Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

A Small World

“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.” Bill Gates

Today after being on a conference call between three different time zones, I stopped to marvel at the amazing transformation the internet and telecommunication tools have had on business. My father reminds me of the days he was in Saudi Arabia in the early 80’s, when using the telephone was a luxury and all business transactions were either done in person or through telegrams. I cannot even begin to fathom doing that today. With the explosive growth of computers and the internet, the world has suddenly and truly become a small world. No one is really inaccessible and everyone is linked to each other through various social networks. At times however it can be quite overwhelming knowing that one is constantly plugged into this network be it through a computer, laptop or mobile phones.

The world having become increasingly more connected has brought about many new opportunities for entrepreneurs in it’s wake. Today you can be sitting in Singapore talking to your supplier in Guangzhou, China and selling your product to someone in Brazil. All this with the help of Skype, E-Banking and some collaboration software. However, not enough entrepreneurs are being able to see the multiple opportunities that exist now that we are able to bridge these massive divides. My father and many of his friends are in the import/export business. They can literally conduct business anywhere in the world just by using a phone. Other opportunities such as outsourcing are also becoming increasingly popular and Timothy Ferris has dedicated an entire chapter in his book “4 Hour Work Week” to it.

I have quite a few friends who use e-bay and other such websites to make a decent part time income to supplement their primary income streams. Some of them are the first ones to get the latest mobile phones from Asia and sell them to buyers in the West; others buy handicrafts from China and supply major retail stores. This definitely requires doing your homework, finding a niche and seeing whether you can locate a gap to fill. By leveraging on technologies which are readily available today this has become increasingly simpler from days of yore when you needed to go to the post office to send out a telegram. This is only one of the ways we can leverage on available technologies. I will discuss the impact of these technologies on various aspects of business processes in the near future.

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5 Key Non-Financial Metrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Financial Metric #5: Execution of Corporate Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Financial Metric #4: Market Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Financial Metric #3: Innovativeness Index

“Innovation is ultimately not an act of intellect but of will.” Joseph Schumpeter

How do we measure innovation? Unfortunately there is no one framework which is used universally to measure innovation. Innovation according to Wikipedia means “a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations. A distinction is typically made between Invention, an idea made manifest, and innovation, ideas applied successfully.” The stress is on the actual application of the idea. Without taking action we could talk about theoretical models and concept all we want, but without tangible output, innovation does not take place.

I believe Google is an innovative enterprise. Successful products such as gmail, chrome and orkut were all created in the 15% innovation time that all employees are given. They are all motivated to put their ideas into action, and then see the response it receives. Much of the time these initial attempts will be inferior to products which may be in the market. In this case Hotmail, FireFox and Friendster were all established players in the industries they were targeting. Nonetheless, they put their products out there and continued to improve on them. There were several products which did not achieve any critical mass and they were discontinued. The important thing is that a shot was taken. As an entrepreneur we have to take calculated risks and continue pushing our products/services out of their comfort zone.

Some useful sub metrics I use to measure an organization’s innovative index are:

1. Incremental Changes: How a business continues to improve its product/service is an important component of innovation. Once again, if you take Gmail for example, they continue to add new features which may have been requested by users or deemed necessary to enhance the user experience. Recently they integrated the ability to use video within the service, canned messages to enable faster replies and new themes to make the interface look unique. Set benchmarks for your products/services and then track what those changes do in terms of traffic, sales and profitability.

2. New Products/Services: I am a big fan of creating complementary assets around core business units which are performing well. Not only does this provide further advantages to continue using the core product but it opens up the ability to leverage on the successful product/service to launch others. Also one can measure how many new products/enhancements are in the pipeline and when they are expected to be released.

Depending on the type of organization that you are part of, one will need to come up with relevant sub metrics to calculate the innovative index. While I was searching for models I came across a great article written by the author of Freakonomics Stephen J Dubner called “How can we measure innovation?“. The article includes answers from many well known authors and industry leaders. I strongly recommend reading the entire article. It provides a point of view from individuals with very different backgrounds and can help you find the right metrics for your business model.

Related Posts:

Assessing innovation metrics: McKinsey Global Survey Results

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Non-Financial Metric #2: Employee Loyalty

“I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation is how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people.” Thomas Watson Jr.

Volumes of books and years of study materials have been developed to enable managers to attract better talent and retain them. From an entrepreneur’s point of view there are several structural differences compared to those faced in larger organizations. First off, much of the time a new start up will have an untested product/service with a small team which may or may not have the relevant experience needed. What they do have is an intense passion for what they want to do, that is probably the only way they can attract quality talent. Even though they are convinced and on board, things do not become easier. Salaries are usually minimal, stress levels are very high and burnout thresholds are reached much earlier. Losing a critical member of a team for a start up can signal the end of the road. Therefore this metric has to be given due importance to ensure that goals are met. Listed below are a couple of steps that have helped me keep the employee loyalty index high at businesses I have been part of :

1. Full Disclosure of Position: When recruiting someone for your start up team, one needs to ensure that you communicate clearly what role they will have to play. We all know that at smaller start ups many different hats need to be worn during the course of the day. The individual needs to be comfortable with this and willing to put in the long hours which will be required. Salaries, equity stakes, confidentiality agreements and all other formalities should be openly discussed and negotiated before hand. If these factors are left to be discussed at a later date, there is bound to be trouble and the situation becomes sticky.

2. Open Communication & Fairness: Take for example,  two founders who want to add a new marketing individual to the team. Whether this individual comes in with a substantial equity stake or on a salary it is important for the founding team to keep communication channels as open as possible. I have noticed that when groups are formed or information withheld, it leads to a drastic decrease in loyalty as the feeling of being ‘part of the team’ is not there. Have regular feedback sessions to understand the sentiments of the team. Trust has got to be earned and the only way this can get done is by communicating and getting to know the individual better.

3. Development Opportunities: Do your best to give everyone the opportunity to showcase their skill sets as well as learn new ones. I have been pleasantly surprised many a time when I found that a technical team member had some pretty extraordinary presenting skills or marketing insights. At a start up there needs to be strong focus on getting your team members to open up and move out of their comfort zones. If they don’t feel like they are growing and getting experience, which they would not have received in large organizations, chances of them defecting increase dramatically.

4. Fair Compensation & Reward: As hard as we attempt to get people to work for as little as possible in lieu of a big pay day, down the line, chances are they are going to react at some point in time. First off, compensation and rewards need to be discussed before adding the individual to the team. They should have a good idea what to expect to make, as well as how they will be compensated with non cash benefits. There will be times when cash flows are thin and payroll expenses may not be met. This is a time for open communication and ways of compensating them differently, greater equity or the ability to work part time needs to be offered.

Employee loyalty is directly linked to customer loyalty and corporate profitability. Whether you are a new start up or an established one, this measure needs to be continuously monitored. Sub indicators such as burnout thresholds are critical to ensure that you know when to apply the brakes. It is undoubtedly a challenging juggling act and becomes harder as the team begins to expand. By monitoring this metric from the beginning a start up has a substantial advantage and can use it to develop a sustainable competitive advantage.

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Non-Financial Metric #1: Customer Satisfaction

”The single most important thing to remember about any enterprise is that there are no results inside its walls. The result of a business is a satisfied customer.” Peter Drucker

Acquiring customers is a challenging task and takes days, months and even years to do. Once you have acquired customers a sense of complacency often sets in. One feels the hard work is done and now we can sell to this client for a very long time. How I would like that to be true. Unfortunately, as we all know the real world works differently. Acquiring customers is the first step, providing value and satisfying the customer is where the actual work begins. It is a well known fact that acquiring a new customer is 5-10 times more expensive than retaining your current customer base. Therefore as business owners we have to do whatever we can to ensure that we provide substantial value and our customers are satisfied with our products or services. Listed below are a couple of steps to help measure customer satisfaction:

1. Identify Touch Points: A customer comes in contact with your product or service either directly or indirectly. Measuring indirect contact such as interaction with other customers or reading online reviews is challenging to track and measure. However we can keep a much closer eye on direct touch points such as websites, telephone operators, retail stores, office or any other points where the customer is in direct contact with us. To do this we need to build a list of all possible touch points and track them closely to see where and how our customers interact with us.

2. Selecting Sub Metrics: A customer satisfaction index is made up of several sub metrics which contribute to a final score. For instance speed of service, perceived quality, and pricing and trust are a few sub metrics one can use. The selection of these sub metrics will depend on the type of product or service to be provided, the type of touch points used and any other factors which impact directly on  the interaction between the customer and the business. It is important not to overload oneself with too many metrics. Select them carefully,  understand and align them with what you deem necessary for an accurate customer satisfaction score.

3. Select Measurement Method: Once we have selected the metrics, we have to select the best way to measure them. Some of the commonly used measurement methods are surveys, focus groups and live observation. These are effective in collating information in a reliable and valid manner. Depending on the size of your sample and the amount of information that needs to be collected,  select a method which has the ability to generate a reliable and valid result.

4. Technology: With the advent of the internet, collecting information from customers at major touch points has become easier. Many website have incorporated feedback widgets which allow the customer to leave their comments and opinion, some websites have live operators which interact with customers to get their feedback and other tools such as, http://www.getsatisfaction.com. This provides a community platform where customers publicly rate and talk about the service. As entrepreneurs we need to leverage these tools to get information faster and more reliably from major touch points.

Once data is collected, there needs to be a structured way to process and assess the business. Unless the business can use the data collected to enhance customer experience, there is little point in undergoing such an elaborate exercise. It is therefore essential that you have  a clear idea about what you want to measure and why from the very beginning. Align your goals and targets in selecting appropriate methods.

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5 Steps to Better Inventory Management

“Every company has metrics that track performance. The key question is whether these metrics really provide visibility to performance as viewed by the customer.” Steve Matthesen

Inventory management is an aspect of business which needs to be given more attention than what it currently receives. It is certainly not the most glamorous aspects of running a business. Inventory management is a basic business building block like marketing, sales or finance. Simply put, inventory management deals with how efficiently an organization manages it stock cycles. Stocks in inventory, relate to aspects of business that are exposed to risk when accumulated beyond certain thresholds. In the case of a service business, it is the amount of outstanding payments. Efficient inventory management helps a business to maximize its existing assets by increasing turnover. Listed below are five steps to assist your business in managing inventory cycles better:

1. Inventory Velocity: This is an essential metric, which measures the speed at which a business can move it’s stock. The speed at which a business moves it’s inventory will impact substantially on its profitability and ROI. Inventory velocity can be calculated by simply dividing the cost of goods sold by the average inventory for the period. This is a benchmark all businesses should watch very closely. To learn more about the importance of measuring inventory velocity please click here.

2. Forecasting: Mistakes made by forecasting incorrectly will impact directly on the level of inventory at the end of a financial period. There are three important aspects to be considered when constructing forecasts. The forecasts need to be based on data acquired from the market, sales channels and the current pipeline. Based on these aspects, we can construct forecasts for multiple scenarios which enable us to put measures in place, for the best and worst case scenarios. It is important to remember that forecasts are only as good as the assumptions they are based upon. To learn more about how to forecast revenue for your business please click here.

3. Communication Channels: When there are insufficient channels of communication between the producer, distributor, retailer and customer inventory, management becomes challenging. The information gap needs to be bridged by implementing several communication channels which include, allocated representatives, conference calls, real time stock levels and feedback channels. When information is allowed to flow freely from the customer to the producer, changes can be made faster and everyone in the chain stands to benefit. To learn more about the various communication channels please click here.

4. Technology: Organizations such as Walmart and Dell have shown the power of technology to optimize inventory management. Today, entrepreneurs have access to several tools such as bar coding, inventory management  and billing management software, which can help give small businesses an edge in managing their inventories optimally. To learn more about different types of technologies available for inventory management please click here.

5. Internal Policies: Policies and controls need to be selected carefully. Their main objective should be to facilitate bottom line growth for the business. These objectives act as guiding principles, and policies are intended to facilitate reaching those goals. Proper inventory management can impact bottom line figures and results for the business substantially. Policies pertaining to ordering, review and collections need to be mapped out in detail to ensure proper management of inventories. To learn more about internal policies relating to inventory management please click here.

Operations and supply chain management are the nuts and bolts of all businesses. Without smooth operations and proper controls, we could have a great website, killer marketing strategies and still come up short. When a customer does not get the product in time, or at the right price, we lose the customer. It all comes down to execution, and ensuring that we have systems in place to manage each order optimally. Inventory management is a critical aspect of this chain, and I recommend all business owners review their inventory cycles and work out ways to optimize them.

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Inventory Management Internal Policies

Policies are many, Principles are few, Policies will change, Principles never do. John C. Maxwell

A common answer I get when I ask individuals why they chose to become entrepreneurs is, “We did not want to get buried in bureaucracy and policies which stop us from performing optimally.” I completely understand where they are coming from. It is true that in some larger organizations policies and controls become so complex that it leads to much frustration. However, I do not advocate running a business without any control measures. Policies and controls need to be selected carefully. Their main objective should be to facilitate bottom line growth for the business. These objectives act as guiding principles, and policies are intended to facilitate reaching those goals. Proper inventory management can impact bottom line figures and results for the business substantially, and is an area where entrepreneurs need control measures to ensure that things move smoothly. Listed below are a few policies which may be helpful:

1. Ordering: If your business depends on manufacturers to produce your product, it is best you have documented your specifications in detail. It is also advisable to get quotes from a number of manufacturers before deciding to go with a particular vendor. This not only helps gather market information, it enables you to get the best price as well.

2. Inventory Review: I recommend setting up a policy to review inventory stock levels periodically. This helps determine current worth, idle stock alternative strategies to be offloaded can be discussed, and it provides management with a holistic view of the level of risk they are currently exposed to. For a service based business, this can identify customers not paying on time, and adjust their credit lines accordingly.

3. Collections: This is an area where entrepreneurs face a lot of challenges. If you have outstanding payments for products sold through retailers or for services rendered, it is essential that a mechanism is in place to receive this payments as soon as possible. I would recommend setting up periodic reminders through, email, phone calls and personal visits to speed up this process. Depending on your business model, having a collection policy which is adhered to closely, can increase short term liquidity substantially.

Inventory management is definitely not the most exciting aspects of business. It is however, a critical function which needs to be given a lot more focus. Through appropriate policies and control measures, we can achieve optimal inventory velocity and increase the likelihood of turning in even greater profit.

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Inventory Management Technologies

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. Bill Gates

Technology has played a massive role in optimizing inventory management. Examples of companies which stand out are, Walmart and Dell, they have used technology to make the most of their inventories and maximize velocity. Both these companies have used technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), web based systems and software automation. Take Walmart for example, they track inventory levels throughout their stores continuously, and are able to transfer inventory from one geographical location to another, based on demand changes or how they use RFID to streamline pick-ups and deliveries from their warehouses. These represent massive infrastructure costs, which eventually lead to cost savings and efficiency. Most start-up companies will not be able to afford such systems. However, they do need to think of creative ways to use available technologies to optimize their own inventories.

Some ways to incorporate simple technologies into your business are:

1. Bar Coding: With specialty printers and software available quite reasonably, I recommend tagging your stock to keep track of movements. We implemented this in one of the companies I was consulting at, and it gave management a holistic view about stock levels and usage patterns. Using this information, they were able to make better inventory based decisions.

2. Inventory Software: These programs help keep track of key metrics regarding the usage of your inventory. They have the capability to provide future trends based on past usage, and can identify areas where the business is taking unnecessary exposure by ordering too much or too little. The fact that your stock inventory can be viewed holistically is a great benefit in itself.

3. Billing Management: For service based businesses, I strongly recommend using an invoicing and billing management software. These are critical to ensure that invoices are issued in time, and payments made accordingly. One can easily find metrics such as, how long your billing cycles are, and which customers need to be given stricter terms. Some tools have inbuilt email reminders, a very handy feature, to remind customers on a periodic basis. I find a lot of younger business owners take this function too lightly which can severely damage cash flows.

A constant aim should remain to increase inventory velocity. Technology provides us with a multitude of tools to help reach this goal. Some technology tools available, can unnecessarily complicate processes which can backfire. It is important to always keep simplicity and some specific goals in mind when integrating technology tools.

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