Should I start my own business?

Should I start my own business?” If you have ever found yourself asking this question, you are not alone. And rarely does this question arise by itself — on its heels, many more rush in. “How do I know it’s the right thing? What’s the first thing I should do?” A simple search on Amazon or Google with the words “Starting your own business” provides 738 books and over a million hits respectively — in a sense, this choice of plenty only seems to add more questions beginning with, ‘Where do I start?’ The best answer to this question is the simple one — start with yourself!

Before you try to figure out, “How do I raise money, or should I get a patent first or do I need partners?” the first step to answer the question should you even start your own business, is to better understand yourself. While some reflection is needed, this is not so much a philosophical or metaphysical exercise as much as answering three simple questions about yourself. You may have never taken the time to think about it and even if you have asked yourself one or more of these questions, never had the opportunity to step back and answer them. Certainly, once you start your own business, you will not have the luxury of time to answer these in any detail.

N.S. Raghavan, former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys, narrates a story about a young man who approached him seeking advice. “I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?” When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!” To dive in, or to ‘Just do it!’, as the ad exhorts us, is easy — staying the course, not drowning and not ruing it along the way — is the hard part. Let’s ask ourselves those three simple questions.

Passion

Ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this? Will I feel as passionate about this a week from now? A year or five years from now?” If the answer is anything other than yes, you might want to keep that resume polished. When you ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this?” — ‘this’ could be a product — a low maintenance, low-cost, yet effective water purifier that four-fifths of the world needs; it could be a service — ball room dancing instruction for high-schoolers; it could be a concept — helping farmers in your hometown reach customers worldwide directly — or nearly evangelical — fresh water to every village in your state/country — it could be anything, as long as the fire of passion within you burns undiminished for long periods with little or no kindling. This is a good question to ask first and have answered in the affirmative before starting your own business. Do not confuse passion with being right or knowing something — passion is primarily believing and wanting. Once you start your business, you will learn more ways of being wrong than you’d thought possible.

Risk-taking

Being an entrepreneur, which is what you’d be if you start a business, is a risky proposition — probably not as risky as skydiving or crossing a busy road in Bangalore during the evening commute. Most businesses last longer than a skydive and are fraught with challenges. So the next question to ask yourself is how risk averse you are.

Risk means many things to many people. Most people think primarily of financial risk — this, while certainly measurable, may be the least important. Often there will be others to bear the financial risk with you.

However, the time you personally invest, the emotional energy that would be required of you individually and most importantly, your self-worth, will be the bigger risks you will be taking.

These will be largely immeasurable but have far greater import on the rest of your life. So if you have never taken off for the weekend on a whim, usually get to the airport three hours ahead of schedule and have never run a yellow light, it is worth figuring out what your risk appetite is.

Perseverance

Call it whatever you want — doggedness, perseverance or relentlessness — to be an entrepreneur means continuing in the face of constant discouragement by the world around you.

Often it would seem as though everyone but you feels it makes no sense to continue and yet you persist. Investment bankers who have yet to begin shaving will offer you advice. Your spouse, your engineering manager (and her spouse), that cheeky long-haired fellow in customer support not to mention your suppliers and even customers will question, critique and challenge you.

So if you haven’t been called pig-headed more than once in your life or find you cannot last through one session of working through the “simple” income-tax form or are discouraged by having to make the same presentation for the 17th time, some work may be needed in this area.

If you answered in the affirmative to the passion and perseverance questions, you are ready to start a business.

Should you actually start one, your chances of being successful at it or even enjoying the journey, will be determined by your answer to the risk-taking question. Luckily, for us, unlike the Prince of Denmark, it’s a little easier to answer the question, “To begin or not to begin?”

This article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine in Dec 2007.

Startup Founder Secret #2

StopwatchOne of the challenges in getting advice – even when we agree with it – is figuring out how in the heck are we going to find time to follow it. As an entrepreneur or founder, you’ve got enough and more on your plate – so while it’s great to hear you should meditate, how do you squeeze it into your insane calendar (you do have one don’t you?)

This is a secret that I learned from Stephanie Winston, organizing guru from her book The Organized Executive.  In three words it is

Meetings with yourself

Notice, when you have a meeting with a customer or prospect, a candidate you are trying to hire (or in some cases when a critical person is threatening to leave) you drop everything else to take that meeting. Look around you – your day is probably filled with meetings – product reviews, vendor negotiations. In fact if your day is anything like a typical founder’s day – meetings are the only thing that seem non-negotiable and you have to fit in your other tasks in to little time chunks between meetings. So rather than let this get you down, start by marking meetings on your calendar, with just one attendee – YOU!

This is a great way to get that blog post written, contract reviewed or to even meditate. It most importantly prevents you from using this time to take other meetings. So start now, and mark your calendar up for the next two weeks – or if you want to be bolder for two months – with a daily 20 minute meeting with yourself to meditate, or twice weekly to blog or fortnightly for date night with your significant other. Let me know how it works.


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Startup Founder Secret #1

Much like the well-meaning father’s friend in the movie Graduate, almost everyone has advice for startup founders. Never mind that such advice ranges from “Unlike your brother, I hope you find a good job” to “Never give up, follow your passion.” I haven’t been averse to handing out such platitudes myself at times. And such advice, like a broken clock, will be occasionally true.

But is there advice, actionable and useful, that is applicable regardless of your startup’s life stage or your own for that matter. I’d argue yes!

Meditate!

That would be my one word advice to founders (and leaders) everywhere. It’s also a sneaky way of saying Take care of your mind which in turn will necessitate taking care of your body as well.

There’s a great deal of formal studies on the advantages of meditation – from how it can make you happier, make better decisions and how it helps the US  Marines do better by bouncing back faster!  More importantly there’s plenty of useful and actionable advice on what meditation is, how to start meditating, how long a session should be and when can you expect results.

Get started My two favorite resources are Eknath Easwaran’s meditation method – and the formal medical world, here represented by the Mayo Clinic’s Elements of Meditation.

Start today with 5 or 10 minutes set aside for meditation. Preferably first thing in the morning. Work up to doing 30 minutes of meditation a day, and once you get there, keep at it.  I suspect, you will find it so much easier to handle, life and everything it throws at you.


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Marketing & Sales

Flowers for Algernon [Book] What I’m reading

In a hat tip to Om Malik who writes a periodic column called “What I’m reading“, I decided to write a weekly note on what I’ve been reading. Today it was Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I was rooting around the basement library of some friends that I was crashing with for the week, hoping to find a mindless Ludlumesque or Lee Child adventure, when I came across the book. My friend’s copy was in mint condition lulling me into believing it was a recent book  despite its blurb “The classical novel that inspired the Academy Award-winning movie Charly” which of course I’d never heard of.

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up the book with little idea of what it was about or even when it was written. I certainly did not think of it as science fiction, which is what Wikipedia speaks of it as. I read the book in a single sitting, as it held me enthralled. The start of the book, as in letter form or more accurately, journal entries took a moment to get used to and for the first page or two, the misspellings and poor grammar seems a little contrived. However, Charlie Gordon’s voice and narration drew me in and I had a hard time attending to real life needs be it breakfast or lunch as I plunged my way through the book on a work day! The book worked at so many levels, from how mentally retarded folks are treated, to the insular world of academicians and scientists to growing self-awareness and insight of an evolving Charlie Gordon and how childhood experiences and memories continue to shape us. The redemption of Charlie’s sister Norma, his encounter with his father, his evolving relationship with Alice – the book is filled with tales of redemption and self-knowledge – even if every one of these characters are not threshed out fully. I’ve rated the book with 5 Stars for both the subject and how it’s been covered and the way it held me truly enthralled.

Get it and read it.

The other book I’m reading at present is

Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back When You Lose It by Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter

The Secret to Preventing Email Wars at Your Startup

ConflictWhether a startup or a large corporation, email has become just a fact of our work lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so. Email useful as it is, however seems to create as many problems as it addresses. Beyond the chain letters and phishing emails or spam, flame wars conducted over email is probably the biggest cause of productivity loss, in both large and small companies.

Most back-and-forth email stinkers or flame wars are preventable and many times seem downright silly or petty. Yet they seem to pop up all over the place with near-despairing regularity. Flame wars, particularly between colleagues, is a huge emotional sink, sapping productivity and motivation. This is even truer when the parties involved are in the same office. It is to overcome these that we’ve formulated a simple rule – yep 1 single rule to prevent email flame wars.

The No 3rd email rule Simply put this rule states, if one person has sent an email (#1) and a second person has responded (#2) and it’s clear that they are not agreeing, or not happy – there should be no 3rd email sent. Instead the two parties should talk in person (sometimes this only requires swivelling in one’s chair) or pick up the phone, if not in the same office.

Think about it – most email flaming starts due to one of two reasons:

  • public questioning, accusation or challenge (real or perceived) by usually the sender
  • outright misunderstanding by one party (usually the reader)

In the former case, the recipient responds either defensively, or attacks the sender, as they perceive themselves or their work being undermined or attacked. This may or may not have been the intent of the sender. In the latter, regardless of the sender’s intent, the recipient misunderstands either what is being said or why it is being said (or at times to whom it is being said or copied to) and leads to misunderstanding and grief.

Regardless of who started it, their intent and what was being actually said, the No 3rd email rule works excellently by stopping the electronic conversation, which would at this stage usually deteriorate into accusations, counter accusations and fingerpointing. The beauty of this rule is it is independent of who wields the organizational power between the sender and the recipient and nips the blooming potential conflict in the proverbial bud.

Like all good rules, it’s simple to state and understand, a little bit harder to practice. We are still working on it. What are you waiting for?

6 Elements of a Powerful Blog Post

 

Neil Patel’s QuickSprout blog has always been a great source of marketing information. This last week I caught up with some of their earlier posts and this great infographic on The 6 Elements of a Powerful Blog Post caught my eye. In summary,

 

  1. Include engaging photos or pictures
  2. Use clean design and layout
  3. Have a unique voice
  4. Connect with social media
  5. Have a call to action
  6. Go against the grain

 

You can see Neil’s original article and infographic here.

 

The 6 Elements of a Powerful Blog Post

 

Courtesy of: Quick Sprout

 

Travails of Startup Hiring in India

13-FlipSide-StartUp-Hiring

For all of those struggling to hire for your startups – it could be worse!

What do you do with THAT employee?

“He’s my best sales guy. He makes his numbers quarter after quarter! But everyone dreads it when he comes into the office.” My friend was on the verge of tears – it was clear that he was going to have to do something about his sales guy, if he didn’t want others to quit. But he was worried about his star salesman would react and he was not looking forward to it.

We’ve all faced this issue of what to do with that employee – the trustworthy finance guy, who upsets your team members often over trivial amounts; the brilliant technologist who cheeses everybody off with his superior attitude, or the HR manager, who despite the many years she’s been with you, who’s not pulling her weight any more. The timing is rarely right to confront them and the longer you put it off the worse it’s likely to get. We also worry about how we got here and how best to handle it so we retain them without too high an emotional cost. If you are like me, then you put it off for a better time, which rarely comes.

Hiring people is always one of the top 3 problems I hear managers or founders talk about. Implicit in this of course is that matter of hiring the right people. Yet, even after we’ve hired the right people, as neither organizations nor the people stay constant, we run into all kinds of issues. Gil Amelio, who was an inspiring leader (and CEO) at my first employer National Semiconductor, taught me a very simple framework to both talk about this and to aid action.

Effective v Attitude Matrix

Attitude and Effectiveness Successful organisations look at not just at proven capabilities and experience that would make a prospective employee effective, but also their attitude and fit with your organisational culture. He used the familiar four quadrant framework, with effectiveness along the y-axis and attitude (or cultural fit) along the x-axis as shown in the figure below.

Quadrant 1 – Neither the right attitude nor effective  These are the easiest folks to deal with – they are basically hiring mistakes you’ve made. Ideally you’d not have anyone in this quadrant or if you do, you’d fix your hiring process to minimize recurrence.  Lou Adler, author and CEO of the Adler group in his recent article titled “There Are Only Four Types of People — Are You Hiring The Right Ones?” terms these folks Type 1: Those you should never hire!

Quadrant 2 – Have the right attitude but are not effective Usually this is a sign that these folks are in the wrong job. They may have been effective, even in the same job, but no longer are, because the jobs requirements have evolved or they haven’t. Or you’ve placed them in the wrong role. The ineffective sales guy may bloom in a business development role or inside sales job. The trick is to find them a role that they can be effective in. If your organisation is big enough, you may have one or more such roles – sometimes the right role may not be within your department or even company, in which case its best to help them find the right role, whether inside or outside your company.

Quadrant 3 – Have the right attitude and are effective These are your stars – the people who perform consistently and lead from the front. The trick with these folks is to ensure that they are constantly learning and growing. Folks in Quandrant 3 can fall into Quandrant 2, when your company and your needs grow fast and they don’t grow as fast. These are the folks you want to be hiring and your company and its processes should be geared to finding, attracting, retaining and growing Quadrant 3 folks.

Quadrant 4 – Don’t have the right attitude but are effective This is the hardest group to deal with. The obnoxious sales person my friend had to deal with, the supercilious technologist or rude finance guy we met all fall into this quadrant. Two things make it difficult to effect change with these folks -

  • they are deemed successful and have been rewarded in the past, despite their interpersonal shortcomings.
  • They are often positions deemed critical, that make change not just unpalatable but downright scary. “What’ll happen to my sales, if this guy leaves?” or “Will I find another trusthworthy finance guy?”

Organizations suffer the most, because most of us don’t know how best to handle Quadrant 4 folks. The first step is to recognize not only the existence of these four quadrants but that people can move within the quadrants. This is most commonly seen from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 3 (more effective) through skilling and occasionally to Quadrant 2 from Quadrant 3 (less effective) when the job needs grow and person doesn’t.

Effective v Attitude Matrix

I’ve found talking about the four quadrants and even mutually agreeing with your team members where they see themselves and where their peers or you see them helps immensely. This way when it is time to have the hard conversation, you both have a framework and vocabulary that can help keep the conversation professional. In my experience, almost always folks in the Quadrant 2 will have to be let go. We’ve had the occasional technical person build out their interpersonal skills and make the move from Quadrant 4 to Quadrant 3.

Let me know how this works for you.

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Can we take a 2×2 matrix too far?

Decision making