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 Steps on How to Make a Decision

“When you cannot make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take – choose the bolder.” William Joseph Slim

Over the course of this last week I have talked about the decision making process. This process can help us in making difficult decisions. The process forces us to take action and to move from one step to the next in a continuous flow. Standing still has to be avoided at all times. From a business perspective, not being able to make critical decisions or to keep delaying them, will eventually lose you any competitive advantage you may have had. The world unfortunately does not wait for us to find the right time or right opportunity to make a decision. Listed below is a methodology I use for decision making:

1. Objective Clarification: The first step when making a decision is to look at the larger picture. Decision making is not an isolated process of just meeting specific needs, it is one in which broader goals and aims have to be taken into consideration for the future. It is only after clarifying what we hope to gain or learn from the decision we take, do we move to the next step. To learn more on how to clarify objectives behind a decision please click here.

2. Data Collection: The second step involves getting all the facts and figures required to make a decision. This could include, research, surveys, feedbacks or any other form of data collection which would provide us with information to help make a decision. The truth is, it is not possible to have all the facts and figures specially in a time bound situation. Life is about making optimal choices based on, often incomplete information. One must not let lack of data hinder us from making decisions. To learn more about data collection please click here.

3. Listing Options: Once we have adequate data about decisions we have to make, the next step in the process is to develop a list of alternatives. The purpose of this list is to put down on paper different options available.There will always be several possible alternatives available when one has to make a decision.Making an endless list of possible alternatives is not wise, and frankly, will waste a lot of time. Be specific in what you want and develop your alternative list accordingly. To learn more about developing an option list please click here.

4. Evaluating Options: I use a simple model which helps rank options according to our objectives and weight-ages given to specific factors. This enables us to rank each option in an unbiased manner and helps to gauge how they compare against each other on a holistic level. This model is developed on the basis of the prior 3 steps discussed. To learn more about the model and how to use it for your decision making process please click here.

5. Making a Decision: After successfully completing the four steps outlined above, we reach a point where we should have enough information to make a decision. Most of the time, we will not have all the information required, life is all about making optimal choices based on incomplete information. We should not let this affect our decision making process. Once a decision has been made, one needs to take responsibility for it and ensure follow through. To learn more about the final step in the decision making process please click here.

If one were to look back at life, there are bound to be decisions which, in retrospect were not the correct one. The important thing to remember is not the fact that one made a wrong choice, but whether we learned from the mistake or not. We should not let past failures inhibit us from making similar decisions in the future. If one were to take such an approach,  very little progress forward would be made. As mentioned earlier, life is short, we need to have the courage of our decisions, confidence to trust our gut instincts, and keep moving forward. I wish you all the very best on all your life decisions in the future.

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Can you make a decision?

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt

After weighing all possible alternatives, a decision making point is reached. This stage in the decision making process is where many individuals face problems. Some of the reasons I come across quite regularly for this are; there is inadequate information, I have received mixed reviews from feedback which has further confused me, I want to put this decision off for a while to think about it more, I cannot make this decision alone and, what if I make the wrong decision? These are all valid reasons to put off making a decision. However, if this becomes a recurring pattern in life, then, very little progress would be made when a difficult problem arose. 

Once our homework is done, and we believe we have adequate information about the decision at hand, we have to take a leap of faith. Waiting for the perfect situation, the perfect business opportunity or the perfect partner will invariably hold you back. We have to be proactive and want to move forward, this not only increases confidence, it provides invaluable experience and feedback. It is in moments of decision that we find out who we really are, and what we are made of. Use these opportunities to showcase your skills and abilities rather than shying away from taking responsibility. 

Once a decision is made, the next most important aspect of this entire process is, follow through. We have to be a 100% committed to the decision we make, and take full responsibility for it. This is not a time for excuses or getting cold feet. We must prove to ourselves, as to those affected by the decision that we have what it takes to execute the decision. If one makes a habit of changing one’s minds after taking a decision, this reflects poorly on character and value systems. In business, such a person would be deemed unreliable, and lacking the confidence required to take responsibility. Hence, next time you are put in a position to make a decision, do your homework well ,and when ready, make the decision and follow through. As an added benefit, the feeling one experiences after making a correct decision is amazing, and should be the end goal every time!

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Ranking your Options

“Choice of aim is clearly a matter of clarification of values, especially on the choice between possible options.” W. Edwards Deming

 Once we have developed a list of alternatives, the next step in the decision making process is to rank them. The ranking process requires basic elements to keep it simple, yet effective. The first element required is developing a criterion list to assess all your possible alternatives against. Listed below, you see an example alternatives list I have created for the laptop example I mentioned yesterday. For this example I singled out what I felt were the most important factors. The same example can be adjusted for just about any decision. Whether you are assessing a new car, business idea, partner, employee or a potential investment opportunity. Develop a list of criterions against which you can assess all the available alternatives. It is important to rank all the alternatives against chosen criterions. 

The next element that is required is, assigning weight ages according to your preferences. I used a 10 point scale for this example, however, there are other ranking scales, and I have personally used a 100 point scale as well. This depends entirely on the complexity of the decision, and the number of criterions being used to assess each alternative. The next aspect is to assign specific scores to each option, based on the criterion. I have used a 5 point scale for the assessment in the example below, 5 meaning, very satisfied and vice versa. After you grade each criterion, multiply the scale score with the assigned weight-ages. Finally, add each options total score, and you have a decision based on resulting total scores for each alternative.

Laptop Rankings

A further complexity to the model above,  particularly when making business decisions, is to add a risk component. I left this component out of the above example to make it easier to understand. Adding a risk component can help you weigh the risk-reward ratio of each alternative. This has been very helpful to me when assessing different business opportunities. The model described above, brings together all the factors we have spoken about in the last couple of days. It is important to understand the logic behind each of the components, and the manner we arrived at this stage. Once we have a total score, we are ready to move to the last stage of the decision making process.

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Developing Alternatives

“The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.” Henry Kissinger

Once we have adequate data about decisions we have to make, the next step in the process is to develop a list of alternatives. The purpose of this list is to put down on paper, the different options available. The purpose of this exercise is to write down all the options floating in one’s head and translate them into a tangible option. This helps put perspective on the decision at hand by giving an overview of the options available. Many individuals like to write down as many possible alternatives as possible at this time. I think this complicates the decision unnecessarily.

The point of adding structure to your decision making process is to streamline it and make it more efficient. When we don’t do this, decisions take longer because of the incessant processing going on in your head. This ends up not only confusing an individual, but also significantly prolongs the time it takes to reach a decision. Therefore, when you develop a list of possible alternatives, only jot down those you are seriously considering and which fit the larger objective behind the decision process. For example lets say you want to buy a new laptop. You have been to the stores, got all the brochures and now sit down to make a list. If your list contains 20 possible laptops you are interested in, the decision will take forever to make. I had to make this decision a couple of months ago. I needed a laptop which was aesthetically pleasing and highly portable. I took a look at a couple of alternatives, the choice came down to a Sony or an Apple, I then made  a decision and settled on the Apple.

I think many of us make the decision making process a lot more complicated than it actually needs to be. There will always be many possible alternatives available when one has to make a decision, like choosing a college, a car, a computer or a mobile phone. Making an endless list of possible alternatives is not wise, and frankly, will waste a lot of time. Be specific in what you want and develop your alternative list accordingly. If for some reason one cannot find enough alternatives or an alternative that fits your criteria, it is possible to delay making the decision. However one should not use this as an excuse to be complacent or avoid making a decision. Once we have our list of alternatives ready, we can move to the next step of the process. 

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Getting your facts right

“Trust your hunches…Hunches are usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.” Dr. Joyce Brothers

Carl Jung did the foundational research behind the very popular MBTi personality type test. One of the capabilities of the test is to assess the manner in which we process information and reach decisions. On one extreme of the scale, you find individuals who require all the facts and figures to help them make a logically correct choice. On the other hand of the scale, you have individuals who trust their intuition, and tend to make what may be perceived as more emotional decisions. I happen to be one who trusts intuition a lot more than depending on facts and figures. There have been times this decision making process has got me into trouble, however, the times that things have worked out in my favor outweigh them. What it comes down to is personality type, and our values and belief system. One needs to be comfortable with whichever path one chooses to take.

The truth is, it is not possible to have all the facts and figures specially in a time bound situation. Life is about making optimal choices based on the often incomplete information. One must not let lack of data hinder us from making decisions. If one finds oneself delaying making difficult decisions or finding ways to avoid making such decisions, we need to ask ourselves the cause of such behavior. Confronting this head on will help enable us to progress in life. Life is too short to run away from making decisions which need to be made. We need to have the courage and confidence to trust our instincts and if we make a mistake, to learn from it. A conscious decision needs to be made about actually living life rather than just spectating it from the sidelines.

When in doubt or with little information to base a decision, consult others who may help guide you. This helps get a different perspective on the matter and may make it easier to make a decision. I have spoken about mentors in great detail, and how they have consistently helped me in decision making relating to both my life and business. Sometimes it just takes that little bit of re-affirmation, and at others, it may require a radical point of view. Either way, if we do not ask others for feedback and advice, we are not allowing ourselves to grow as individuals. Once you have your facts, figures and gut feeling, it is time to move to the next step of the decision making process.

Related Articles:

– How do you process information?

– How do you make a decision?

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