Date archives "July 2009"

Taking Responsibility

It is common knowledge that given the small size of most startup teams, everyone has to wear multiple hats during the course of the day. This creates a lot of confusion because even though everyone is pitching in and doing their part ,no one is taking responsibility for any particular business objective.

We may be assigned roles such as head of marketing, finance ,and even CEO. These are great starting points, however, roles need to be defined a lot more specifically. If you pick up a job description of a Head of Marketing role at a Fortune 500 firm, you will see a long list of targets and objectives that the individual is responsible for. However, you rarely see any such job descriptions in early stage startups, where probably only the founders are on the team.

We need to define roles and responsibilities from the very onset of any business venture. When Individuals are not held accountable, the entire team suffers. Clear responsibilities also boost productivity and provide a sense of directiom for everyone on the team. Each individual is not only responsible for their objectives but the overall success of the business.

Emulating Emotions

I had an interesting discussion today with a friend regarding the emotions we experience when we have our backs against the wall. Similar sort of emotions appear right before a big deadline is due. These are the times when your body kicks into an overdrive mode and you become this extremely motivated individual, one who can accomplish great things in very short periods of times. The discussion we had revolved around how we could emulate the emotions which appear in that heightened state , and be able to motivate ourselves to reach the same state without pending deadlines or extreme situations.

A common theme that kept arising was, that in most cases, we reach this heightened state only when there is something critical on the line. It causes us to push ourselves further because of a perceived reward for completing the task, or perhaps even some sort of recognition attached to it, in most cases however, there are fairly limited options available and it often just becomes a ‘must’ for us to complete the task to get ourselves out of a hole/crisis. Creating similar circumstances is hypothetically quite difficult when these scenarios do not exist. What it all comes down to is self discipline and time management. We concluded that these are the fundamental factors which enable us to achieve more consistent results along the way.

It does all boil down to self motivation, and an inner pursuit of excellence. It seems that these heightened states appear because of our desire to reach and exceed expectations. If there is nothing pushing us to achieve greatness then the entire notion of emulating emotions, and figuring out how to bring our A game to the table, all the time, is pointless. As always, it all adds up to what we want to do and achieve in our lifetime.

Morphing Your Business

I have been through the start-up phase iteration quite a few times, and one of the things I have realized is, that founders who are very rigid in their outlook about what the business can, and cannot be, are usually the one’s who experience lesser success. The fact of the matter is that start-ups are up against an up-hill battle right from the onset, since they address a market that may or may not exist, against competition who could probably out flank them if they wished to do so. Coupled with the turbulent inner workings of a start-up team, you actually wonder how the odds at success are as good as 1 in every 10. I am not being pessimistic about starting up your own business, I am just sharing things that I have observed along the way with you.

Given the difficulties that we face as a start-up, the last thing you want to be, is inflexible about the path your business should  take. As long as the founders are motivated enough to succeed at making the ‘business’ work, then it is a matter of finding the right model. This requires continuous adoption of market feedback, and what your customers do and do not like. If you are unable to change with the feedback, there are only so many times you can go to a prospect and ask them to buy your product. If no one is buying from you, then instead of blaming the market and your product/service, you need to look a lot more, and carefully into your position in the market place.

Progress is made one step at a time. When we stop moving, we stop learning, and ultimately that leads to our downfall. If you are experiencing difficulty in getting your business traction, there is a very serious talk that you must have with the founding team about the direction you need to take. I find that motivated and passionate entrepreneurs, who find themselves  in a corner, find in this their best side appearing and often, all that is needed to get them back up and running, to devise a way to address the problems they may be facing.

The Importance of Friction

Sometimes to break the status quo we need to ask each other  uncomfortable questions, questions which put us outside our comfort zones. Shaking up the house or breaking a rut is necessary for the evolvement of a relationship or  business. Confrontation is not something that  people enjoy getting themselves into. It sparks a flurry of emotions which have the potential to temporarily blindside us from saying or doing things we would not have done under normal circumstances. In a way, it surfaces our inner thoughts and desires, and has the potential to put us into vulnerable positions. Having worked with many teams, I have come to realize that without a certain amount of friction, a team doesnt not move forward. There is too much brown nosing and very little candor. Both of these breakdown communication and ultimately lead teams in the wrong direction.

I have talked about the importance of candor in many of my prior blog posts as being a critical component of a well functioning team. A great team is one where everyone speaks their mind in context to the discussion, and challenges pre-requisites without blindly following them. Team members can then push each other to be better and to ask more of themselves. There is no doubt that there will be unpleasant times when you will get fed up with the flurry of critical statements. It is important that in this situation both the person who is asking the questions, as well as the person who is answering them, remains on topic.

When we are forced to challenge beliefs we follow blindly follow, or plans that we don not fully agree with, we cause the team to think bigger and broader thoughts. Without this friction we become stale, the competition catches up on your complacency, and soon enough you find yourself on the sidelines. Re-evaluate the presence of candor and friction within your team. Does it need shaking up? Are you the one who is going to take the first step, and wake everyone up before it is too late?

Dealing with Curve Balls

Every once in a while life throws something at us, when we least expect it. Sometimes, it makes you lose your balance, and fall off the path you were hell bent on pursuing. Sometimes, it is a necessary reality check, to help us re-focus on the things that really do mean a lot to us. In every curve ball that has come my way, I have found a much needed reality check, to help me understand what I am doing and where I am headed. The whole notion of maintaining balance in your life and entrepreneurship continues to baffle, and often elude me. Although I do get shot down with curve balls, every time I find myself on the floor, I can’t wait to get up again and do it that much better the next time around.

Entrepreneurship is akin to a highly addictive drug, and has the capability of consuming you inside out. It does sometimes cause us to lose perception on some the larger building blocks of a normal life. Those of us who take this path have to make this choice. It does make me realize, that if you actually find something to do every single day, that you are passioonate about, even if you don’t get paid for it; the imbalance often seems worth it. We are all trapped and part of a world where we are trained from very young ages, to be someone, or achieve something. Essentially, we are more often then not, trained to be just another brick in
the wall. This path does not however train us adequately to deal with curve balls, when they come our way (albeit at a lower frequency due to the relatively balanced lifestyle). However, when they do come, we get hit fairly hard, more so since we are not expecting them, and many a time we do not have a good enough reason to stand up again.

Dealing effectively with curve balls, comes with experience. It requires us to fall, it is true, but only to stand up stronger. The first couple of times it hurts a lot, and we begin to ask ourselves fundamental questions regarding our purpose in life, and what we are actually doing. They force us to evaluate where we are, and where we want to be. In my experience, the people who are able to get up faster, are those who have found something to hold on to. Call it passion, love or the thrill of winning. The deal is, you need to get into the game, rather than sitting by the sidelines watching life pass you by.

So Close Yet So Far

I think of success as an extremely elusive term. Everyone measures it in their own particular way and we all have or own thoughts and opinions of what makes someone successful, and what doesn’t. Sometimes we think success is just around the corner, to have it slip right through our fingers. It is like a never ending chase, one which drives you to push yourself harder every waking moment. The funny thing is that when you think you have achieved a certain level of success, a new challenge presents itself and we are exposed to an entirely new dimension, one which gives a whole new perception to what we consider as success.

At every stage in our lives, we experience new discoveries and changed perceptions. It is what keeps us going, and what keeps us
hungry. The day we limit our ability to look further than we can, we essentially pull the plug on where life could potentially take us. That could be the reason why success remains such an elusive term. If we all knew a pre-determined pathway on how to get there….. would we really appreciate it for what it is?

Are you Keeping Your Commitments?

Commitment: def. the act of binding yourself (intellectually or emotionally) to a course of action

Commitments are an extremely important facet of our daily lives. The ability to keep and honor commitments communicates volumes about an individual. Inability to keep them however, can have disastrous impacts on your character and level of buy-in into a group, project, business or relationship. It is hence essential to be very careful about the commitments we make, this wariness often causes and leads to “Commitment Phobia”. If you never commit to anything great, you don’t really stand a chance to face the heat, if things do not go your way. Many individuals choose to live their entire lives this way. Always playing it safe, thereby avoiding any chance of failing or coming up short. In a way they are the living dead, choosing to drift through life, never really experiencing what it truly has to offer.

Given what I said in the last paragraph, doesn’t however give everyone who wants to “live life”, the right to take on whatever commitment comes their way. I believe the ability to deliver on certain commitments requires skills, confidence and most importantly a belief in yourself. These factors are not developed overnight and require dedication and persistence to build. We hence need to take on only those commitments that we have the capability to deliver on, and continue building on the necessary skills to enable us to take on larger levels of commitments. The minute we stop growing in this direction, we set ourselves up for disappointments when we take up more than we can chew.

“Commitment Phobia” should not paralyze us into becoming what you ultimately want to. It should in fact prod you to grow and improve yourself, to grow and develop skill sets and a belief in them for yourself. Take on projects and responsibilities, best suited to your ability. For those that you can’t take on, understand this is not the time for them, learn and work on the areas you need to grow in. If we allow fear to take control of our lives and let the “What if’s” control our destiny, we can dream for the stars, yet, never take that first step to start moving towards them.

Anticipating a Competitor’s Response

One of my portfolio companies is planning on launching a service which will be in direct competition with an established player in the market that we operate in. When developing the strategy for this move, one of the key questions that I asked the team was, “How do you think the competition will respond?” Initial conversation  surrounding this question usually starts with standard responses, these include marketing ramp ups or replication of the new features, or upgrades that the new entrant may introduce. This question needs deeper analysis however.

It is important to do a SWOT analysis on the competition prior to launching a competing product or service. This way you can position it in such a way that you stay away from the competitor’s strengths, and can focus on areas where they are weak, or more opportunities are open. Once you have the positioning correct the next area you should focus on is assigning a probability to whether the competitor will respond, and if they do, what mode they choose.

A. No Response: When the competitor sees the newcomer as someone who poses no real risk to them because of their entrenched stance in the market place, they usually do not engage in any sort of retaliation. A good example is how Yahoo! did not respond to Google’s initial entrance in the market place.

B. Respond: If you think the competitor will respond, it is all about how they will respond, and more importantly, what sort of time frame you give yourself before a response is triggered. If the competitor is a larger organization, we have to put into perspective that on account of their controls and bureaucracy, a response will take longer to be initiated, this is hence an ideal time to gather market share as fast as possible.

Responses could include:

1. Marketing Ramp Ups: Larger competitors will usually hold the ability to flank new competition with larger marketing ramp ups, and solidify their position in the market while stressing on the weaknesses of their opponents. Counter strategies to this response should be drafted beforehand if you believe that this tactic has a high likelihood of being implemented.

2. Feature Replication: If your business introduces new features into an existing product, will the competitor be able to duplicate them? If they can, how long do you think it will take them to do that? Do you have a road map for more feature upgrades in the pipeline? What is your roll out period looking like?

3. Launch Competing Product/Service: If the market appears to be large enough, the competitor may just spin off a brand new product/service to compete against yours. This is one of the most drastic strategies that can possibly be implemented by a competitor. It does however provide the new entrant with substantial lead time to build competitive response measures to deal with the upcoming product.

Newton’s third law of motion states that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Being ready more comprehensively in response to your competitor and planning several moves ahead, will  initiate the reaction of giving you a strategic advantage, with counter responses.

Leadership Inertia

Things at your start-up are going horribly wrong. People quitting, contracts being lost to competitors and as a leader you keep blaming just about everything else in this world apart from your own ability. The fact of the matter is, that the path your company is on is a core responsibility of a leader. To correct your start-up’s course, if it is going down the wrong path, requires one to start getting as much feedback as possible from your investors, colleagues, customers and advisors. One needs to get a reality check on the type of job they are doing, and what the company can do to put itself back on track.

Unfortunately, a lot of entrepreneurs believe they know the answers to most of these questions themselves and are afraid of making themselves vulnerable in front of their peers. We need to leave our egos at the door and make sure that we do whatever we can to get the business moving again. I have personally found that having a group of mentors who you can use as sounding boards for the problems you are facing is a great way to get perspective on the matter at hand. They say it like it is, and you get honest feedback that may be difficult for your colleagues or peers to give you.

However, to take the step to ask others for help and assistance requires one to get of one’s high horse, roll up one’s sleeves, and get our hands dirty. Delegation is a key part of leadership, but sometimes you need to become a role model for others to push themselves further, by closing deals, making sales and boosting your team’s spirit from the ground up. The longer we keep our head buried in the sand, the closer the startup or business comes to shutting down.

Stop Complaining and Do Something

I recently met up with a group of new graduates, a group of young people who are probably facing one of the toughest job markets the world has seen in a very long time. The sentiment among the group was negative straight off the bat and remained that way in spite of my repeated suggestions on how they could improve their current situation. There is no doubt that things are tough, and that almost everyone has to adapt to the changes and alter strategies. However, it is much easier to blame everyone and everything around us rather than actually taking control of your life and making worthwhile and noteworthy changes.

If you are currently looking for a job and haven’t had success then:

1. Develop your interests and skills. For example do you excel at sports, painting, speaking publicly or cooking. Take courses, start a blog or start coaching others who share the same passion.

2. Use social media to connect to more people and open more doors for yourself. Take a look at this article and see how these two candidates were able to leverage Linkedin and Twitter to get noticed.

3. Volunteer at an organization which caters to a social cause you are passionate about. Become an active member and do your best to make a difference .

All this is while  still continuing to apply to organizations that you would like to work for. In the end, the people who get hired are the ones who can display that they are able to get work done. If we continue to complain and keep blaming the economy for not getting a job, life is not going to get any easier. Life is about standing out and being remarkable.

Please read this article by Seth Godin on How to be remarkable.