Archive for 2012

Your Excuses Are Your Own

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Startup Expert, Roger Pierce, produces articles, videos and blogs to help companies engage business owners. He’s worked with Scotiabank, Visa, Staples, Bell, HP, FedEx, Cisco and Microsoft. Roger is the co-author of the book, Thriving Solo: How to Grow a Successful Business, and writes startup columns for The Toronto Sun, 24Hrs and Profit Magazine. www.NewcomerStartup.com

 

It’s a harsh statement, I know.

It’s easier to blame. We blame other people. We blame the economy. We blame customers. We blame time. We blame our situation. We blame money. We blame the boss. We blame the system. We blame the weather. We may even blame a higher power.

Being accountable for your own success will make you successful. It’s as simple as that.

I read a lot of business books written by very intelligent and very accomplished businesspeople. Regardless of the author or the subject, one common theme emerges: Your excuses are your own.

Greatness in any form doesn’t come easily. It requires sacrifice, discipline, passion, commitment and perseverance against overwhelming odds. History is rich with examples of achievers who reached their goals despite possible excuses.

Over the years I’ve heard different excuses from struggling entrepreneurs:

“I don’t have the money to build my business.” Go find it.
“I’m too sick to work.” Hire others to work for you.
“I don’t have the time.” Make better use of the time you do have.
“I’m not sure what to do.” Work with people smarter than you.

Once we take full responsibility for whatever we aim to achieve – it could be starting a business, launching a new career, finishing school, finding our soul mate, raising a child – the excuses magically disappear. In fact, our former excuses may become a source of motivation.

Your excuses are your own. So don’t make any. Just get going.

You can contact Roger at 416-302-5251 or pierce@newcomerstartup.com

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Replacing Myself

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Our guest this week is Lisa Taylor, President and Founder of Challenge Factory, a company that is changing how Canadians view the aging workforce. See below…..

I am the founder of Challenge Factory, a company that is changing how Canadians view the aging workforce. We talk about trends, demographics and experiential programs that spark innovation and competitive advantage. We work with individuals seeking meaning and satisfaction and the companies looking to employ top talent.

Recently, the business hit a milestone.  It had grown to the point that I needed a dedicated operations manager to oversee the quality of services we deliver and find ways for us to innovate as we grow.

It took several attempts to find the right person. I was, after all, replacing myself for many of the role’s responsibilities.

First, I explored using a virtual assistant and delegating tasks but quickly recognized that I wanted an employee who would be committed to the future and health of the business. Next, I hired a recent graduate thinking I would provide training and they would bring energy, new ideas and curiosity.  Six weeks in, the graduate hire asked for 8 weeks off to travel on a pre-arranged, non-refundable, non-negotiable trip.

Then I found Cayla.

Cayla had experience and came highly recommended. In our initial discussion I was explaining the administrative tasks that would be a part of this job. She responded by saying that she’d do the tasks for the first two months on the job and in the third we would automate whatever we could so that no one had to spend time on tasks that didn’t drive our goals. I swooned.

Next we discussed the more strategic elements of the job. I proudly shared the company history and plans for the next year. She started talking about plans for 2-5 years out and noticed areas where I had been very conservative. “Why don’t we charge for that service? We are the only company in the country that has that expertise. Why give it away?” I started to explain how the company had started and why we initially provided the service as a way for people to see just how different we are. And then I stopped.

I was overcome by a feeling that usually only surfaces when I am talking about my kids.

I am a mother to two boys. When I meet someone new and they ask how old the kids are, I proudly say “7 and 10.”  Most of the time, the response I get is “oh, little guys.” I am always surprised by this reaction. Little guys are the babies we held. Little guys are the toddlers we chased after. Little guys are the boys as they started school and learned to read.  My kids take the TTC, they have a cell phone, they know who Obama is. They are not little to me. Yet, in the scheme of things they are little with many more stages of growth ahead of them. That is what the stranger sees.

And the same is true of how new employees view start-up businesses.

It occurred to me that Cayla and I had radically different views of the company. To me, Challenge Factory is currently the largest and most successful it has ever been. It will continue to grow from here but I am proud of what it has already accomplished.

To Cayla, Challenge Factory is the smallest it will ever be. It is exciting enough to entice her to come and dedicate herself to the company – but not for what it is now. For what, together, we can build it into.

Replacing yourself is not easy. But as parents and business owners we know that our kids and our businesses will only rise to the level of expectation that we set for them.

More about Lisa:
Lisa worked as a strategy and technical consultant at Deloitte and Hewlett Packard. In her last role at Hewlett Packard, Lisa managed a workforce of over 12 consultants and uncovered a nascent trend linking working life expectation, longevity and employee engagement. Stepping away from corporate life, she created Challenge Factory.
Challenge Factory combines the latest demographic-based research with innovative career management practice. It provides highly experiential and practical programs for individuals and organizations. Challenge Factory and its clients have been profiled in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Brandon Sun, HR Reporter, Ottawa Sun, Herald Chronicle, 24Hrs and Canadian Press.
Lisa holds an MB in Strategic Management from the Schulich School of Business, York University. She currently sits on several not-for-profit boards and is an active community volunteer and public speaker.
Lisa has addressed over 400 organizations in Canada, the U.S. and abroad and has a regular careers column in the Toronto Star.

If you would like to contact Lisa, email her at lisa@challengefactory.ca or at 416-721-8494.

When Is A Problem Really A Problem?

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Sara Lear is the latest addition to our team of consultants. In the first of many blog posts, she shares a unique tip she learned while working with a client.

Determining how to prioritize business issues that must be addressed, can be very difficult.

I am currently working with a client and in an effort to help him allocate more of his time to work ON the business, I am currently working IN his business.

On a daily basis, I collect all the issues that arise from customers, vendors, etc. and at the end of each day we review them.

There is never a shortage of issues to address, but this client has an unusual approach.

The first time we sat down together I had organized the list several different ways. One showed issues by project, one by department and one was chronological. I thought that no matter how he wanted to see the information, I had all the bases covered.

Well you can imagine my surprise when we sat down at the end of the first day and the first thing he said to me was “Is it something money can’t fix?”

I did not know what to say – and for those who know me, this was a first!

The business owners I work with all face many challenges on a daily basis. As a strategy for prioritizing these issues, the ones involving money can often be set aside quickly.

Tackling the ones money can’t fix are the challenges that stretch and excite us.

As a project manager I have found several tools that are very effective to use on a daily basis applicable to personal management and client/corporate management. Keeping a detailed ‘issues log’ as well as ‘lessons learned’ database will help to track and identify the recurring themes that need to be addressed in your approach/operations.

So the next time you feel like the problems are mounting, just ask yourself “Is this one that money can fix?”

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Focus, Simplicity and Common Sense…..

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

I’m not a big fan of business journalists.

That’s because many of them talk at length and opine about how to run a company without ever having had a single day’s practical experience as an entrepreneur or business owner.

(Hmm, I guess that makes them like many consultants ………..)

But there are exceptions –Jason Fried and Norm Brodsky in Inc. magazine are 2 great examples. And this week I stumbled across 2 posts by Randall Litchfield on the Profitguide.com site that caught my attention.

Litchfield was a journalist when corporate strategy was the focus of business schools, executives and strategy gurus. During that time he interviewed companies; spoke to academics and management consultants; and read every new strategy book published.

He made the switch to entrepreneur in 1990 and, since then, has made the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies 4 times.

Both posts reflect his somewhat unique experience, a product of this combination of careers.

In the first post Litchfield praises Richard Rumelt’s book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” as the best business book he’s read. Why does that push my opinion of him way up there? Because I agree and, if you follow this blog, you’ll remember I wrote 3 pieces from the book last year.

The first point he makes in the second post was that he realized that the really important stuff – how to achieve the goal—was getting lost as the strategic process became increasingly complex.

As a result he turned to examples of military strategy because “Corporations can hide a bad strategy (or no strategy) for years while ………military battles……tend to be over more quickly and the superior strategy revealed.” Nicely put!

Litchfield’s third point is that a military strategy can usually be articulated in a phrase or sentence of crystal clarity (e.g. Hannibal’s “envelopment” of the Romans or “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf’s “left hook”). However, in my opinion, it also suggests that some concepts are ageless and can be adapted to wildly different environments.

The final thing he says that I really like is that a good strategy boils down to a simple rule – bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness. This is the “indirect approach”, used by great commanders like Alexander the Great, Cromwell and Napoleon, who chose the line of least expectation and struck at the point of least resistance.

So for any company that has to take on larger competitors with resources that are much greater than their own, success will come by finding the competitor’s relative weakness and concentrating their relative strength(s) precisely there.

And that covers every company either in startup mode or which is a “small to medium sized enterprise”.

Here’s someone successful who has both theoretical knowledge and practical experience confirming that focusing on execution (the how to) is important; that things work better when they’re simple, not complicated; and that common sense delivers results.

You can read Litchfield’s 2 posts here and here.

 

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Strategic Success Comes From 3Ps

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

This week’s guest is Dick Albu, the founder and president of Albu Consulting, a strategy management consulting firm focused on engaging and energizing leadership teams of middle market private and family business to formulate robust business strategies and follow through on execution of key strategic initiatives.

If you are like many of our clients, you and your leadership team are getting ready to launch into your strategy sessions for 2013.  This is a great time to be reminded that the success of the strategic plan depends on three key factors (“3Ps”):

(1) How good is your PLAN?
(2) How committed are you to a PROCESS to pursue your goals?
(3) How committed are your PEOPLE to staying focused and on task until your goals are achieved?

Developing the right PLAN begins with a comprehensive analysis of the business, both from an internal and external perspective. Strategic thinking creates a realistic picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the products or services you offer customers, and your market position relative to competition. A good plan takes into consideration your company’s realistic capacity and capability for profitable growth. Strategic thinking sets the stage for identifying growth initiatives that are realistic, practical and specific to your unique situation.

Commitment to a relentless follow up PROCESS is the second stretch on the road to success. The driving force behind the process must come first from the President/CEO, and then be reinforced by the senior leadership team. Successful implementation of strategy is a continuous, long term process that evolves and strengthens over time. Commitment to monthly, quarterly and annual check-ups will refresh, revise and enhance your odds of success. At the same time, it keeps everyone in the organization fully engaged and focused on achieving the company goals.

The most important “P” for success is PEOPLE. Peter Drucker stated in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, “The distinction that marks a plan capable of producing results is the commitment of key people to work on specific tasks. Unless such commitment is made, there are only promises and hope, but no plan.” These specific tasks, which evolve from the PLAN and PROCESS, drive accountability and deadlines, while tracking results against agreed measures. In our opinion, seventy percent of success is the result of getting the full buy-in from key employees.

PROCESS and PEOPLE relate directly to excellence in execution. Research has found that 70% of companies fail to achieve their strategic plan goals, in many cases because they lack the process and people skills to enable a discipline for execution. A robust strategy execution management process can provide your organization with the most vital core competency of them all… the ability to execute your strategy.

Dick can be reached at 203-321-2147 or RAlbu@albuconsulting.com. For more information on Albu Consulting visit www.albuconsulting.com.

Perspective – It Really Matters….

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

We know that growing a business is hard work, correct?

Long hours, low pay, taking risks that were unimaginable before we started, unfeeling lenders and employees who lack commitment – and I haven’t even mentioned difficult customers who take forever to pay!

But what if we had to deal with our homes being bombed – several times – and not by unhappy customers? Can you imagine?

Yet I read recently about a business owner to whom this actually happened. Oh – and she had to survive death threats and acid attacks.

There are some problems that most of us who live in North America simply don’t face. Can you imagine, as part of a SWOT analysis, doing an environmental scan and having the Taliban pop up? That would give a whole different meaning to Threats.

I spent some time – a long time ago – with the British services just outside Belfast during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. One of the things that struck me as being “unreal”, to use our vocabulary of the time, was that businesses continued to run despite bombs, shootings and riots.

In Afghanistan, life and business go on (as they did all those years ago in Belfast). Entrepreneurs and business owners in Greece and Spain face different challenges but which are just as hard for me to imagine.

Talking about imagination, one of the techniques we use when developing strategies with clients is to get them to build a picture of their company in 3 or 5 years’ time. We ask them to do this in quite a lot of detail.

We use the exercise for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the power of visualization. Most business owners find it different or odd at first but succeed with very little prompting.

But can you conceive of being in a situation where you simply cannot imagine or visualize an end result?

That’s because you’ve encountered years – not days, not months, not quarters – but years of failure. And you’re only 10 years old? Yet the kids pulled it off and moved on with their lives – I think that’s truly amazing.

While I’m sitting writing this the first effects of Hurricane Sandy are appearing outside. While it may be a challenge, we know that by the weekend, at worst, it will be over. For most people it will (hopefully) only be a disruption lasting a few days.

Even Sandy pales, in my opinion, when compared to the story of the Afghani woman who launched the news agency in her own country and children who have to struggle for years with learning difficulties.

So, to those who are busy with their planning and budgeting for 2013 I would say this. Take a second, step back and reflect. For no matter how hard the challenges of growing a business in a slow or no growth economy, maybe other people are dealing with different (bigger?) challenges every day of their lives.

And if they can do it – so can we.

It’s all a matter of perspective………

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy A Vision – Is It Worth Investing The Time?

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Persistence and Execution…..

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

This is a true story, it did happen.

A few years ago I was on a team that had to cross a river of fast-flowing, freezing cold water without anyone getting hypothermia. And it had to be done in a certain amount of time or there would be unpleasant consequences to face.

One of the team was appointed leader and quickly solicited input from the rest us before announcing his plan. We got to work and, for a while, things went well.

But then it began to look like the plan wasn’t going to deliver the outcome we needed – just as sometimes happens in business. The leader tried to adapt his plan several times and in several different ways. It still wouldn’t work.

By this point we were very short of time.

He continued trying to modify the plan. His team became more demotivated, and distinctly less supportive, as the minutes ticked away. As you’ve no doubt guessed…..

We didn’t make it – and there were unpleasant consequences.

The river crossing was a leadership exercise, part of our officer training program. The leader didn’t graduate. You can argue that it’s not the same as losing a company – or even losing money – but it was pretty traumatic for the guy.

Until then I’d always been taught that persistence was important. However, even though our leader persisted, we weren’t successful. Clearly, there was such a thing as too much persistence.

But how much is too much?

When do you call a halt without, in retrospect, wondering if you quit too soon, a question every business owner has to answer more than once? Like most entrepreneurs we work with, I’ve developed my own guidelines for dealing with the “persistence versus pigheaded” question.

But Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 12 Guidelines for Deciding When to Persist, When to Quit are really good and very useful.

I particularly like the “interim” measures she proposes – are there signs of progress; has there been concrete achievements; is resistance declining? Nothing happens as quickly as we think – and plan – it will. So it’s important to look for indications that we’re on the right path.

It’s always good to get some fresh insight………….

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy Bad Strategy – How To Spot It.

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Attract More B2B Prospects with Content Marketing

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

This week’s guest is Paul Heron, CEO of Complex2Clear, a Toronto-based communications agency specializing in proposals, content marketing and websites for companies selling B2B services.

 

If you’re reading this post, chances are you think strategically and work at staying ahead of your competition in innovation, quality, delivery and client experience.

But who, besides your employees and your clients, appreciates how much value you deliver? Do outsiders generally know and admire your company ─ or do you often find yourself starting from scratch when explaining your key benefits and track record to new prospects?

If you’re in the “starting from scratch” category, consider content marketing, a powerful tool for building positive awareness about your business.

Content marketing is the practice of creating and sharing useful information prospects and others can read, listen to or watch via blogs, e-newsletters, white papers, research reports, magazine articles, industry presentations, webinars, case studies, podcasts, videos and others formats.

The idea is to demonstrate that your company is innovative and expert, but also generous in spirit ─ willing to share valuable knowledge freely with others. You gain recognition for being both smart and approachable and become the logical first stop for anyone shopping for your products.

Content marketing is among the fastest growing trends in marketing (to prove this, Google the phrase). Once available only to large consulting and financial services firms with research and printing budgets, it can now be practiced by anyone with a website.

Sound interesting? Here are some tips and a high-level schedule to help you get started.

CONTENT MARKETING TIPS

Start with research: Where is your community online? How can you best reach them? What kind of information would prospects find useful? What frequency makes sense ─ for you and your audiences?

Focus on your core message: Remember, this is a marketing initiative, not a creative writing exercise. It’s critical that each piece of content support your brand. Creating random blog posts about whatever’s on your mind is not content marketing.

Start small: Don’t overcommit. It’s better to publish monthly (or quarterly) and increase frequency, than to start weekly and burn out in a few months. Decide what resources you have and fit your campaign to your capabilities.

Set up your website to support content marketing: Use a contact manager and forms to begin building a list of people to whom you can push your content. Enable Google Analytics, so you can see which site pages attract and retain visitors to guide your content development. Here’s a video and free website audit tool to help you in this process.

Manage information quality: Make sure every item you publish is valuable. Your growing list of subscribers following your content is a business asset. Protect it with a process that ensures they receive consistent quality. Assign one person to review all content before publishing.

Avoid infomercials: This shouldn’t need to be said ─ but never stray into advertising in your content marketing. Along with poor quality (see above), it’s the fastest way to burn off your audience.

Set goals: Content marketing takes time and money. Set goals, track your costs and measure results to ensure it’s a good investment of your resources.

SCHEDULE

1. Confirm you have the appetite and resources for a content marketing initiative. Be realistic. A content marketing campaign is a long slow process. If you can afford to, consider using an outside agency to supplement your internal staff.

2. Brainstorm ideas for content to share. Use a facilitator and generate lots of topics. Plan to repeat this exercise every few months.

3. Rank each topic’s potential impact and time/effort to develop. Segment high-impact topics into several items to increase mileage. Identify your priorities and low-hanging fruit. Plan to revisit important topics every 6 months or so with an update.

4. Identify a subject matter expert for each topic. Who will be responsible for each item? This person may not be the writer; he or she could generate bullet points and review the draft for accuracy and completeness.

5. Set your priorities, channels and schedule. Frequency is important. When managing resources, consider publishing shorter items to increase frequency. The aim is to be top-of-mind when a prospect needs your services.

6. Document your plan, assign responsibilities and deploy. Manage your content marketing campaign like any other business process to enjoy maximum success.

You can contact Paul at 416-619-9208 or paul@complex2clear.com

It’s the Strategic Plan, Stupid

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

With a title like “The beating heart of the enterprise, it’s the strategic plan, stupid” there was no way I wasn’t going to read the article.

As an added incentive it was a Q&A with a Harvard professor published in the top magazine for entrepreneurs and business owners. (Call me odd but I think that combination just has to be fascinating.)

So what were the pearls of wisdom? Here are 6 of them.

• Working with corporate types the Prof had always viewed strategy as a set of mechanical tools, a series of frameworks and analysis. But she quickly realized that entrepreneurs are emotionally invested in their strategies – which impact their employees and companies very directly. And business owners feel responsible because, compared to corporations, that impact is felt very quickly.

• Strategy is not only about making your company different – it’s about making it different in a way that matters to your customers. For example, becoming a “one stop shop” is only worthwhile if you know why one stop shopping is important to the people you expect to pay for it. Otherwise, no one will care.

• Entrepreneurs and business owners are more likely to create strategies that reflect their own character. For example, Michael O’Leary the CEO of Ryanair is apparently blunt and in your face. So their bare bones strategy has an aspect of bluntness bordering on rudeness – think of wanting to charge passengers to use the washroom – to it as well.

• Don’t make the mistake of getting into “strategy creep”. That’s Cynthia Montgomery, the Harvard Prof’s, term for businesses that add more services and more technology to reach more customers – and lose sight of what made them different in the first place.

• Business owners should treat their strategies as a living, breathing process that they think about on an ongoing basis. Not as something that is pulled out and dusted off once a year. Why, because what worked last year may not work 3 years from now. The difference a company makes has to be relevant to customers today – and every day.

• A major benefit of seeing strategy as being fluid and dynamic is that it can be adapted as competitors catch up or as customers’ needs change. Montgomery gives the example of Ikea’s constant search for new ways to do things and to save their customers money. She contrasts that with Gucci who lost touch and stopped responding to their market. That required a much more painful – and risky – change to their business model.

I like it when magazines targeted at entrepreneurs deal with topics like strategy. It reinforces the point that every company has to have a strategic plan and a process for keeping it relevant.

It can be formal or informal – I don’t care. But it must exist.

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy 3 Ways to Test Your Strategy.

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Are You Growing Too Fast?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

We routinely tell business owners that a company can get into trouble when it’s growing just as easily as it can at any other time.

I’ve grown used to the looks of disbelief that come our way. And to the predictable question, “How can growing be a bad thing?”

The answer, of course, is that growth isn’t bad in concept. Like everything else, it’s the execution that is either good or bad; it’s how the owners manage what’s going on.

There was a good example of how things can go wrong – and how badly wrong they can go – in the HBR last month.

A family owned printing company saw sales hit an all-time high just as everything fell apart in 2008. The problem was that the bottom line wasn’t growing and they were eating into their line of credit because cash was tight.

All it takes is a decline in margins caused by price cutting – to drive an increase in sales – and a slowdown in customer payments because credit rules have been relaxed (also to bring on new customers) and cash becomes a problem.

In a mature industry like printing where the products have become commoditized, price cutting becomes a way of life.

It’s also a business in which you have to understand and watch costs carefully. Under-estimating a job can turn it into a loser quickly. And so can making a mistake and having to re-run the job.

How do you avoid getting into trouble while growing?

1. Don’t “buy” new business. Rather than compete on price, find ways to add value. Or offer “de-featured” versions of existing products and services at a lower price point.

2. Get a really good understanding of your operating costs and how they react when sales increase.

3. Keep a tight grip on inventory (if you have one) and Receivables (and most companies have those). Move quickly to get rid of customers that don’t pay on time.

4. Spend time getting to know your cash flow and how it is affected by growth. Remember – cash is king. A profit is good but you can’t take it to the bank. They only accept cash.

5. Don’t rely on your Income Statement to tell you what’s going on. It can tell you what has gone on – but it can’t give you a glimpse of the future. Only a cash flow forecast, your aged receivables, inventory turns and metrics like these will do that.

This is hardly an exhaustive list but it covers most of the basics.

One of the bosses I worked for never let us talk about sales; he insisted we talk about profitable sales. I thought he was nitpicking at the time but, in retrospect, I was young and foolish and he was much more seasoned and savvy.

Guess how we talk about sales now.

If you enjoyed this post you’ll also enjoy 5 Tips To Improve Margins and The Bottom Line…..

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