Date archives "January 2009"

The Second Bounce of the Ball

The title of this book intrigued me enough to pick it up. The title sparks all sorts of questions, more so when it is found in the entrepreneurship section of the store. When I read that the author Ronald Cohen is one of the founders of the private equity industry, the book was an automatic buy. Of late, managing funds and getting further involved with the financial aspect of business, is something I am becoming increasingly more interested in. The book’s tag line is ‘turning risk into opportunity’. The book is written in a semi autobiographical manner and the author essentially talks about his journey as an entrepreneur and all the important lessons he learned along the way. It is an extremely easy and enjoyable read. I finished the book in a couple of sittings as the language used is simple and the story flows really well all the way from his childhood to his retirement in 2005. What happens in between is a fascinating story about perseverance, patience and what has enabled him reach his present state. If you want to read a book that talks about specific strategies on how to position your product/service, setting price points or financial leverage, this is not a book that would be of interest to you. However, if you want to understand essential fundamentals such as niche selection and team development, then this book provides some great material.

One of the key points discussed in this book is his relationship with his initial two partners with whom he started the business. During the first couple of years there was very little work and both partners chose to leave the business. This left the author in a dilemma about what to do next. There was always the option of going back to a job or, he could re-strategize and find a way to get the business to work. At this stage of the book there is a lot of talk about perseverance, evaluating one’s options and ability to trust one’s gut instinct. Deep down he knew that the business he had started (private equity) had a lot of scope, and if he let this opportunity slide away in favor of getting a job, it may pass him by totally. This point really struck a chord with me as well. These inflection points where one needs to make critical decisions is when you really decide whether you have it in you to follow what you truly believe in or bail out when the going gets tough. In the book the analogy used is whether you are a person who wants to climb the north face or, take the easy route? There is no right or wrong answer here. We choose our path according to what we want to achieve in life, and more importantly according to what brings us happiness. However, he makes it perfectly clear, that choosing the entrepreneurship path is a challenging one and one must really assess whether it is a path one really wants to pursue.

A couple of chapters later, there is some great information on calibrating opportunities. He shares many tips which include how to evaluate the market you want to target, selecting the correct business model and getting the right people on board. I often re-read this chapter, especially when I am evaluating a new business, because it provides a most astute perspective of the key elements we should be looking out for. This chapter, enhanced by his 30+ years of experience in the private equity business, is about a line of work that continuously involves assessing businesses and finding opportunities, where, with the help of the right sort of management and capital structure, the business can unlock it’s true potential. Other key chapters in the book that interested me particularly, include the one regarding getting the financial aspect of your business running smoothly and how to select your business partners. The chapter on ethics and values is a must read for anyone who wants to build a business that will stand the test of time.

In conclusion, this book provides profound insight into the life of an extremely successful entrepreneur. One who was truly able to see the second bounce of the ball. Everyone is able to see the trends that dominate our world today. Having the ability to forecast and predict which way the tide is going to turn is something that is limited to those individuals who understand the industry they are in thouroughly, and more importantly, have the courage to go with their gut instincts. One needs great confidence in one’s abilities, an ability to trust one’s gut instincts and make calculated assessments about the level of risks associated with the venture they plan to go forward with. I recommend this book to most entrepreneurs and specially those who have a keen interest in the world of finance.

Find Your True Calling

We live in a society where our weaknesses are given more importance than our strengths. If we do not excel at something like math or science at school we are put into special programs that intensify our learning in order for us to become average in a subject we do not like or enjoy. At the same time, the things that we enjoy doing or excel at, are suppressed. Admittedly, they may not be forcibly suppressed in most cases. However, society has a way of determining what one should be doing and what one should not. I remember when I was going off to college, many of my peers made decisions to study finance related disciplines in the hope of joining the ranks of investment bankers, supposedly the premier career of the times. Fast forward to today, and we find that society is shunning the very profession it was promoting then and is now promoting interests in green technologies and other such areas. This leads to the conclusion that if we continue to shape our lives to the dictates of society alone, many of us will not be able to reach our true potential.

Living life doing something which gives you no joy or satisfaction is probably the fastest to join the “Life is not fair” club and keep talking about how one hates one’s job. I admit that although some of us have the liberty, option and often luxury to discover what our strengths are and what we really want to do in life, more often than not an abundance of choice and lack of a sense of responsibility renders us incapable of choosing a definitive path and we spend our lives drifting meaninglessly. We become comfortable in this meaningless comfort zone, which does meet basic requirements and we then slowly lose the passion to really go out there and go after something that is certainly out of our comfort zone, but may provide the passion and meaning we lack in life.

I do understand that many of us are not so lucky. We join certain professions to pay the bills and make ends meet. Life becomes a never ending loop where everyday seems like the last and our hopes and dreams of breaking free are crushed by the hard realities of life. Our hopes and aspirations to do and be something more, are continually put on hold and all we do is our best to fight the mini fires that keep coming up all around us. There is a feeling of helplessness that eventually leads to our becoming numb to the fact that you can be something more. We feel tired and exhausted, life loses that spark and we continue drifting and wondering about the ‘what ifs’.

In both scenarios we continue making excuses against taking responsibility for our life. We allow society and circumstances to shape what we can and cannot do. There is continued focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. In order to find your true calling, be it an entrepreneur, a banker, a chef or an artist, one needs to make a conscious effort to discover what our strengths are. The need is to channel joy into what we do every single day, and, ideally make a living out of it. For this one needs to take time out to actually discover these things about oneself as soon as possible. For some, it may take weeks or months and for others it could take years. Either way, to find your true calling, you need to first make an effort to identify what is it that you are inherently good at, and then find ways to use that.

Take responsibility for your life today.

In the next couple of posts I will share what I believe are my strengths are so far. Look forward to hearing your comments and feedback.

Protecting your Blog’s Content

Today while checking my blog stats through Google Analytics and Stat Press, a very useful plugin for wordpress analytics, I noticed a massive increase in my blog page views in relation to visitors. What struck me as strange was that a bot had visited nearly every blog post that I have written in the past year, each page load had lasted just under 20 seconds. It struck me as odd, and for the first time I started looking into copyright protection for all the information that I have generated on this blog over the past year. I have spent a lot of time and effort in writing the material that I have, and for some reason I had never really thought about copyright protection. When I started researching this topic I found a wealth of information online and a whole set of divergent points of view. This was fascinating in itself and as usual an entire afternoon was spent researching this topic.

Some of the things I learned was:

1. Bots: These dataminers or crawlers are prevalent throughout the blogosphere. No blog is really safe from them unless you put up some road blocks manually. I had noticed some irregular patterns on my blog from a couple of bots who were either spamming comments or just driving my page views through the roof. This was slowing down the loading time of my blog and also causing a lot of frustration on my part as far as spam comments are concerned. I installed WP-Ban plugin which allows you to block these bots from entering your website and things seem to have settled down a little bit since.

2. Creative Commons: When I was researching data or images protection online;  creative commons kept on surfacing. This is an amazing project and provides a great platform through which artists and writers can set up how they want to share their work. I would be delighted if someone would like to use some of my work on their website. The only stipulation I have is that I would like it to be attributed to me when it is used. I got myself the creative commons widget for wordpress from this website.

3. Copyright: Apart from this, I found a lot of bloggers have chosen alternative paths to copyright their assets. On one extreme you have Dosh Dosh who writes extremely well about the online world and blogging, he/she has a dedicated copyright page that can be found here. There are strict guidelines for the use of blog material and consequences of using the material without permission. On the other hand you have Leo Babauta’s blogs, his page is named ‘Uncopyright‘. He has released the copyright of his material. What I have currently done is just add a copyright line in my RSS feeds and on the front page of my blog.

To be honest I am quite confused right now on the path that needs to be taken to approach this copyright issue. Both the examples quoted above have different objectives behind their blogs. Being relatively new to the blogspace, I will have to find my own way and decide the best route to take. In the meantime I would really like to hear from bloggers in the ‘ small business and entrepreneurship niche’ as to what your take and opinions on copyright protection are and what steps you have taken to protect your content. I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Savings and Bootstrapping

I was having a discussion with another entrepreneur over the weekend about the difficulties faced by first time entrepreneurs in raising capital for their businesses. The conversation naturally shifted to the importance of bootstrapping in the early stages and getting the business to a point where it is either generating substantial revenue or has a product/service that has got attention and hence is easier to raise financing for. Either way, getting to the point where your product/service has reached some sort of traction is where an entrepreneur is tested. This stage is the time frame between 2007 and 2009 in the chart below

bootstrapping.jpgWhen I launched my first business in the printing and designing industry, my partner and I used our personal savings. Both of us are extremely conscientious about saving money and even though we were only 22, we had enough to get us started. I have heard many entrepreneurs tell me they followed the same path and this habit of personal savings had been something that they had inculcated at a very early age. The good part about this is, that it is almost never too late to start saving. Spending money is by far one of the easiest and instantly gratifying things to do. Saving on the other hand and giving up somethings in the short term requires a completely different mindset.

In the context of being an entrepreneur I would strongly recommend that you make your savings as “Automatic” as possible. For further reading I would encourage you to get hold of “Automatic Millionaire” by David Bach. The process of taking out a fixed percentage from your monthly income is an extremely powerful one and can become a substantial cushion for you to fall back on. The next question that I am usually asked at this stage is “If our startup is not making money, how can we save?”. Limiting oneself to a single stream of income can be a dangerous strategy. If you are currently working 24/7 at your new startup and not bringing in any money from other sources your motivation level and drive is soon going to dry up. This will not only affect your performance at your startup it will also have a negative impact on your personal life.

Whenever I am asked this question I usually respond by asking the person about his/her talent or skillsets. Is there something that he/she can be doing on the side without distracting their primary responsibilities. I have had many partners do consulting part- time, sell insurance, give private tuition or take up an odd job to pay the bills and actually have an additional income. One needs to keep goals and objectives in mind and then find ways to reach them. Do all entrepreneurs survive the boostrapping stage? Unfortunately not. Getting past this stage requires an enormous amount of patience and passion to get you through.

If you are thinking about starting your own business or are already in the bootstrapping stage, don’t give up hope, remain focused on your end goals and handle your finances with the utmost care. The lessons you will learn through this stage will be invaluable when your startup finally breaks into the profitability stage. One last thing, the bootstrapping stage will be a very challenging stage in your startup’s life, it is therefore important to really enjoy what you do. If you are having fun,  it will be only be a matter of time before  you start seeing the results you want.

The Art of Listening

We have all seen a number of killer products/services launched in our lifetime that did not really live up to the hype that was created, Cuil. They have had great teams with lots of experience and everything fit just right. It is hence baffling and leads one to wonder whether adequate research was done for the target audience. Whereas it is true that switching costs of moving from one search engine to another is practically zero in terms of dollars and cents,  there is however a lot more to getting a customer to switch over from using Google. If they had asked me what it would take for me to switch, I am sure if I thought long and hard, I would come up with some things I would like Google to do that it does not at the moment.

This is an isolated example and I too am guilty for releasing products without adequate research of the target segment that it was meant for. As entrepreneurs we are constantly on the look out for the next big thing, or that game changer which will revolutionize the way we do something. Sometimes we think we are onto something and we are blinded with the possibilities of what could be, and forget the fundamentals. No matter how strongly we feel about the hunch we have about the next big thing we need to get out there and talk to our prospective customers to find out whether it is something they need. Forgetting this one basic step and getting ahead of ourselves often results in much wasted effort.

With the proliferation of the internet it has become a lot easier these days to just sit back and listen to the conversations that our target segment may be having.

1. Blogs: The blogosphere is full of conversations that your target segment is having regarding pain points you want to address as well as how your competition is dealing with it currently. This is an amazing source of information and should be used well to gather detailed information regarding your segment.

2. Twitter: This micro blogging service has had a popularity explosion. Millions of individuals are online talking about their favorite products/services and what they like and do not like. News spreads like wildfire through this network and has the ability to make or break your product/service. Monitor this service and keep a look out for changing trends and pain points.

3. Google Alerts: These are simple phrases or words that you can setup to get alerts whenever someone on the web uses them. This is powerful way to keep your ears to the ground,  keep abreast of what your customers are saying, what your competitors are doing and how the industry may be changing.

4. Online Surveys: I use survey monkey for just about every new idea that I have. It is the first step I take once I have collected enough information regarding the product/service that I am interested in. Finding specific information early on in the developmental cycle can save you days of work and discussions.

We need to learn how to tape our mouths and actively listen to what  prospective customers are saying and want. They really do not want to know all the mind blowing advantages of using your product in the first instance. What they want is for you to listen to the problem they are currently facing and then see if your product/service can actually alleviate some of that pain.

The next time you are planning to launch a product/service, take some time out to actually study and learn about the segment that you want to target. Listen to their pain points and develop a product/service which incorporates features that are requested and will be helpful to them.

Discovering a New World

I have recently moved off the online wordpress platform to the .org platform. Even though everything remains the same, interface wise, there are just so many options available here, which I had not explored when I was using the online platform. They range from plugins, widgets, analytics and search engine optimization programs. This last week has been a crash course in learning about html, permalinks, bounce rates, ftp transfers and a whole range of other topics. It is like being in an accelerated learning module, with just a week to digest everything. A lot of thanks go to a friend, Faizan Laghari who has really helped me with this transition and has probably just about had it with me and my never ending set of questions and requests.  I sincerely appreciate everything that you have done Faizan and apologize for all the inconvenience.

Some major points I want to highlight are:

1. Switch Early: I should have made this migration a long time ago as using the platform gives you much more flexibility and opens up a host of options to help your blog grow faster. I took the approach of building content first, looking back, I would do it again, the only thing I would change would be, to do it on the .org platform. A major inconvenience has been fixing permalinks, adjusting categories, optimizing each post etc. If you are planning to blog seriously, I definitely recommend switching earlier.

2. Design: I finally decided on thesis and am really happy with my choice. Choosing a theme that fits your style is really important and I recommend taking serious time out to think about what works for you. Thesis has a lot of functionalities that make modifying the theme relatively easy. It has been designed really well and the typography stands out clearly. The following links helped me make my decision a lot easier.

– 10 of the Best WordPress 2.7 Compatible Themes

Pearsonified Themes

– Best Premium WordPress Themes

– 20 Great Free WordPress 2.7 Themes

3. Search Engine Optimization: Being a completely newbie to this field I have quickly learnt about the importance of permalinks, crawlers and meta tags. I downloaded the All in One SEO plugin from the wordpress plugin site and it has been working really well so far. All my old posts are associated with a different address so I guess it will take some time for my blogs to get indexed again. This is yet again another reason to switch early. I recommend reading through the links below, they helped me greatly in getting started.

– 9 SEO Plugins Every WordPress Blog Should Have

– How to Survive a Category and Permalink Overhaul on your WordPress Blog

– Search Engine Optimization for Blogs

– How to Analyze and Improve the ‘Bounce Rate’ for Your Website

These were some of my discoveries todate. I hope they will be of some assistance to bloggers who are also moving off the online version of wordpress. Once again I apologize for any inconvenience that may have been caused to readers during this migration time. I am doing my best to get everything running smoothly by the end of the week. I look forward to your comments and suggestions on how to improve my new blog.

Blog Has Been Moved

Dear Reader,

I have recently switched my blog to Please visit my new blog site and update your RSS feeds and subscriptions. I apologize for any inconvenience during this migration.

If you have any questions or queries please send me an email or leave me a message on my new blog.

Thank you for your continued readership and patronage. I greatly appreciate it.

Wishing you a very successful and exciting new year.

Best Regards

Usman Sheikh


To start with, I apologize to my regular readers about the blog switch. The transition turned out to be lot more challenging than I had expected and there were times I felt like a kid who wants to throw his toys on the ground really hard, as well as throw a nasty tantrum. However after having said that, things are looking much better today and the design changes we are working on will be done in the next couple of days or so. I want to apologize once again for any inconvenience during this period. I promise to have it all done within this week.

A major change you will see in my blog posts will be the use of pictures instead of quotes this year, unless ofcourse I have a great quote for the post. Last year I really did not want to select pictures for each blog post because it just takes up too much time. This year, with some help, I plan to add pictures to my blog posts. They make a world of difference and add life to a post.

I guess frustrations are a part of life we just need to deal with. It is when we let our emotions get the better of us and make rash decisions that it really hurts. I am sure many of us are guilty of having said or done things in a fit of frustration that we did not intend to. Being able to control our emotions in such circumstances can save us a lot of trouble because this sort of behavior invariably causes more stress and frustration.

Whenever I experience an heightened level of frustration I do a couple of things:

1. Take a deep breath.

2. Identify the frustration . Ask yourself why you are feeling the way you are at that point in time.

3. Make a mental note of those feelings or emotions and reflect on them at a later point in time.

4. Change the topic or alternatively do your best to conclude the conversation as soon as possible.

5. When something really upsets me, I deliberately choose to talk to the person at a later point and then do my best to resolve the situation.

I apologize once again for any inconvenience during this transition period. I look forward to getting your feedback and suggestions on what you would like to be included in the new blog design and what your initial impressions are. Thanks

Book Review: Back of the Napkin

“Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see – both with our eyes and with our mind’s eye – in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way that they simply “get”.” Dan Roam (Author, Back of the Napkin)

I am one of those individuals who enjoys putting a pen to paper and making sense of any issue or problem through pictures and charts. I have to admit I am not artistic by any stretch of imagination, and people usually have difficulty in deciphering the stuff that I put up. Nonetheless, I find the act of visually depicting a story or challenge, to be an extremely powerful tool, one that should be there in every entrepreneurs tool kit. While browsing at a local book store a while back I caught a glimpse of this book and the cover image caught my attention.

Back of the napkin Dan Roam

Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

This book covers a very interesting concept, after flipping through the book for the first time, I remember thinking that the author had done a great job putting together abstract concepts in a most exciting visual manner. I am glad I found this book as it has provided me with a framework to actually make sense of the visuals I use in brainstorming sessions or when giving presentations. An important note I want to make before moving forward with the review is that you don’t need to know how to draw or be artistic to make use of this book. It’s principles apply as much to those of us who prefer to sit back and comment on a visual as to those who are eager to depict the visualization on a whiteboard.

The book is split up into 4 parts, the first takes you from understanding the power of using pictures to solve problems, the next part equips you with a fundamental knowledge of some frameworks to use, the third section is my favorite as it merges the first and second parts into a powerful application of the frameworks, and the last part shows you how to actually use pictures to sell and present your ideas. The parts flow naturally well together and I was inspired many a time while reading the book to get up and use the frameworks that had been introduced and apply them to some of  the business issues we were facing. When I did, the results were truly remarkable.

I often just get up to the board and start to draw or write whatever comes to mind without realizing that it may be difficult for others to actually decipher what I am doing. The frameworks in the book such as “Six ways of seeing” and “SQVID” (see pictures below) helped me to literally visualize what I wanted to say through my pictures before I actually did. I began to see things differently and details I hadn’t thought about initially, started to take shape. I think different people will experience such epiphanies at different stages and levels, varying on how quickly you  grasp the techniques. Confidence with the pen will follow!

Visual Thinking Toolkit Dan Roam Back of the Napkin

The Visual Thinking Toolkit

SQVID Dan Roam Back of the Napkin


6x6 Dan Roam Back of the Napkin

<6><6> Rule

As an entrepreneur I know how important it is to be able to communicate your ideas to a target audience, irrespective of whether you are pitching to a client, investor or your own partners. The message needs to be delivered in a manner that enables your audience to “get” the message. The saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’  is truly a powerful concept and when harnessed competently can open any number of doors and opportunities. I  recommend this book to anyone wanting to improve the way they deal with difficult problems, as well as becoming a more competent presenter.

Related Links: has ranked The Back of the Napkin as the number five business book of 2008

BusinessPundit: #4 business book of the year

Best of BNET 2008: BNET’s Best Business Books

The Best Business Books of 2008 by Fast Company

Best Innovation & Design Books of 2008 by BusinessWeek

Where Did the Day Go?

The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time.” Franklin Field

Since the start of this year my plate seems to be extraordinarily full. Days go by so quickly that it is becoming difficult to keep track of what is being accomplished and what things are being left behind. My action days are getting mixed up with my preparation days and everything seems to be moving too rapidly. Whenever I experience times like these I need to actually take a step back,  stop auto piloting for a while and stop to reflect about what is really happening. If one does not do this, you get lost in the moment and one day blends into the next and pretty soon the day, week, month or year has passed you by. A story I re-read at such times is this one. It helps me put the bigger picture in perspective and clearly shows that the bigger things in life are what one needs to be focused on. If we continuously  work on developing the little things, we forget the big rocks and after a while there is no more space for them.

Last year I wrote about the time management philosophy I follow which includes a mixture of preparation days, action days and relaxing days. In the last quarter of  ’08  I started to integrate  GTD  a lot more into my life. Apart from the usual split of days for that system I also do three other exercises. The first one of these is to set some big goals for the month, chunk them down into smaller ones to be done weekly and lastly chunk them even further into mini steps to be done on a daily basis. The daily basis steps comprise of my “Most Important Tasks” for the day. These range anywhere from 2-4 tasks. It is important to take consistent action on the goals we are working on. Although I have some large yearly goals such as writing a book this year, I tend to keep most of my goals on shorter time frames. This adds the often much needed sense of urgency and stops me from procrastinating.

When I start to lose track of time it is either that I am focusing too sharply on micro goals and have forgotten the bigger picture, or the fact that mini steps are taking longer than usual thereby dragging my day.  General frustration builds up when you work hard but do not get the results that need to be there. Being a highly result oriented person, when I begin to miss daily or weekly targets, flashing red flags force me to take a step back and re-evaluate what am I doing wrong, and gauge whether the path  I have selected is truly the one I want to continue on. Having such built-in systems helps keep me on track, focused and provides the sense of motivation to get things done.

Start with simple steps and goals and steadily increase their number and complexity as you become more adept. Hopefully you will get more things done and see your productivity sky rocket.

Related Posts:

An Inspirational Story

5 Steps to Manage your Time Better

5 Steps to Get Things Done