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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Friends and Business

“A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.” Anonymous

I firmly believe that partnering is one of the most effective ways of scaling your business. It is natural therefore to look within your network of friends/family and acquaintances to find potential partners. This is a strategy I have used, and even though a lot of people think that mixing friends/family and business is a bad idea, my experience has proved otherwise . Over the last couple of businesses I have been involved in, I have found that setting clear ground rules before starting a venture has been integral to their success.

One of the mistakes a lot of businesses are beset with when starting out with friends/family stem from there being so much left unsaid at the start. This is due to the fact that a mutual understanding is ‘thought’ to exist. The fact of the matter is, that unfortunately when money enters the picture a lot of these ‘understandings’ fall by the way side. Everyone wants to make money and start a successful business. The truth of the matter is that registering a business and starting one with no set plan is easy, making your business a success requires diligence, perseverance and structure.

Over the course of this week I will share with you certain ground rules to set when starting a venture or partnership. These rules have helped me tremendously in tempering expectations, getting ground realities realized and fostering an environment which promotes candour and honesty.

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Source #2: DIY

“The great majority of men are bundles of beginnings.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Todays source will talk about a common scenario which comes up when you have your NABC proposition in hand but unfortunately don’t have the funds to get your product off the ground and have been unable to secure funding from friends and family. At this point many begin to lose heart. They begin to doubt themselves and their belief in their idea gets shaky. An entrepreneur who has complete belief in his concepts and ideas will not lose hope at this point in time. We have several options still available to us which include angel investment, venture capital or even getting some leverage from your bank. The advice I give to individuals in this space is to get some funds together yourself or with your team mates the old fashioned way with a plan with specific goals.

In todays day and age angel investors are becoming more sophisticated and a proof of concept or prototype has becoming a necessity. Plans look great on paper and if you are an A-grade presenter you may make it through at the angel investment level. However, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make it through without a prototype or proof of concept. The other day a friend called me asking for advice on an online stock photo website he wanted to launch. He had a lot of new twists to the conventional business model and he was essentially looking for some seed capital to convert this concept into a reality. Being a professional photographer with a good team I told him that they should raise money themselves and get a prototype of what they want to do together. This would make it easier for them to approach angel and VC investors.

Here is when things get a little blurry. Say you have skills in flash based development. You set up a home-based consultancy to promote your services with the goal to raise $10k to create your prototype. Things start to go reasonably well and you find yourself making relatively decent money without having to work at a full time job. You need to keep things in focus now, consulting work is highly customized and cannot be scaled. A lot of angels and VC’s would not be very interested in funding a project which does not have a viable exit strategy. Stay focused on creating a standardized product which can be used by millions of individuals rather than custom work developed for a specific individual. Falling into this trap is relatively common. Staying focused on the bigger picture is a vital key.

Once the prototype is developed get back out there and get some serious investment into your project to get it kick started. When you use this sourcing method to raise funding for your project remember to stay focused on the bigger picture. If you are developing a stock photo website ask your clients whether they buy photo’s online and if they don’t, how much they would want to pay for them. If you are a software programmer continue to take on projects which help you in developing modules for the larger project. Use this as a platform to get traction on the idea and to help you refine it along the way. Just remember to work with a specific goal , do not get sidetracked and lose sight of the ultimate objective .

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What do you see?

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant. Robert McCloskey

How do you process all the information around you? Before going further think of what your answer to that question is. If you are not too sure about what the question is referring to, think about what you see in this picture ….


Originally uploaded by artissoft

This picture appeals to me . The most striking thing I think of when I look at this picture is, this cannot be a very safe neighborhood primarily because of the graffiti on the shop fronts. The atmosphere is also very eerie, I can imagine pin drop silence with the wind blowing. All these thoughts originate from past experiences or feelings. This is a more intuitive approach at looking at the picture. People with intuitive personality types usually infer and perceive a lot of things which may not be clearly apparent or deduced. On the other hand another person could look at the picture and say that the shop has German writing on its front or that there is a plastic bag which appears to be totally out of place. Or that there is not enough lighting in the adjacent street and other minor details which I may have been completely oblivious to as I was not paying attention to them. These are personality traits of people who rely heavily on their sensing capabilities.

Todays personality scale will explain how we process information. On one hand we have the sensing people who focus on details. They use their 5 senses to gather information. They prefer to trust concrete facts which are based on conclusive studies. Having a preference for realism they will accept new concepts which have some actual practical application. Information is processed the most naturally when it is provided step by step. This preference relates very much with the present.

On the other hand we have the intuitive people who focus on their sixth sense which is “gut feeling”. They are constantly reading between the lines and doing their best to decipher what is happening in the background. Being very imaginative individuals, new ideas are constantly floating in their heads. When explaining these ideas they tend to use a lot of figurative gestures and their thought processes are constantly jumping from one area to the next. They associate very must with the future.

Given this information you now have have a relative gauge as to which side of the scale you have a preference towards. Knowing this will be extremely helpful for you as it will allow you to use your preferred processing mode when you are involved in critical tasks. If you are an intuitive team member you can capitalize on your strength by providing the team with creative solutions on how to solve traditional problems. Your key insight into situations will allow you to look into the future and provide valuable feedback in the idea developmental stage. If you are a sensing team member you can capitalize on your strength by bringing some discipline into the idea generation process by creating a structure to process information in a more clearer manner. You will be able to provide practical advice when evaluating ideas and can back it up with some detailed data.

By identifying your preferred mode you will see your own and the teams productivity increase. Either/or is not the only option, however you should make sure you understand which is your preferred and most commonly used mode of processing information.

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6 Steps to turn ideas into realities

Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.Thomas Edison

Eureka! I haven’t heard someone say that in a long time but I know for a fact, whenever a reasonable idea enters my mind eureka is being echoed through my entire subconscious. Its that spark of hope that you may just have stumbled upon the next big thing. Without the spark we usually run out of gas, like when we reach a critical point whilst developing an idea. The steps which follow have provided me with the hope and inspiration to carry on when things get tough. I hope that they will do the same for you.

1. Passion, Passion, Passion!: If you don’t have this before venturing into the unknown then I would advise on staying put for a while. The journey you are embarking on is a long and difficult one, but highly rewarding. Having the motivation to get up after you fall countless times is essential. In my experience that only comes with this absolute burning passion to succeed, to prove the naysayers wrong, to prove to yourself that you have what it takes to win and most importantly a passion for life. As cliched as that last sentence may sound please make sure you have this quality in you before taking your idea any further. To read more please click here.

2. Find the people who care about your idea: Ask yourself the question “Would anyone care about what we are wanting to do?”. From experience this initial market research for your idea is the key , the reality check for the space you are wanting to venture in. A simple test would be to google your idea. You will be amazed as to how many people may be building or have built complete businesses around your concept. This will provide you with key information on how to move forward and in what way you could fulfill this need in the market place with your concept. To read more please click here.

3. The ABC of business begins with an N: The N represents the customer and/or market need. After your preliminary research, you will now reach a critical stage in which you will have to put down a lot of your ideas and research in writing. The NABC approach provides a framework for doing that in an extremely effective manner. It has become my default evaluation model. Once we identify the need we can move on to A where we talk about how we will approach the market. After which we reach B where we will document all the benefits vs costs for our idea. Lastly C will involve listing down competition and evaluating how best to add greater value as compared to our competitors. You will now have your value proposition. To read more please click here.

4. Focus…have you got it?: This is where a lot of first-timers stumble. For you to be successful you have to pinpoint the one area that you will commit to do better in than anyone else. Say for example at InnovoGS we operate in the human resources industry where services provided can be as diverse as doing simple data entry for payroll processing to restructuring the entire organization structure through consulting. We focus in the recruitment department and use psychometric tests to help organizations make more informed staffing and developmental decisions. We have focused solely on building our competencies in this one aspect for the last 15 months. Once we reach a certain level of competency in this department we have plans to move laterally to outsourcing functions related to recruitment. For us to offer virtually every human resource related consultancy service would dilute our initial focus and we would not have made the progress we have. Making sure you stay focused in the early stages of your venture is essential. To read more please click here.

5. Innovation Champions: Every venture needs at least one individual who has this awesome passion for the idea. He/she is the sort of person who infuses everyone with a contagious sense of euphoria and enthusiasm when they speak about their venture. They help team mates through the bad times and are having the most fun at the celebration party when they win their first contract. An idea without this champion would be lost and fall off the wayside when things become tough. If you are serious about the idea you are working on make sure there is at least one champion. To read more please click here.

6. Venture Alignment: In two words this is basically aligning your “core values” with your venture. When there is a disconnect between what you truly believe in and what you are actually doing there can’t be any sustainable long term success. You need to make sure you partner with people who share your core values, get idea champions to make sure everyone is on the same page and to continuously keep checking your value systems. From a long run perspective this is what it is all about. The best of ideas have amazing short term success but if there are vital building blocks missing from the foundation the structure isn’t going to last. To read more please click here.

I cant believe 3 weeks have already gone by. I want to thank all my loyal readers for yet another fantastic week. Thank you for all your emails and comments. I am accepting topics which you would like covered in the next following weeks for the blog. Please leave a comment on this blog and I will get back to you on whether I will be writing on the topic and by when. Best of luck!

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