Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

Lesson #7: Dealing with Writers Block

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

I frequently find myself sitting at my laptop with a ton of posts to write, yet, I can put nothing down on paper. It is one of the most frustrating feelings one can experience. Many a time you begin to wonder whether all the effort you put into writing your blog is worth it and whether anyone would notice if you stopped writing from tomorrow. Other times even though you are motivated to write,  the words just do not seem to come to you. I have sat at my desk umpteen times with a topic and all the information I need for the post and have been unable to put it together. I twittered about this a while back and the response I got from the community was quite amazing. It seems  writers block is something that each and everyone of us bloggers has to deal with on a regular basis. It was interesting to learn about the different ways writers deal with it. There are a few things I do whenever I experience one of these blocks:

1. Go out for a short walk: There is something about moving and a change of scenery that gets me thinking, it also gets the creative juices working. Most of the time there are just so many things happening concurrently at your desk or office that it blocks all ability to focus on the task at hand.

2. Brain Dumping: When I get back from my short walk I take a blank sheet of paper and just begin to offload every thought that comes into my head. It is a way of clearing up all the thoughts in my head. This exercise is also greatly theraputic for those times when I am stressed or frustrated with something.

3. Mind Mapping: After clearing my head I begin to focus on the task at hand again and use mind mapping as a way to get my thoughts organized. I recommend most of Tony Buzan’s books on mind mapping.

Writing on a regular basis is a challenging feat. One which is bound to frustrate and irritate you at times,  it is also one of the most satisfying and rewarding things to be able to integrate into one’s life.

Related Posts:

Bathtubs, Lightning Bolts, and The Myth of Writer’s Block

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Lesson #6: Importance of Reading

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. Dr. Seuss

I was an avid reader before I started this blog. I have however had to drastically increase the amount that I read since I started writing on a daily basis. Many of the topics I wrote about required substantial research, I also required to stay on top of things to see what other bloggers in my niche were writing about. If you are planning on writing a new blog in 2009 then reading is something that I highly recommend integrating into your daily schedule. This will not only increase your knowledge base it will also help you get a better command over how you write as well. My daily reading schedule involves:

1. Blogs: There are a couple of blogs that I read on a daily basis. Some of my favorite’s include Seth Godin, Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Darren Rowse & Leo Babauta. Apart from these blogs I subscribe to over 50+ additional feeds that provide news on everything from current news to technology advances. Blogs provide a great source of up-to-date information on a range of topics and one can use resource sites such as Technorati or Alltop to find some great blogs.

2. News Sites: Ever since I joined Twitter I have relied on sites such as BBC and CNN a lot less. However there are still a couple of news and aggregation website sthat I visit everyday. Some of them include CNN Money, WSJ, FT, Fast Company and TechCrunch.

3. Magazines: I subscribe to a couple of magazines that I enjoy reading on a regular basis. Some of them include HBR, Fortune and Forbes Global.

4. Books: I average around 2-3 books a week. Some recent books that I have read are: 4-Hour Week by Tim Ferris, Top Grading by Brad Smart, 50 ways to be persuasive by Robert Cialdini. From next year onwards I plan for my blog to include book reviews on a regular basis. If you have any books that you want reviewed please let me know.

I am very interested to learn what readers of this blog are reading. Please provide blog links, web links or even book names. I look forward to hearing from all of you.

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Lesson #4: Commitment

There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstance permit. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.Anonymous

There is something about the last week of December that forces us to reflect on the year that has passed and to make resolutions for the new year ahead. In the heat of the moment we make all sorts of large commitments to ourselves only to find ourselves losing steam very quickly when the new year begins and we find ourselves back in the same routines. The fact of the matter is that making major life changes is not the simplest of things to do. To make things worse we tend to make large and bold resolutions without putting enough thought into what that actually entails.

Something prompted me to start blogging last December. I made a bold resolution and commitment to blog everyday. I wish someone had given me a reality check at that point in time and told me that blogging daily was going to be very challenging. However, a factor that differentiated this resolution from many others was that I made this commitment publicly on my blog. That  made me feel accountable to my readers as well as to myself, and hence propelled me to keep on writing.

This lesson applies not only to your blog but should have a broad application on one’s life as a whole. Before committing to something or someone, make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Do your homework  before, it is much easier that way. Once a commitment is made, one needs to live up to your end of the deal. To tell you the truth, there were many times during the course of the year when the thought of discontinuing this blog actually did pass through my mind. I am really happy I kept my end of the deal though,  this entire experience has been tremendously defining and beneficial for me.

If you are planning on starting your blog next year, I suggest you give serious time and thought  to evaluate how much time you can actually spare in your day to blog. How long does it take you on average to write a blog post ? What other factors will help you keep your commitment when you do start? Lastly, make an open commitment to the blogosphere about your aspirations and goals for the year of 2009.I wish you the very best of success.

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Lesson #3: Have a Goal

“Try not.  Do or do not.  There is no try.” Yoda

A few years back in one of my mastermind groups, one of my mentors mentioned that I should do whatever it took to take the word “try” out of my dictionary. I believe that advice has had a defining impact on my outlook on life. Shades of gray leave us with too much room to wiggle in and out of. Making decisions based on absolute outcomes is what makes life for us and for those around us a whole lot easier. There will be instances where  absolute outcomes are not known at the onset, we must however do whatever we can to ensure that we limit the permutations. When I started writing I had two primary goals:

1. To write something of some value everyday.

2. To develop a substantial content base to leverage off in Year 2 of my blog.

I left out two aspects, design and monetization, that are usually given the most attention. The truth of the matter is that to adequately monetize your blog, it needs to be backed by great content. When you have that settled, monetization becomes easier.  Hence I advise every new blogger to focus primarily on creating great content for their blog. Eventually one must strive to become an authoritative figure in one’s particular niche. When I look at stories of successful bloggers, this is usually the path that was taken. It does undoubtedly take a lot of hardwork and dedication. However to achieve any substantial goal there is no substitute for hardwork.

I would strongly suggest developing specific goals for your blog in 2009. This helps to put things in perspective as well giving you achievable targets. Some  metrics to track progress by are, number of posts, number of blog hits, number of comments etc. Set specific goals that can be measured and tracked. By doing this simple goal setting exercise ,you have a far greater chance of success.

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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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Market Risk

“I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgement; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.” David Oglivy 

Our world is in a constant state of flux with the rapid flow of information and increased uptake in technological advancements, and the pace of change continues to increase manifold at mind boggling speed. The increased level of change will result in an increased level of uncertainty in the market place. If these trends are not closely monitored you could find yourself providing a product/service to a market which is slowly becoming extinct. As an entrepreneur this may hit you whilst you are setting up your own business or keeping levels of market risk at a manageable level. Hence you have to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry you operate in, constantly.

These are some tactics we use to manage market risk in the organizations I am involved with :

1. Read voraciously about your industry. Subscribe to industry specific reports, magazines and newsletters to help keep abreast with latest trends. This helps business development divisions to accurately estimate market size as well as being able to create market maps. A market map helps you to segment the industry and provides you with critical data regarding growth opportunities. 

2. Meticulously track local and international competitors who are at the beech-head of advancement in your industry. This helps identify growth paths as well as information regarding the competiton’s strenghts and weakness. Accordingly structure growth paths to develop competencies in areas where you can compete most effectively and efficiently.

3. Establish mediums through which you can be in constant touch with your customers, suppliers and retailers. They provide you with ground realities which cannot be measured with extrapolated projection analysis. Constantly monitor consumption, sales and feedback to ensure that your product/service is continuing to provide the value that is expected of it.

The tactics mentioned above may appear simple and logical, yet, many startup organizations venture into spaces where they have not clearly outlined the size of potential markets or gauged whether the product/service they are providing is what the market demands. If you fail to gather data regarding these critical factors you will exponentially increase your venture’s risk level. In the final analysis, the fate of any business lies in its ability to create or provide a product/service that fits the market demands or needs.

 

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