers. Communicating with your target customers and finding out what their needs and requirements are, is the only way to do this. 

For example, you want to launch a new web based product which aims to provide an ability to manage your contacts and communication logs. The market place is currently filled with such products, and include Highrise, a product I use for the same function. When this new service comes along, and they have essentially replicated existing product features and functionalities, there is little chance of success. Even if minor changes have been created, they stand to lose this competitive edge when these functionalities will be copied by existing players. This is an example of when business owners have not put enough thought into the reason for creating the service, for whom it is being created, and how they plan to provide long term value to the target customer.

On the other hand, take for example, the social networking space. Friendster started off with a bang and a small niche social networking site called Facebook, they entered the market, and addressed key concerns regarding, privacy, communication tools and useful applications to make the experience more enjoyable. They clearly addressed the question “why should I choose to switch to your platform?” This leads to an important conclusion, which is, businesses and brands have to be rooted in strong business models which address customer needs in an unique way. Our branding strategy needs to continuously communicate this competitive advantage to our target customers, reminding them of reasons they should choose us, over our competitors.

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