You are the Boss of you

I know I’ve said that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. Maybe I need to rephrase that. Not everyone is cut out to run their own business. I do believe that whether or not you sign your own paycheck, you are responsible for yourself and how you move forward in career and life.

A friend who works in academia used the term “entrepreneur of knowledge” yesterday. He was disappointed that his students knew little about how to write or visually express what they had learned. They were acquiring an education, but were depending on others to recognize the benefit.

He encourages his classes to take courses in photography, creative writing, and video production.   The suggestion being that they are the ones who have to take initiative with what they have learned and find ways to express it.

That is true no matter what the discipline, from coding to managing. You can’t expect anyone else to recognize and exploit your talent any better than you can do it yourself.

We increasingly live in the age of the ‘gig’ economy. Full time work is being dis-intermediated by freelance.   Along with greater autonomy comes greater demand to communicate what we know and why it is important.

So, in the end, you are the boss of you. Take it on.

It’s Never Just Business

“Hey, don’t take it personally, it’s just business”. A fairly common, yet stupid phrase. All business is personal, especially for the entrepreneur.

Business is often the excuse for being an asshole. The idea that one can extract the emotion from a deal, or a tough conversation, is an illusion.

I had an experience recently where I had to deliver tough news to someone. It was a harsh critique that I knew would be difficult to hear. However, I took the ‘just business’ approach and disregarded the feeling and emotion with which it might be received.

It’s not what I said, it’s how I said it.

Stating the obvious, every company is made up of human beings – who don’t check feelings and emotions at the door. Entrepreneurs even more so, as it all rides on them. If anyone is sensitive to their own shortcomings – it’s those working for themselves.

I stand chastened and corrected. Fortunately, the receiver of my diatribe had the fortitude to both confront and forgive. Onwards and upwards.


Losing to Win

We were on the verge of buying out our partners. Things had gone sour between us so we wanted to get their shares and go in another direction. The final meeting at their lawyer’s office saw us haggling over a last couple of minor points. Evidently one of them felt he was still owed $4,000. I told him there was no way he was getting it.

My lawyer asked to see me outside the room. He gave me some wise advice: “Pay him the fucking money and let’s get out of here.” I did, and we did. We left with the signed documents making us sole owners of our business. We got what we wanted.

Later over a celebratory dinner I asked our host, and business mentor, what was the best advice he could give us “Don’t care what the other side gets”.

I didn’t want to give my now ex-partner what he asked for because I didn’t believe he deserved it. Yet, that meant letting a few thousand dollars stand in the way of the real prize, which was the company. I had lost sight of the real goal – clouded by ego and my chosen principle.

In any deal, or decision, it’s really important to keep in mind what it is you really want – even if it means ‘they’ get what they want, or more. It’s not the same as win-win. I am only really considering the other side in relationship to what I need to do, offer, give up, change, in order to come away with my desired outcome.

It means giving up any sense of having to beat my opponent. So what if they get their way or are unjustifiably compensated. It doesn’t matter. I may, in fact, have to ‘lose’, in order to win.

Getting to Yes

There is no shortage of opportunity for donors and investors. Asks come from all directions, all the time. There are tremendous causes and companies looking for financial support. All they really want to say is ‘no’.

It’s a matter of triage. Sifting through the too numerous business plans, pitches, asks, and presentation decks, the goal is to find the very best. Sure, you may have a great idea and a killer management team – but if you have spelling errors in your cover letter, or haven’t done the math right in your projections?…. If you have a messy capitalization table say with too many aunts and uncles on the shareholder list? If you haven’t clearly articulated who your competition is? Anything that complicates matters, then the holder of dollars has a chance to turn you down and move on to the next one.

You hear it over and over again, but it is critically important at the early stages of any start up, profit or social, keep things simple. Do whatever you can do to remove barriers for someone who may invest their time or money.

For instance, business plans should be no more than three pages. Pitch decks should be no more than twelve slides, and there better be no spelling or arithmetic errors in either! Ownership structures should be obvious and straightforward – do your best to keep the number of boxes and lines to a minimum.

If you have to explain anything, other than your idea, there is much less chance you’ll move on to the next round and the potential of getting the elusive ‘yes’.


Don’t Be So Serious

Years ago, my business partner and I were traveling from Memphis to Chatanooga for meetings with clients. On the road in Tennessee we discovered there were a number of huge firework outlets. We finally stopped to see what it was all about.

Walking in we discovered every firecracker known to man. It was little boy heaven. We spent the cash we had in our pockets and, at the invite of the guy who ran the place, went out back, took off our suit jackets, and chucked fireworks at each other for half an hour.

Another time we rented a convertible but ,because it cost so much, we committed to always having the top down. Little did we know it was storm season in east Texas. We got wet, but man it made for a great story.

Business is hard. It sucks a lot of the time. But, I figure one is working to live, not the other way around, so it’s a imperative to enjoy the moments as they come, far and few between as they may be.

Celebrate the wins, move on from the losses, and take advantage of the reason you are doing the work in the first place. Find the humour in what you are doing. It may be serious work, but you don’t have to be. Explore cities you find yourself in, eat and drink local, go to hear music or watch a play.

In other words, whenever the opportunity presents itself, stop and smell the ‘gunpowder’.


Failing Fast

In a science lab there is as much to learn from failure as there is success. The same is true in business. The problem is, it sucks.

There are very few entrepreneurs who are comfortable with the idea of losing it all. Even when it appears to be the case, they will postpone the inevitable – one more loan, extend the credit cards, work even harder. It is damn hard to let go of a dream. It is painful to lose other’s money, to lay off staff, and to finally admit it’s over.

There are lots coming-back-from-the-brink-of-disaster stories, but your’s won’t be one of them. If you are going to fail – fail fast. It is noble to hang on for the investors and your staff but understand, if it’s not working out – you are in the majority. Most businesses don’t make it past five years. It’s ok. You gave it all you had – giving some more won’t make a difference.

Business is tough even when it’s good. This isn’t about ditching because it’s hard. It’s about drawing the line when there are no sales, increasing expenses, and little to no light at the end of the tunnel. Stop. Just stop.

It is likely the hardest of all decisions – to make the call that enough is enough. Embracing failure is not a well practiced skill for most. But, to hold on too long and drag things past the point of no return – that serves no one. Investors understand, that’s why it’s called ‘risk’ capital. Employees will find other work. And you will recover and live to fight the good fight another day.

As in the lab, there is always a next time. A failed result is often an indicator of what it will take to succeed.

Pitch your Story, not your Projections

I sat through over twenty investor pitches last week. Start ups doing everything from measuring cirrhosis of the liver to selling event tickets. To a person, the founders believed in what they were doing and were fully committed. Too bad most of their presentations didn’t reflect that.

Powerpoint and Keynote are a necessary evil. They are tremendous tools to illustrate points and express information. However, they can also distract, bog down, and obfuscate the message. Too many words, too many graphs, too much detail and not enough narrative.

A great presentation has the arc of a story. Everything from expressing the problem, the discovery of a solution, to the challenge of competition and selling – can all be told without the obligatory charts and graphs.

The purpose of the ten minutes is to captivate the audience and leave them wanting more. Everyone has seen the hockey stick projections, and the competitive analysis graph that shows your logo in the top right. Don’t do that.

Bringing any new idea to market is an adventure – so express it so. What was the ‘aha’ moment? How will the idea change the world – or the little part that it is meant to serve? What the presentation should do best is raise curiousity and confidence. No one is going to write a cheque after twelve slides. The best you can hope for is a prospective investor handing you a business card with “tell me more”.

Your energy is way more important than what is on the screen. The images and words are simply back up for you – it’s your stage. Go for it.

On your own, but not alone

Even if you’re not up that high, it can be lonely at the top. Where do you go when the bank calls wanting more security for their loan, or your business partner isn’t pulling their weight, or you need to fire a key employee, or you lose/or gain your biggest customer?

It is hard to talk business stuff with friends and family. Without the context, it can seem like an endless roller coaster ride of up’s and down’s. Bringing home ‘the office’ is tough at the best of times.

During my years growing a software company I had a friend, much older, who I could call on to talk through issues, concerns, and problems. He had started and run his own companies so he understood, not only the language, but wasn’t shocked by numbers or difficult situations. He helped me through the hardest parts of building our business.

There is an unspoken fraternity amongst entrepreneurs. In my experience, there is a willingness to support the efforts of others. It is simply a matter of finding them.

Of course (self serving plug coming up) there are also professional coaches and mentors. My suggestion is finding someone who has been through what you are going through. You are not seeking advice on process – it’s deeper than that. You want to be able to call on someone who ‘gets it’. It takes one to know one.

You are on your own – it’s your business. But, as you fight your good fight, there are others out there who you can call on. Even a phone call once a month can make a difference. Just like everything else you do – be bold, seek, and ask.

Nothing is Certain, so Sell

“We just need to be more certain”. This was the reason given for not getting out and selling. The company has incredible powerpoints on every angle of the business, they have demos for most industries, and they have a 67 page business plan.

Another company I knew a few years back had post-it note flip chart paper surrounding the office with scenarios, budgets, and plans. And no sales.

The true test for a new product or service is will someone buy it. What you don’t know the customer will tell you. Your product needs to get out in the real world.   “Just a little bit more” is the death of a company. The fear of failure hides behind the desire for perfection

Take the simplest product or service you can create and put it front of people. Do they buy it? Why or why not? Try again. And again. Each step backwards is a meaningful part of going forward.

The uncomfortable part of any business is that it’s risky – always. From beginning through maturity, growth means doing new stuff that doesn’t always work. Sure as a company grows there’s a larger margin for error – but I don’t think that makes much different – losing sucks no matter what.

No matter how fancy your presentations, how detailed your plans, how robust your product – if you aren’t selling, you’re not in business.


Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Hiring is kind of like falling in love, except for the love part. You are seeking someone compatible, easy to get along with, aligned with your values, who also has mad skills in the area you are seeking. No one is perfect though – so where do you compromise? Fit? Attitude? Skills? Some are trainable, others innate.

The thing is, don’t compromise. Much like that romantic partner you think you can change – you can’t. Take the time to find the right person. If you are a small organization, you have no time, money, or energy for training – the new person has to be able to hit the ground running contribute right away. Go slow, very slow.

Clearly understand who you need before you begin the process and don’t waver – it’s easy to be influenced by a glowing resume or a great interview. You have a job that needs to get done, don’t settle for anything less than the best person for it.

Firing on the other hand is relatively easy – if you know someone isn’t working – fire them, quickly and decisively. Be kind and fair, yes – but be direct. It’s a hard thing to do as you are afraid of hurting feelings, and possibly affecting morale – but usually the person knows they aren’t doing the job, and the rest of the staff definitely does.

If you hire slow and fire fast – you’ll still make mistakes, but probably not as many.


Always Ask. The Worst They Can Say is “No”.

One of the hardest parts of business is waiting for an answer. It might be the prospect who has your sales proposal. It might be an investor who is reading your business plan. Oddly, sometimes a question hasn’t been asked in the first place.

“I didn’t want to offend”. “It seems to early in the process”. “I think they need more information first”. “I don’t want them to think I’m desperate” All are reasons (excuses) why questions don’t get asked.

Always ask. Always. It’s the only way you can have certainty, and move forward. It’s the difference between process and decision. You need to know – are they planning to buy, is she serious about investing, is he going to take the job.

In the end the worst they can say is ‘no’. However, we’ve imbued that little word with so much emotion. It is not you they are rejecting, it’s the proposal. Good sales folk understand that it’s just part of the process – there are plenty of ‘no’s’ before you get a ‘yes’.

You can start the queries right up front. Qualify the prospect by seeking an answer “if you get the information you need, can you see yourself purchasing?” “What more do you require to make a decision about investing?” Trialing a close not only gives you important information, it draws the other side in.

So, don’t wait. Ask.

Are you?

Being an entrepreneur is like being left handed. You are or you’re not. While it’s something you can become better at, I am not sure it’s something you can become.

Most of us are best working within an existing structure. All that said, there is no better or worse here. In fact, the life of an entrepreneur is fraught with peril and downside – and sleepless nights staring at the ceiling wondering how to make payroll. Here are a few questions you might ask yourself.  Answer ‘yes’ to two or more and it’s likely you have the curse.

  1. Are you comfortable with big risk and uncertainty?
  2. Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘unemployable’?
  3. Are you distracted by big ideas?
  4. Are you ok doing everything a business requires – from legal to sales?
  5. Are you deaf to ‘no’ and ‘I can’t’?
  6. Could you care less about a steady pay cheque?
  7. Do you know ‘why’ you want to start a business?
  8. Do you lack confidence – but keep going anyway?
  9. Is this something you can’t not do?
  10. Do you realize your mum and dad likely won’t approve?

Decide Already

In a given day in business there are hundreds of decisions to be made. Not all, in fact very few, are life and death. The key is in making them. Getting on with things requires choices to be made so you can move to the next topic. Get it right 70% of the time, and you should do just fine.

Most of business is run on incomplete information. There is too much to know prior to a decision being required. Sure there are plenty of ways to mitigate the risk, but in the end, the choice is binary, go or no go – with an uncertain outcome either way.

All to say, make as many decisions in a day as you can. Do what you can to educate yourself, but, no matter how many Google searches you do, the choice is still yours. Undoubtedly some will be wrong, but that is ok, and I’d say even preferable, to not making them in the first place.

What’s your Value?

I am not very good with grammar. I am not sure when ‘better’ ‘faster’ or ‘cheaper’ are adjectives or adverbs. However, I do know that when used to describe a product or service they end up being comparisons to something else.

Instead, work to define and express what you do, in unique, differentiated terms. What gives you an unfair advantage? What is it that you have discovered or uncovered that has yet to be offered?

This is more than a branding excerise. It drills down to the core of your business and creates a discipline of making sure you are solving real problems. Unique solutions are more sustainable in a crowded marketplace.

Defining, and re-defining the value proposition for your business is an ongoing exercise – it’s not just for start ups. It’s a good thing to revisit at least annually to make sure you are still seeking to lead rather than follow.

I am thinking now, that in this case, those words are adverbs – but who cares, you don’t plan on using them anyway….

Follow the Pain

Your ideal customer is someone who needs healing, and is willing to pay for it. The best businesses and organizations solve real problems. If you have to spend a lot of time, energy, and money convincing folks that they need what you’re selling – chances are success will be tough to come by. The trick is learning what the real problems are.

The discovery stage is figuring out what matters most to those you’re reaching out to, and how you’re helping them achieve that. In a non-profit setting the objective is to solve donors’ problems by helping them give in ways that increase their sense of meaning. With food related businesses it may be access, health, or ability to find unique vegetables. The focus is on the needs, wants, and desires of your customers – not the business or organization.

Psychic Revenue

“It was a great meeting. They were all over us. We had a thirty minute time slot and stayed for over an hour. At the end they said that we were a little early for them but we’d be on their radar”.

Entrepreneurs are suckers for positive feedback. Starting something new is so hard that anything that smacks of affirmation is like a drink of cold water in the desert. The problem is you can’t eat pats on the back or pay your rent with them. Opportunities to speak, getting press, or not being told no by an investor, are all examples of what I call psychic revenue. It’s great for the ego, but does nothing for the bank account.

There are only two jobs for the start up CEO – make money or get money. If you don’t accomplish one or the other, then it’s likely you won’t be around very long – no matter how many times you’ve been in the newspaper or stood at a podium. Sure, those things can bring you some needed exposure – but just understand they’re shot gun approaches at best.

I hate to be a buzz kill on this because I know how good it feels to have a reporter call up, or to have someone from the industry say how great you are. The thing is, in the end, they’re distractions, and best left to others.

The only folks that matter are customers and investors – in that order. All that other stuff is psychic revenue. Like peeing in a dark suit, it gives you a warm feeling, but no one notices.

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