Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

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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5 Strategy Based Games

“What do you want to achieve or avoid? The answers to this questions are objectives. How will you go about achieving your desired results? The answer to this you can call strategy.” William E Rothschild.

This week we have talked about ways to flex analytical thinking capabilities so as to become more adept at developing and executing strategic directives. One of the ways which has contributed substantially to my personal growth in strategic based thinking, has been its application in a variety of strategic games I have played. Most of these games have simple rules, and can be played by a broad spectrum of individuals ranging from children to adults. When we begin to scratch the surface of these rules, we notice more complexities. Strategy development follows similar lines. To develop and deploy an effective strategy is a challenging task. Listed below are five strategy based games through which I have learnt many valuable lessons.

1. Chess: This game teaches several fundamental concepts, such as preparation, patience and sacrifice, key proponents in development of strategic planning. Chess provides an ideal playing ground to practice, and hone skills needed in these particular segments. It teaches us to see patterns, which may lead to future positions, and how to take advantage of them. At the same time it forces us to continue looking at the bigger picture, to ensure that we are aware of all positions on the board, so as to take advantage of them. To read more about the parallels between chess and strategy please click here.

2. Bridge: Is a game which helps develop skills to work with others, communication, learning to trust instinct and, actual ‘table’ play. As a partnership based game, effective communication with your partner is critical so as to read and understand the partner’s hand. Developing and deploying strategic directives works in the same way. We have to learn to work together to formulate them, at the same time we have to communicate them effectively to the rest of the team, to ensure smooth deployment or play. To read more about parallels between bridge and strategy please click here.

3. Poker: Among the many things which can be learnt from this game are aggression, controlling emotions and attention to detail. Most of these qualities are also required to ensure successful deployment of any strategy. Without them, we see poor execution and unravelling of plans midway, due to the inability to master these factors. It is essential that we develop and be adept at understanding our own thresholds and abilities to find success. To read more about the parallels between poker and strategy please click here.

4. Monopoly: An all time favorite strategy based game, this gives players insights into negotiating, deal making and situational analysis. There are several strategies which players take to win at this game, unfortunately they are often short sighted. This is due primarily because we develop strategies based solely on the short term . These could be in the form of hitting quarterly targets or maintaining specific share price. Most of these strategies do not take into account long term implications of these decisions, which have the potential to be detrimental to the company’s future. To read more about parallels between monopoly and strategy please click here.

5. Risk: A game with an end goal of, world domination. It teaches players several principles relating to allocation of resources, partnerships and aggression. Most of these principles form the basis of successful strategies. The ability to fully utilize in-hand resources in the most efficient manner is a challenging task. Furthermore, to progress as an organization,  strategic alliances need to be formed to accelerate the rate of growth. These principles are covered in the game, in a simple yet effective manner. To learn more about parallels between risk and strategy please click here.

On the journey as an entrepreneur, learning has to be an ongoing factor. Using creative methods to exercise analytical and thinking capabilities helps to see situations from different angles. This equips us with the ability to make better decisions, be more productive and reach our goals faster. 

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Risk

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.” Sun Tzu

Competing for world domination is what the game of Risk is all about. This is a military based game, where players put their respective armies against each other. The game provides each player with the ability to be involved in strategic maneuvering, brings in an element of luck with the dice and gives ample opportunities to form and break alliances. In a way, it simplifies all the complexities of war, into a simple game where the player with the greatest foresight and a little luck, usually emerges victorious. Unlike Monopoly, this game allows for more creativity and imagination due to the movements allowed on the board. Playing straightforward strategies leaves you exposed, and vulnerable to attacks. 

This interesting game has quite a few parallels to the world of business and strategy:

1. Allocation of Resources: Each player has a finite amount of resources allocated to them. The placement of these resources is a critical aspect of the game. One may choose to have loosely scattered armies all over the board, they may decide to fortify certain key positions with the bulk of their resources, or they may aim to use their resources collectively and be aggressive. Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages, a similar predicament occurs in the real world when we develop strategies. The deployment of limited resources is critical to whether the overall strategy will be successful or not.

2. Partnerships: Conquering the whole world, even in a game, is an arduous task, one that can rarely be done alone. The game calls for players to partner together, to improve their chances of winning and become a more feared adversary. Without these partnerships one is usually outflanked or outnumbered, and an early exit in the the game is imminent. The same principles apply in the real world. In order to reach goals and objectives, partnerships are an essential component. Choosing partners carefully and correctly is vital to ensure the success of any campaign.

3. Aggression: In my experience of playing this game, the opponent who chooses to fortify a small portion of the board heavily, usually faces eventual defeat. Opponents who choose a defensive style of play, lack the creativity or willingness to go out of their comfort zones, fearing the unknown. Unfortunately such behavior is punished heavily in this game as well as in the real world. When pursuing goals and dreams, being aggressive is often vital to acheive them . Focusing efforts on offensive strategies instead of defensive ones will bring a greater share of victories, rather than defeats in my opinion. 

In the game of Risk there is an element of luck, due to the requirement of rolling a dice. Once the dice is rolled, nothing can be done to change what was rolled. What we do have control over, is how we react to what we may have rolled. In life we have the same choice. We cannot change the hand that we have been dealt. What we can change is how we choose to play it. Remember to keep your end goal in mind, and formulate short term tactics to reach it.

 

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5 Steps to Manage Startup Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Personal Experiences With Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The People Risk Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Financial Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Operational Failure

“In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words; people, product and profits.” Lee Iacocca

All companies operate on a set of processes. These processes drive all avenues of a business ranging from Internal operations, business development, sales, marketing and execution to name a few critical functions. When these processes are missing or loosely defined a business faces several long term disadvantages which arise in areas such as productivity, efficiency, price and overall morale of the team. If these factors are not paid close attention to from the start you will substantially increase the risk to your business, keeping it from reaching future growth. This is a set of measures that can be put into place at your startup to help reduce this level of risk.

1. Product/Service development is a critical stage in a company’s development. This process should be clearly defined from  time of inception, selection, development and execution. Using such a process allows you to push viable product/services faster through the levels aided with input from all divisions or team members. At the same time it allows you to kill product/service ideas at earlier stages to maximize efficiency.

2. Break down the product/service you are providing into components. This helps identify a supply chain and is critical when you want to know the level of business risk exposure. This is something I am still in the process of learning. This has brought about a greater amount of transparency and increased efficiency in the companies I have been involved in implementing this strategy.

3. Delivery and execution mechanisms are vital to ensure that your product/service gets to your customer at the right time and place and matches their expectation. This operations component must be tweaked constantly to ensure that customer satisfaction levels remain high and retention levels are maintained. If this part of operations is neglected you may find yourself at a severe disadvantage against a competitor who has concentrated in making their delivery mechanisms optimal.

4. Internal processes such as finance, communication and CRM should be automated with the help of technology to achieve a faster flow of communication from one department to the other. When organizations begin to scale is when a disconnect takes place internally. I have experienced this many a time and now rely on technologies to keep everyone connected and keep the flow of information and communication clear and fast. 

Listed above are some of the steps I have taken in businesses  I am involved with to increase operational efficiency and decrease risk of process breakdown . Operational management is actually a very complex topic, The above is a very simplistic approach that startup or younger companies can adopt to establish processes which will help them to scale faster in the future .

If anyone reading this post has domain knowledge regarding operations management at a startup or SME’s I would appreciate your comments and feedback on this post.

 

 

 

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