The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: Tools

2 Tools That Will Improve your Effectiveness as a Marketer

Every year I try to learn something new – be it a skill, a tool or just some facts. 2018 has been a time of great learning, thanks to my daughter, I wanted to share two tools that I’ve learned about from her and since put to good use for myself and customers.

  • Canva, as my primary online visual design tool – from making Twitter or web post headers, webinar announcements to trifold brochures and even eBook cover design, this has been an amazing tool where every day I’m discovering more. Here are some examples

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  • Tableau as my data visualization tool has similarly been a much used for not just number crunching, but being able to create excellent visualizations as well as insights that aren’t always self-evident from staring at the data in Excel.
    Here are two examples

Visualization of Girls Toilets Availability

The kicker is, both of them are available online, easy-to-use and you can get started for free. They also have great online communities that can help you get up the learning curve fast. So give them a spin today and share your own favorite tools in the comments.

Negotiating well in groups

The entire company, probably little over 50 people, was in the room. It was the 9th of December 2005 and we’d gathered to discuss the news that we were seriously considering an offer to sell the company. Nearly twenty people in the room had been with us more than five years – through two major pay cuts and one minor layoff – another 20 with us over the last two years, when it was certain we were no longer going to die. So the topic of the meeting and its consequences were not merely financial or professional but deeply emotional. If we chose to be acquired, our success largely lay in the hands of the folks in that room, in their willing participation and agreement to the decision to sell. Early in the meeting, we posed the question what would be your biggest fear or concern, should we sell the company.

As you can easily imagine when you pose such a question, to a large group of people, none of whom were at a startup because they were shy or retiring, things could easily degenerate into a free-for-all. Also while we had planned to take half a day for the meeting, there was a lot of ground to cover. So the challenge we were posed with was, how do we get the team to not only have their say, but to get them to converge on a few important things, such that the biggest concerns not only get aired, but acknowledged and ideally even addressed in the meeting.

Amazingly the 50+ people were able to converge on their three primary concerns and were unanimous with their first concern – “What would happen to our culture, if we are acquired?” thanks to a technique called Nominal Group Technique. And were able to do it within 15 minutes. This is a technique that I’ve had the opportunity to use repeatedly in groups, as small as 8 people to as big as 55, – to get rapid convergence – often from a standing start – of even what the key problems were that we needed to solve and what are the top 3 or 5 things to do to solve them. The technique requires that I write a whole another blog post dedicated to it to explain the manner in which we’ve used it, adapting it for different groups not just across countries but across age groups, and different socio-economic backgrounds. This morning I read about the a technique called Indaba, that was used at the recent climate conference (COP21) to get nearly 200 nations to sign-off to a binding agreement.

Negotiations are difficult by nature. Managing negotiations between 195 countries in order to arrive at a legally binding agreement, on the other hand, is nearly impossible. This was the problem that United Nations officials faced over two weeks at this month’s climate-change summit in Paris. To solve it, they brought in a unique management strategy.

The trick to getting through an over-complicated negotiation comes from the Zulu and Xhosa people of southern Africa. It’s called an “indaba” (pronounced IN-DAR-BAH), and is used to simplify discussions between many parties. Read the full article here.

If you reckoned negotiating with one party was hard, be it with an employee wanting to leave or customer or partner wanting more for less, negotiating with more than one party is incredibly more complicated. Luckily there are proven techniques that can help you do so successfully. It would be good to get acquainted with them, well before you’ll actually need to use them. Better yet, try ’em out today!

I’ve written about negotiating before here and conflict resolution here.

Simple Sales Tracker for Startups

This last quarter, I met several interesting startups, that had a clutch of good customers. When I asked them “How can I help you?” at least three of them asked for help with sales. Not what you’d think, as in find me customers or introduce me to prospects but how do I manage my sales pipeline. In fact two of them specifically had the question “How do I track my sales pipeline?”

Over the last several years, while I’ve used a variety of  tools from mere contact managers through sophisticated deal trackers to full-fledged CRM suites, I’ve found myself returning each time to a simple spreadsheet-based sales tracker, at least in the early days. The tracker has not only evolved as I’ve learned but stayed surprisingly simple and has worked just as well in a fund-raising function at non-profits as it has in a for-profit startup.

As I promised these founders, I’m open sourcing the sample tracker as an Microsoft Excel spreadsheet as well as Google docs template. The tracker can be used for selling products or services or combinations thereof. You can download it here.

The tracker has three parts.

1. Setup – your business basics

Based on the nature of your business (product or service), actual sales offerings and the sales process your business may have to follow, you can tweak the setup. All this is done in a single worksheet (the last one, titled “Stages, Categories, etc.” of the online sales tracker). This one time set up of your product or service offerings, your sales persons (or deal owners), and stages of your selling process, makes maintaining your sales tracker easy and minimizes human or data entry errors.

Sales Stages

Figure 1 – Typical Sales Stages

Sales stage this is simply the series of steps you have to go through from start to finish to close a sale. It begins with you first identifying a potential target customer for your product or service and runs all the way through receiving payment from the customer (never forget collecting the money is a critical part of making a sale).  Figure 1 shows one such typical sales cycle.

sales_stages demo

Figure 2 – Sales stages for a demo-based sale

Sales stages obviously can vary for your particular business – one common variant that I encounter is when a demo installation or trial period needs to be offered to a customer (something you ideally want to get away from, but unavoidable particularly at tech startups in the B2B space). In this case there may be more interim steps (or stages) in your sales tracker.

Similarly you can set up your product or service offerings, as in actual names or code names that tell you what product or service you are talking about.

Tip: Typically I’ve found it useful to precede the offering name with a numeral such as 1-Bluetooth Stack or 2-SEO Consulting, as this makes sorting and other types of numeral based operations easier. For instance variants could all be numbered within say 100-200 so reports can be easily generated.

2. Sales Tracker
The sales tracker is a straightforward spreadsheet, with each prospective sale or deal on a separate row. For each deal, the row (or record) spells out, who the customer is, what is it that’s being sold (opportunity or offering), what revenue (or selling price) you expect, what sales stage is the specific deal at, who owns the deal and what the target close date is. You can of course have additional fields such as comments, or next steps, key customer contact. Figure 3 below shows a sample tracker for product sales.


Figure 3 Sales Tracker

The tracker also has variants of the sales tracker, if you need to track number of units (N) and have a unit price (P) and therefore compute deal size based on NxP (tab, Sales_Tracker_B_Units). Similarly there’s a tracker variant for service or project selling, (tab, Sales_Tracker_C_Project) where you can add descriptors for a project in addition to any opportunity or offering name you provide. Of course your business may require yet another variant, but you can simply by adding columns make the tracker your own.

By using the Filter function in Excel, you can look up deals

  • of a particular size or greater
  • expect to close prior to a specific date
  • belonging to a particular sales owner or product (or both)
  • at or before a certain sales stage
  • that have closed but you’ve not gotten payment

In other words, an individual sales guy (that’s you) can see which of his deals he should focus on this week to close, what is the value of deals you intend to close this month (or week or quarter), which deals have NOT moved for more than a month – you get the idea, you can pretty much filter it any way you need.

3. Summary Report

Master Report

Figure 4 Report Master

The first tab Report_Master, is a quick overview report of your sales pipeline. It presently has both #deals and deal value by sales stage. I’ve set these up as formulas – these could just as easily be set up as pivot tables if you so desire. You could do without this master report sheet, by merely filtering the sales tracker sheet itself. Alternately if you find that you are running some searches often, you can just have them set up as reports. Its also useful to have a report if you multiple folks are using the tracker and you want a big picture view.

Good luck with your sales – as and when you make improvements do share and spread the love and knowledge. If you have any questions please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Spread the word. Happy selling!

A is for Asana – Tool Thursdays

English: Low-resolution image of the Asana logo.In a hat tip to one of my favorite bloggers Fred Wilson, who’s got a steady publishing schedule such as MBA Mondays, I’d like to share with you Tool Thursdays. While I’m no Tim Allen-like tool man, I find myself spending enormous amounts of time, than any job warrants, on trying out software and online tools. So I guess I must enjoy it. I reckoned I’d share some of these, so others who are looking to find tools for their small (or not so small) businesses may benefit. Hopefully I’ll hear from you and we can learn from one another.

About a year ago is when I first encountered Asanaa project management tool for the rest of us – or at least the Facebook generation. As someone who’s lived through dreaded Microsoft Project – I found Asana possessing the simplicity of the best to-do lists out there such as Wunderlist or Remember the Milk married with the life stream of Facebook. The coolest feature is that it’s free for up to 30 users in a project.

Asana has a very simple structure – there are Workspaces – think of them as different parts of your life or job. I have separate workspaces for each department I work with – within each workspace you can have as many projects as you’d like. Projects – began as simple to-do lists, with (all optional) an owner, description, due date. You can assign Tasks (or to-dos) to folks who are NOT on Asana and it asks you for their email address and invites them – you can confine such invitees to the task assigned or the entire project. You can also invite/assign followers for a task, such as other team mates. Once a to-do is assigned, the owner or any of the followers can comment on it, obviating the need for emails to multiple folks – within these comments you can (in the current version) insert twitter like @person, @project tags which helps folks in the loop. This life stream feature alone makes Asana worth using. While Asana doesn’t support dependencies – it allows you to make links to other tasks in projects – and these days allows sub-task assignment as well.


One of the nicest features of Asana (which could easily become irritating) is its email notification service (of updates, completion of tasks, overdue tasks) – however as you can update Asana by replying to these updates – everyone on the team or task gets to see the conversation thread without a zillion emails from team mates. Once you figure how best to manage the mail notifications, Asana truly becomes your friend rather than that nagging person you want to avoid.

Another cool feature of Asana is the concept of the Inbox for each project – so in case you’ve been gone a while or been busy with another project, you can start with the Inbox, which shows the updates for each project – without drowning across a variety of projects. Also it lets you see tasks by person (across projects) and tags all of which makes things quite manageable. The biggest advantage of Asana I’ve found is their Facebook like paradigm, for a life stream, so even the most technology averse person can get rolling pretty fast. While you may not manage the building of the next Boeing plane with Asana, for most projects we are likely to encounter it will do just fine.

Pros Simplicity, multi-user, free, email based management
Cons lack of dependency management and absence of Gantt views

For the power and price, the downsides are niggling. I’d run out there and try it.

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Five reasons why you should switch to Open Office today…

In these last ninety days I have learnt a whole lot more than any forty-five year old should legitimately have to learn about software – but the good news is that it has all been good. A couple of posts ago, I talked, ok likely gushed, about how I have been using Zoho.writer and Zoho.sheet in a quest to be free of my desktop Microsoft Office suite. I have been using Microsoft Word at least since the mid to late eighties (yep, that’s 198x) when I wrote my PhD thesis with it (I think I used WordStar for my MS thesis). Since then having spent most of my working life in marketing and trying to raise money meant working Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint like there is no tomorrow. In the late nineties I actually prototyped application UIs with PowerPoint, including mouseovers and sliding drop-down menus. In other words I could make both PowerPoint and Word sing – why be modest!

This was all the more reason I was surprised at how well both Writer and Sheet in Zoho worked. Somewhere in the dawn of time or maybe the early 2000s, when I got the bright idea to transition to free software, I downloaded OpenOffice and within one use session got so disenchanted and had to wait until this year to even try Zoho. But neither Zoho, nor Google docs, who’s spreadsheet application is pretty good, could hold a candle to Microsoft Powerpoint. Guess just to build my character further, the new laptops my lovely wife (LW) and I got had Microsoft Works, which for reasons I can’t fathom has its own native format. Thank god for Rich Text (RTF) that I could move documents around – assuming we remembered (each time) to switch the Save As filetype to Rich Text Format (of course our friends at Microsoft have not deemed it necessary for users to set, say Rich Text Format .rtf or Word 97 .doc as the native format). Which brings me to the point of this post.

I went back to and downloaded the latest OpenOffice 2.4.1 and what an epiphany! The acid test for me was in opening, editing and saving some reasonably complicated PowerPoint presentations my colleagues had created (in MS PowerPoint 2003) with no loss of fidelity! Since then I have written a couple of articles in Writer, laid out a (short) magazine, worked with a number of my old Excel sheets including creating a few new ones and really gone to town with their presentation software Impress (can’t say I am too hot about the name).

So here are my top 5 reasons

[5] Its Free; OpenSource and extensibilityPublish Post
[4] Cross platform, Zoho and Googledocs support
[3] Writer (word processor)
[2] Calc (the spreadsheet)
[1] Impress (presentation)

Of course I have not yet used the database, math or drawing tools – all of which seem promising and make OpenOffice far more than Microsoft Office and make only give us more reasons to switch sooner!

Top 5 Online tools – Life on the cloud!

Last month, I wrote of my Top 5 utilities that I can’t live with. Guess the computer gods were watching and about five days ago my laptop gave up its ghost (of course tossing it on my bed and watching it slip down to the floor may have had something to do with it!). The loss was all the more untimely, as the first half of an overdue article was on the HDD! Frantic calls for sysadmin help, safe mode log on as admin and scraping the ascii text on to Zoho writer resulted in my getting the article out an hour after my Friday 6PM deadline! You can read it (“Selling Every Moment“) at Hindu Business Line here .

The good news is that even a couple of weeks before this tragic moment, I had made a beginning to go completely on-line, as in render my laptop a mere client and operate solely on the net — yep, store my data on the net and use apps on the net. So here’s my report from life on the cloud!

GMail & Google Apps pretty much the bulk of my time is spent with GMail and more frequently with Google Apps, as we try to get our new business (still in stealth) on-line. When I first began using GMail (from being a Yahoo! mail user and Eudora client) it seemed outright strange not being able to do folders. My current use pattern leads me to pray each day that Google actually means its “Do no evil” pledge. Pretty much sticking to mail and chat in Google Apps and only kicking tires with their Docs and Sites utilities.

Skype – and now with video. Skype is the only utility that gives gmail a run for the first place in my working life. Between chats, international calls, peer2peer file transfers and now video chat it gets a great deal of use. For several years we ran most of our internal business on AIM and Skype has pretty much replaced this for both intracompany as well as across company (and country boundaries). Now with utilities with the ability to record (not a feature I have used yet) it promises only to get more important.

Zoho ( pretty much replaces the MS Office suite and my experience is that ZohoWriter particularly kicks butt. Am using Zoho Project and as a power user of Microsoft Excel I am amazed at Zoho Sheet (though miss the work offline feature). Not having used Office Office, I found both Zoho and Google presentation tools not as productive as good old PowerPoint on the local HDD. Got my neighbor using Zoho CRM (free for up to 3 users). Personally found the CRM feature, even for a motivated user like me, a bit heavy! Likely switch to

BaseCamp – was using this as my primary project management, planning, newsgroup tool for the last six months with other conspirators as we prepare for our next startup. Simplicity thy name is BaseCamp! I must admit though I have, since writing this first, switched to Zoho projects, as I needed to be able to track a whole slew of tasks, milestones that are overwhelming BaseCamp’s simple(r) lists.

Blogger, Twitter and WordPress
For a while there, I had to physically abandon my computer, so that I could get over my growing addiction with trolling blogs. Now even without a self-help group, am doing better though Blogger probably gets more use than it should; planning to move this and other blogs over to wordpress eventually and so spending time there in installation and learning about it. Twitter, though my own contributions are bite sized, a fair amount of time is spent reading/tracking others posts & leads. The jury is still out on it utility beyond serendipity.

GMail Drive – in addition to using of course Google mail and their news alerts, I just learnt how to use GMail as a virtual Hard Disk Drive on which I can store my files. Of course this requires installing a Win Shell extension. But 2GB of storage on a virtual drive is not bad! There is a Firefox plug-in gSpace that does the same thing as well. As many of you pointed out this is not a lot of space – but I got my mom (yep, mom) to use it, so simplicity trumps all else (again!). In my case I also have a 500Gb Seagate drive on my desk, so I don’t pretend 2Gb is all I’ll ever need. But its pretty good to start with.

I realized that there are a whole lot more tools I use including RememberTheMilk and LibraryThing, but the first three above hog 80% of my time and effort. If like me you are poor at backing up, it might not be a bad idea to check these out.

Five utilities that I can’t live without

When I read Marshall Kirkpatrick’s post Five Tools Everyone Working Online Should Have (IMHO) this morning on ReadWriteWeb, it triggered the thought about the five tools (ok call ’em utilities) that I can’t do without, especially when off line. This is somewhat ironical as I have over the last thirty days tried to move my entire electronic content on-line – basically trying to use my (now borrowed) laptop as a thin client. But that’s for another day, another post.

Yesterday my wife finally got her Dell Inspiron 1525 (in a truly inspiring blue) that your’s truly volunteered to set up and I realized that even without thought I loaded the following utilities first, so that her (and therefore my) off line experience stayed blissful (ok, maybe that’s stretching it). So without much ado, here are the five utilities without which I cannot get through my offline work day:

WordWeb its hard to say which was the chicken and which was the egg. That fact that I had WordWeb made me the local authority (not just to my two kids, but to colleagues) on words from the (not always) Queen’s language or that I positioned myself as the LA and found I could not maintain it without the help of WordWeb. Nevertheless, this tiny little program is an incredible dictionary and thesaurus, when offline and even better when you are off line. Get it today!

Gadwin ScreenPrint – for whatever reason I seem to need screenshots at the most inopportune moments and that too without the cursor, or with it and a delay built-in, or I need only portion of the screen/dialog box, want to save it file, clipboard or printer – you get the picture. Gadwin ScreenPrint is that it-slices-dices-makes-breakfast screen printing tool that doesn’t need even a high school diploma to operate.

Google Desktop is likely the second most used combo on my keyboard. This is one of those tools that make me wonder how we ever made do without it. Sure I hear muttering out there about how someone’s system got crawling after they installed GoogleDesktop but having installed this on five computers at last count, including my parents, I know that I’d install this in a moment’s notice again in my next computer as well. Never had much use for the sidebar but primarily use the quick search. I have probably improved my file naming protocols but am likely overly dependent on this utility to find that document I created last year on Why mushrooms don’t get their due credit or the scanned copy of my father-in-law’s passport.

Picassa – I’d have thought I’d have picked IrfanView as the utility of choice – but it turns out that I don’t do a whole lot of image gimmickry besides, storing, sorting and acting as the family image repository manager. And truth is we presently have far too much vested in Picassa, with location tagging as well as comments. Also I love the time based viewing of (searched) images so for instance, I can view a slide show of all pictures of my daughter Roz taken in Singapore in chronological order (don’t even ask why!)

iTunes – I am just spoilt. Despite its reluctance to easily convert my wife’s 300+ cassettes into digital music, iTunes is the music player of choice in our household and so it’s got to be there. This is particularly weird since none of the three (I can’t even find that original Shuffle) iPods we have in our house are actually used. But I never said this made sense.

Special mention (the only not-for-free app in my top list)

David RM’s Journal – journaling and practically most of my writing is done in this. You gotta experience it. Comes with an addictive free to use for forty five days trial period.

Even putting this list down helped me gain some insight on how I work – do most of my work with words (hence The Journal, WordWeb, Google Desktop), use pictures reasonably (Gadwin Screenshot, Picassa and IrfanView) and actually listen to music (even though moving all our content on to the 500Gb HDD remains a dream) from the computer (iTunes).

What gems do you have to work off line?

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