Monday, October 31, 2011

Entrepreneurs are lateral

Edward de Bono's writing on 'lateral thinking' was popular some years back, encouraging a creative approach to problem solving rather than simple logic. It's something I took to heart and have tried increasingly to practice.

But it seems to me that it's an approach that is of crucial importance to the entrepreneur. It's great to spend time with successful entrepreneurs and to share ideas because typically these people have a positive attitude and are willing to help. Talking through an idea often leads to others providing generous input, just for the sheer fun of it.

For example, I was describing our products to a successful business leader recently. We were thinking of taking things into a third industry sector and, with a background there, he helped to identify some problems and issues that we need to overcome in order to make it work. But then, quite unexpectedly, he suggested a completely different sector where we can make a difference ...

It was a perfect moment of lateral thinking creative genius; and it cost neither of us anything more than a few minutes and some mutual generosity of ideas. Too often, novice entrepreneurs and business leaders are scared to share, fearing that their ideas will be stolen by others. Occasionally that happens, and I've certainly had experience of being badly abused over the years by colleagues in business. But the risks of continuing to trust are worth taking - just occasionally they lead to a spectacular opportunity opening up, something that otherwise would be missed.
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

When integrity breaks down

One of the best definitions I heard is that integrity means saying what you'll do and doing what you say.

It's a quality that's actually quite hard to find: people say they'll call, or email, or pay, or turn up to a meeting ...

And what if they don't? Our clients and others notice the gap; they see how we behave with the little things; and then they make judgments about how we will operate with the big things. So the little stuff matters: they, too, need to be handled with integrity.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yet another number

So today I'm desperately in need of some telecoms rationalisation, but can't work out how to achieve it - I've even acquired yet another phone number; and I shudder at the proportion of household and business finances that telecoms soaks up.

I can do some cool things like call for an hour or more while driving (using a hands-free kit) to speak internationally to a landline, all as part of a flat-rate monthly charge of a few dollars. Or there have been times when I've called from 30,000 feet on an international flight and spoken to a cellphone in another country, at no charge. But it's getting a lot to manage, and I'm not sure I'm using all the services I pay for, and I don't know how anyone could unravel what I've established to figure it all out if they had to!

Here's what it looks like - any suggestions for improvements?
  • Landline home phone, without which I couldn't get broadband Internet, and for which I had to sign a 12-month minimum contract. I use the phone so rarely that I don't know the number.
  • The landline comes with a built-in VOIP (Voice over IP) phone number on which I can make incoming and outgoing calls; but I never do. I could hook that up to my fax machine, but I never send and receive faxes these days, either. And I have to check that my outgoing calls are made over the regular landline number (which has a call bundle attached) rather than the per-minute charges for the VOIP line.
  • Two iPhones (3GS with contracts expiring in 1Q 2012). Despite my travels my phone is almost always using WiFi and I make precious few incoming or outgoing voice calls as most contacts are by email, SMS or similar. And I'm pretty much surgically-attached to the iPhone 24/7
  • An Android phone, to which my daughter is surgically-attached. Again, mostly SMS rather than voice.
  • An incoming VOIP number in London, England; and another in New York City, USA. Both are for business use, but rarely ring as we've established that most contacts take place in some written form rather than voice.
  • Outgoing Skype 'Unlimited World' bundle, chiefly for calls to cell phones and landlines in America. Maybe I don't use all of each month's allowance, but I'm paying for the convenience.
  • Again, for convenience, I've got a local number I can call (from the iPhone, say) to dial out to a cell phone or landline internationally at no extra charge. It's part of the Skype bundle, along with voice mail.
  • I use Skype for voice, video and computer screen-sharing almost daily. But I've got two other screen-sharing programs also, in case the person I'm talking to doesn't have Skype. Neither costs me anything and I almost never need them, but they're a stand-by...
  • Now, today, I've got yet another gadget to the mix: when visiting a client I connected to their internal WiFi network, but found that some of the extra security we've wrapped around the network traffic our software generates wouldn't get through their firewall ... So today I've purchased a USB 'dongle' that lets me connect a laptop to the 3G phone network. I know I could have 'tethered' the iPhone(s) to the laptop to achieve a similar thing, but I didn't want to commit to that on an iPhone contract that's got less than six months left to run... Trouble is, I've now got yet another phone number that I can use to send and receive SMS, this time via my laptop.
  • I've still got 800+ SMS text message credits left over from a project we folded a while back. They're not going to expire any time soon, but I do need to find a use for them as I won't get my money back.
It feels like I've missed something(s) out, but there's plenty here to keep track of: and that's even after I cancelled the ten VOIP direct dial numbers for the business that just weren't getting enough use to justify their cost!
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Visionary or gatekeeper?

Back when I was starting out it was fashionable to talk about 'leaders' and 'laggards' or those 'on the bleeding edge.' Now, though, there's a more insidious problem: the visionaries are being held back by the gatekeepers.

One of my clients is headed up by a visionary CEO. This individual really grasps the importance of staying a step ahead of the competition and making a bet on ways of innovating business process to achieve an edge and  maximize profit.

Trouble is, the CEO is held back by others in the organization who just don't 'get it.' They're the gatekeepers, not always in the Finance department, who want proof that the innovation will work before they'll sign off on pushing forward. Their caution leaves the goal wide open for someone else's striker to score first and risks them playing catch-up when they could have been setting the pace.

So what to do? I'm proposing a way forward that involves bite-sized steps, an 'agile' approach that doesn't make too many demands - or commitments - and enables the organization to try things out slowly.
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Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't try to sell through social media

It doesn't take much experience of the online world for people to get wise to how it works: many of us automatically 'tune out' the advertisements that appear on so many web pages. And it's even more important not to try to sell directly through Twitter and Facebook - it's one of the fastest ways to get un-followed or un-friended.

Instead, try to demonstrate expertise and knowledge. Or use it as a way to distribute content that adds value to your audience.

It'll be found via Google; and it'll be shared and linked to; and eventually the phone might ring or an email might come through, though it's certainly hard to measure tangible returns for the time that goes into the activity.
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Polishing the pitch: benefits make this a no-brainer

So I've got a couple of important meetings with prospects next week and today I've been polishing the pitch. At the moment I think the opening should be something along the lines of

"If I could show you a way to increase your customer retention rate, increase your revenue through cross-sell and up-sell opportunities while increasing customer contact at a lower cost, would you be interested?"

How does that sound? I think that with our team's ability to deliver on those things, working with us should be a bit of a no-brainer; but there's no accounting for all the things that can throw a spanner in the works, especially in this uncertain economic climate.
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Never seen a vacuum cleaner?

I had an interesting meeting this morning with the buying manager of a multi-national. Naturally, part of his role is to play hardball and not to care about anything much beyond his financial bottom line. But, after putting forward our proposition, I thought of a useful analogy:

If I'm selling you a vacuum cleaner your natural question is why mine is better than Hoover or Dyson. But if you've never seen a vacuum cleaner before I've got to start further back and convince you that there's a better alternative to a broom and dustpan.

We've built something that breaks new ground and pioneers a new way of doing things that cuts costs, increases revenue and delivers competitive edge. But because there's no Hoover or Dyson to compare us to we've got to find the visionary, pioneering early adopters who are willing to steal a march on their competition and get ahead of the game.

Challenging. And a longer sales cycle than I'd like!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Limiting how you are tracked

There have been recent revelations that Facebook is capable of tracking your moves across the Internet. Apparently, this is true whether you have a Facebook account or not. It works whether you are logged in to Facebook or not; and you can be identified just from details of your computer's browser. Here's my source for these claims.

In response, the EFF produced this checklist of things you can do to limit (not stop) the tracking:
  • Install Firefox addons like Ghostery, ShareMeNot, Abine’s Taco, and/or AdBlockPlus to limit online tracking. None of these is perfect and each works a little different; check out this guide for a discussion. Also consider installing the Priv3 Firefox extension, which is still in beta.
  • Use private browsing mode.
  • Adjust the settings in your browser to delete all cookies upon closing. Clear your cookies when leaving a social networking site, and log out of Facebook before browsing the web. 
  • You should consider having one browser strictly for logging into your Facebook account and one browser for the rest of your web usage.
  • Support privacy legislation which will give users a voice when it comes to online tracking.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Robert @Peston entertains on the economy

My father-in-law's bruised knee was my good fortune last Saturday as I gained his ticket to hear Robert Peston, Business Editor for the BBC, speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

I'd recently read Peston's book Who runs Britain? and have been alarmed at the number of friends in the banking world who have found his insights in the book have educated them about their own industry!

Here's what I Tweeted as Peston spoke last Saturday:
  • Robert Peston at #cheltlitfest starting out humorously. Interview format talking re his dad Lord Peston
  • Peston arguing for high ethics: as a business journalist he refuses to own shares in a company, even if disclosed cd case bias [Peston feels that even if he disclosed his share ownership people might think that his journalism was influenced by the ownership: so he chooses not to own shares in the first place.]
  • Peston #cheltlitfest "If you can't explain in simple terms what you do, you don't understand what you do." [I don't think I'd heard it put this way before, but I completely agree: there's a great talent to be able to explain complex stuff in simple terms. And Peston went on to argue that the bankers fundamentally failed to understand the complexities of their products in simple terms.]
  • Peston #cheltlitfest world mess = "Too much debt (all of us) in the rich West" Borrowed 400% of what we earn! [Peston argued that it wasn't just bankers or governments, but ordinary
    borrowers too who binged on debt.]
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest "We maintained living standards by borrowing to buy what we want" > Illusion we are getting wealthier
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest eg China made stuff; sold stuff; saved income... We borrowed (from them) to buy the stuff they made
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest we must save more, spend less; but not q now else economy will stall - Dependent on consumer spending
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest UK consumers ratio of debt to income is 165%
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest we can't live on debt for ever. But politics now about making tough choices w scarce resources
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest Germany essentially has to be prepared to use it's resources to bail out all other European countries! ;)
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest German wealth recently built up by selling stuff to Greece etc and by loaning them money [so "don't feel too sorry for them" was his point!]
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest Banking at its best is a socially v useful function.
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest But banks played major role in crisis by hiding degree of risk & money creation to boost own pay
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest but anger doesn't get us v far even if it is legitimate
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest real capitalism is about allowing rewards of success but also results of failure.
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest in the good years bankers have taken the bonuses; in the bad years tax payers have been made to take losses [So the bankers were reckless, knowing that they'd win big if their bets were successful; and that they'd be bailed out by tax payers if they failed.]
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest rest of world thought eurozone was working so allowed weaker countries to borrow at favorable (German) rates [So one of the eurozone failures is simply that the level of risk across the economic zone is not homogenous; but interest rates and currency levels do not fluctuate within the zone to price for that variance.]
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Friday, October 7, 2011

your data: gain control

One of the emerging trends that businesses must acknowledge and capitalise on is that users own their data and should be able to to control what is done with it.

Too often, data is broadcast or leaked without a full understanding of the implications: many web services and smart phone applications don't even publish a Privacy Policy, still less one that's clear to understand and succinct.

Expect businesses that grasp the importance of this emerging trend to profit ahead of those that don't.
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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The life of an entrepreneur is hard

"Business is just in general harder these days, and the life of an entrepreneur is harder still."

A friend and experienced businessman wrote these words to me overnight from South America where he's been pursuing some interesting opportunities these past few months.

They struck a chord with me, echoing my own experience: it all just moves so much more slowly in these times of great economic uncertainty. Typically, small entrepreneurial companies can see an opportunity and move fast. But sooner or later, we need to engage with more established businesses, often for distribution arrangements or direct sales. And they move at glacial pace!

Even with support from the most senior executive, many organizations are stuck almost in paralysis:
  • An IT director responded to his boss's request to set up a meeting with me suggesting February of next year! (I think they might have other issues than simply busyness!)
  • Another company recently indicated that their due diligence process is likely to last more than six months, by which time the marketplace - and their competitors - will have moved on.
  • The more people who get involved in a decision (necessary to make sure all angles are covered, and no one neck is on a chopping block) the more easily derailed progress can be: today's meeting got pushed back a couple of weeks because of a re-scheduled board meeting and it'll be two weeks before we can get everyone together again...
With issues like these, entrepreneurs need to retain vision and enthusiasm and dogged persistence. Today's news and Twitter streams are bombarded with tributes to Steve Jobs of Apple whose death was reported today. One of his greatest achievements was in modelling this kind of self-belief and persistence in the face of adversity.

I'm grateful for those around me who "get it" and believe in what we're doing. Their enthusiasm often tops mine up and together we are better than we could be individually.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tech cutting costs of business

We've had incoming calls this week, wanting to take #StarfishCI to new industry verticals and new customers. Great!

Now, there's no substitute for in-person meetings where the detail can be tailored to a customer's or prospect's individual circumstances. We still take those opportunities whenever we can.

However, it's not always possible to schedule the travel or get the time booked in calendars in a reasonable time frame. For that reason, we are making extensive use of screen-capture software and video technology to host short movies that others can view on demand, at a time that suits. Coupled with interactive meeting software, including video calls, and our travel bill has gone way down!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Data-mining on Kindle

I can't decide whether or not to buy an Amazon Kindle. Having replaced all my CDs with digital files on my iPhone and similar, it seems like a good idea to save shelf space (and trips to Ikea to buy the shelves) by using digital books, too.

But there's something a bit creepy about claims that Kindle 'phones home' to Amazon to report on a regular basis ... Apparently, it doesn't just record what I read, but how long I spend on each page of a book, and whether I highlight text, or make notes ...

And the new 'Silk' browser for the Amazon Kindle 'Fire' will know even more: not just about the books I read, but the web pages I visit, and the prices that others quote for the things I'm interested in, and which Amazon might want to sell to me...

It's true that other browser suppliers could do the same data-mining; but, so far, they haven't and - unlike Amazon - they don't already have my credit card details on file!

Here's a guide to e-book privacy.
How much loss of privacy is convenience and space-saving worth?
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