For LAD and Other Free Spirits …
So, my young friend, you would be an entrepreneur, would you? Know that this is a worthy and noble calling upon which our society has, in many ways, been built. But know, also, that the path is fraught with pitfalls and populated with foes. These few notes contain some words of advice based on my own experience, which I hope will be of service to you as you embark on this next, exciting chapter in the book of your life.
You are now a Capitalist, a word with many associations that you may be reluctant to embrace. But that is what you are — a Capitalist. You are risking your financial, intellectual and reputational capital, as well as your security, to pursue your entrepreneurial dream: to create something of worth for yourself, and your community.
It’s okay. Capitalism gets a bad rap. But it is the only system in human history that has consistently generated wealth, not just for the wealthy, but also for whole societies. No other system has succeeded in bettering the standards of living of ordinary people, lifting millions out of abject poverty and allowing for social mobility. For this reason, I describe your calling as worthy and noble, of real importance to your fellow man.
Focus, Focus, Focus.
Be known for something. Perhaps be known for only one thing. Be the very best person to know that one thing … maybe two things … okay, after some time, maybe three things. But specialize, focus, stick with what you are really good at, what you love to do, and what people are willing to pay you for.
Broadly defined business models, especially start-ups, often add up to a whole lot of nothing. Your reputation and personal brand will spread further and more rapidly if your network is crisp and clear about what you do and can describe it in a few words. Keep it simple. Focus.
How Do I Compete?
Focus includes dwelling on the foundational question of how you compete. It is not an easy question to answer, and the answer evolves over time. Part of the answer may be so obvious or natural to you that you fail to notice it as an element of your competitive advantage. But why you? What is so great about you? Already as you begin this entrepreneurial journey, you know there is something special that you bring to the table. Dwell on it. Ask other people about it. What is that secret ingredient? Write it down. Practice saying it. Think about it some more. Make the answers as specific as possible. You will be using the answers a lot in your networking activities, and they will be picked up and amplified by your network — as long as the answers are authentic and specific.
More young businesses fail due to lack of capital and/or poor financial hygiene than any other reason. Plan for this. Before you start your business, simplify your lifestyle, pay off any debts, downsize. Write down what you spend your money on in categories. Let your friends and family know that you will be bowing out of some money-consuming activities. Save, save and save some more. Eat in. Get rid of the car. Stop going on trips. You will need a certain amount of financial capital (remember, you are a Capitalist!) for the tight corners that inevitably lie ahead.
Businesses take time to become cash-flow positive. There will be many expenses in the early months that will come directly out of your precious capital. Think twice, or three times, before you spend ANYTHING. Do you really need it? Do you need it right now? Can you make do? Can you borrow, rent or lease it? Do you really have to buy it?
And, with a few welcome exceptions, your clients will take their sweet time to pay you, whatever your stated payment terms may be. So try and find creative ways to move that cash flow forward. Maybe a retainer? A fixed fee with 50% up front? Be clear about it, be respectful, but be firm. If you do not value yourself, your clients will not value you either. If they want the best person, let them pay for the best person.
Do not sit on the boring paperwork that requires attention before you can issue your bill. The clock does not start ticking on payment until your bill is in the client’s hand. Obvious, I know, but vital.
The Elastic Goal
Most people exercise at a moderate level of intensity, even though they would maximize their athletic performance with small amounts of high-intensity training, but most of it at low-intensity. In the same way, there is a tendency for all of us to focus on medium-term goals. I’m a big believer in focusing on both very long-term goals and very short-term goals, and allowing the medium-term ones to take care of themselves. A bit like a piece of elastic. Pull it at both ends. Invest plenty of time in dreaming about your long-term goals, and then drill down to a small number of specific, measurable ones that are at the top of your list. Then focus on the right now, the today, not this week, not tomorrow … today. Write down everything that you have to do on a master list, review it daily, pick the two or three things that you must achieve today, and make sure you do achieve them, today.
An extension of being relentless about short-term goals and about focus is valuing your own time. You will find an eon of distractions. You will be able to fill your time everyday with meaningful activities, all of which seem worthwhile. DO NOT GET SUCKED IN. Be disciplined about budgeting your time to focus almost exclusively on those high-value activities that you have determined are most important that day.
Above all, do not allow emails and text messages to rule you. Like cancer, they will take over your time and invade your purpose. Lost time is lost forever … never to be regained. Set sensible expectations and communicate them. Perhaps you will decide not to respond to non-urgent personal emails and texts until after 6 pm? Training your friends and family to respect your time devoted to business is an excellent discipline. Then maybe set aside two or three 30-minute blocks of time in the day to respond to business emails. Break the habit of continuously monitoring your emails and messages, and responding in real time. Your clients and network will get used to it and learn to call you if they need you urgently.
These simple strategies will buy you lots of time to focus on building your business.
See the Whites of Their Eyes!
There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. None. Emails and phone calls are fine, but you will win business because people like and trust you, and you will only establish “like” and “trust” face to face.
But there is nothing harder than picking up the phone and calling for a meeting. We all struggle with this. We all would prefer to undertake other worthwhile activities rather than pick up that phone. Remember the immortal words of Tom Redmond: “If I don’t make this call, I will be a failure and sleeping under a bridge”. Seriously. Whatever it takes, we all have to pick up the phone and make those calls. My advice is to keep it light. Keep it simple. Name drop shamelessly. You are going to be in the area and can you stop by for 10 minutes? How about a quick coffee? No one wants to think you made a special trip. No one wants the obligation of a lunch. When you meet, don’t sell. Don’t get down to business. Give them a chance to ask.
The object of that first meeting is to establish “like” and “trust” (because people do business with people they “like” and “trust” — period). It is also for you to qualify the prospect as worthy of your attention as a potential client. It is actually much more important for you to reject prospects than accept them. It is a far more productive use of your time to focus on a few qualified prospects than a large number of unqualified or partially qualified ones. Only you can define what qualifies a prospect, but as a rule of thumb, you should be throwing most business cards in the garbage and not entering them into your contact management system at all.
You can get down to business at the second meeting. Do not be afraid to ask for the sale. But think of selling, first and foremost, as investing in relationships. The rest will follow naturally.
There’s just no getting away from it. As Marilyn Monroe responded when asked what she thought about sex: “I think it’s here to stay”!
Social media will inevitably be part of the life of the young entrepreneur. You will not sell with it. It is no substitute for your face-to-face meetings. But it will support your efforts, give you credibility, and establish you fully as a member of this century.
Your prospects will check you out on LinkedIn, Facebook, your website, and whatever other social media hub is in vogue. These places will not make the sale for you, but you can lose the sale if your online presence is not fully professional.
Some time spent every week on social media activities is time well spent.
I give away a lot of free milk; it’s an important part of how I develop relationships. In doing so, I demonstrate that I wish to be of service, that I want to solve problems, and that I have real skills. It’s meant to be an appetizer for the entrée. But be very careful of the freeloaders. They come from all corners. There are those who will consume all the free appetizers you offer, and never buy the entrée.
This is a hard judgment call. It is another way in which you qualify prospects. Just make sure that they buy the cow and don’t just drink the milk for free.
Things go wrong! Sometimes they go really wrong. You want to be perfect for every client, but sometimes things get screwed up. Most of the time, it wasn’t even your fault. The way you handle yourself when a client is disappointed, or may be disappointed when they find out, is key to your character and the trust level that exists betwixt you and your client. In other words, be prepared to take a spanking.
When things go wrong, get out ahead of the situation as quickly as possible. Communicate with the most senior member of the client team with whom you have a relationship. Explain what happened in a straightforward fashion. Take responsibility for it. Apologize. Explain what you are going to do to address the issue and ensure that it does not happen again. Don’t be meek or servile about it. Keep your dignity. If the circumstances were outside of your control, explain that.
Some clients will try and take advantage of the situation, though you should ask yourself how much you really need that kind of a client. But in my experience, the vast majority of the time, clients are refreshingly surprised by your honesty — and gracious and forgiving in their response. More than that even. In my experience, client relationships are often better after you recover well from a screw-up than they were before. Somehow you actually increase trust if you handle the situation well. So be ready to take that spanking!
Be Chaste in Your Relationships
Be careful who you get into bed with! Treat prospective business partners with suspicion. As you succeed, you will inevitably be approached with offers of partnership. Others will want to be associated with your success. But what are they bringing to the table? Do they share your values and goals? Do you like them? What is the power dynamic?
Remember, you took the leap to start your business so that you could do things YOUR way. Don’t ever give that up for too little.
You will need resilience as an entrepreneur and leader of your business. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a lot of positive feedback, especially from those who work for you. Clients might thank you for a job well done, or they might not. Perfectly organized and managed businesses do not exist in my experience. There will always be something to keep you awake at night: too little business; too much business; cash flow; morale; commercial disputes; you name it. Being an entrepreneur is very stressful, and it is tempting to seek escape in unhealthy places — the bottle, chocolate, and maybe unhealthy relationships.
Entrepreneurs need to pay special attention to their physical health, which is the foundation of their emotional and spiritual well-being. Sweat is the only antidote to stress that I know to be truly effective, as well as supportive of the entrepreneurial mission. I believe that making time to sweat through demanding physical exercise on a routine basis not only provides an important and healthy response to stress, but also provides space, time alone, and the opportunity to think, process and dream, which are so important for the entrepreneur. And if you are sweating, you will also need to drink plenty of water, and eat a healthy diet to fuel your physical exertions.
Don’t worry about the time you spend at the gym, or wherever you sweat. I am certain that you regain that time, and then some, in your ability to focus, your higher energy levels, and greater stamina in your day — all of which directly flow from your time spent sweating.
I used to think that business leaders and entrepreneurs needed to be bold and fearless, Tarzan-like figures. But over the years I have come to accept that that will never be true of me; most entrepreneurs are in reality, beset with fears and trepidations. The great Bridgette Theurer, in her book, “Missing Conversations”, speaks of the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome that occupies the background thoughts of many entrepreneurs. So many of us are just waiting for the world to wake up and laugh at our nakedness.
Don’t worry about it. You will be afraid. You will feel like the Emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale. Embrace your fears. Say, “Hello fears — I’ve been expecting you. Welcome to the party! Now I’m going to use you to make me strong”.
Remember, real courage isn’t about not being afraid. COURAGE IS ABOUT BEING AFRAID, BUT GOING AHEAD ANYWAY.
Entrepreneurs march to the beat of a different drummer. Sometimes the beat is faint and far away. You do, after all, have to be a little different to risk your capital, give up your security, and pursue your dream.
Remember, it is a worthy and noble calling. Believe in yourself. Follow your instincts. Anytime you hear “everyone else does or thinks”, close your ears. These are not entrepreneurs. Advice is cheap, and while usually offered with good intentions, it often comes from people who cannot understand your dream. That’s okay. They’re not bad people. They just don’t understand your calling.
Within the realms of realism, be thoroughly optimistic. Require optimism of yourself. You will not be trusted if you present negative fears, so banish them from your thoughts. Not that you will not be nervous, not that you will not be scared, but embrace these energies to move you toward making your dream reality. More than anything else, be determined. Never give up. You are in for the ride of your life, my young friend. I wish you a pleasurable journey and a safe arrival at the destination of your dreams.
© 2015 KCIC. All Rights Reserved. This work is the property of KCIC and cannot be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law.