Existential Threats to the Entrepreneur

That’s an ominous sounding title for this blog – right? But not necessarily for reasons you might be thinking. When most entrepreneurs think about what can “kill them” – in a metaphorical sense – they might list undercapitalization, the inability to hire a qualified and competent workforce, or chronic issues with their product. While these can be serious problems, they are much less severe than the existential threats I’m going to discuss.

I believe that the most menacing threat to an entrepreneur’s existence is his or her own mindset. Do we truly believe we can succeed, or do we feel victimized and constantly under siege? Great entrepreneurs are eternal optimists. We know we can win – there’s no doubt about it. We will pivot when we have to, but we are absolutely convinced that we will reach the Promised Land – whatever that might represent for our endeavor. Entrepreneurs who are too skeptical or pessimistic are destined to fail. They become tentative and can be paralyzed when making important decisions. Negative Nellies will usually crash and burn. They live in a world of lack and limitation. They can’t escape the negative energy that always surrounds them and eventually impacts their team.

Hand-in-hand with the negative mindset is another existential threat – that of low resilience. Look, we entrepreneurs get beaten up a lot. We make a ton of mistakes. We hear from plenty of people who don’t like us or what we are doing. If we can’t get up off the ground when we’re knocked down, then we’ll die lying there – again, metaphorically speaking. And it’s not just the ability to bounce back that’s critical. We do so with a smile on our face and new resolve that we have actually taken a step toward success with our setback. Does that sound contradictory? It’s this kind of thinking – that we’re actually moving forward when it seems that we’re failing – that is the real definition of resilience. The existential threat melts away when we are always tougher than the problems we encounter.

The next existential threat is that of a lack of vision. Entrepreneurs absolutely must be able to see into the future. The ability to be a visionary also leads us to think more strategically and work on our business more than in our business. An entrepreneur who is a good operator but lacks vision will eventually “die.” It may be a slow death, but death nonetheless. Why? Because without a vision – especially one that inspires our team – we are simply stirring the pot. Over time, things begin to unravel. Key people leave because the future is unclear. Important customers leave because a competitor (with vision) has offered a more innovative product or service. Rather than create a clear vision, the operator-entrepreneur takes tactical actions to try and solve the problem. This may include belt-tightening measures or price increases, neither of which addresses the underlying issue. R.I.P.

Poor communications skills are another existential threat to entrepreneurs. This encompasses many elements. The entrepreneur who can’t persuade through artful communications won’t be able to sell his or her ideas to customers, team members or anyone else. The entrepreneur who is unable to communicate effectively will have difficulty building important relationships. When communications are non-existent or garbled at best, misunderstandings will occur and feelings are hurt. I have found that a very large percentage of challenges that we encounter are the result of inadequate communications. Entrepreneurial leaders must communicate clearly, concisely and constantly to eliminate this existential threat.

There’s one more existential threat that’s a biggie. Entrepreneurs who operate without integrity will eventually die. Our stock in trade is our integrity. It matters not how positive and optimistic we are, how strong our ability to bounce back, how grand our vision might be, and how well we communicate, if we lack integrity we’re dead as a doornail. Customers want to do business with entrepreneurs who are honest and forthright. Team members want to work for entrepreneurs who always do the right thing. Of course there are examples abound of CEOs and companies that seem to have “gotten away” with underhanded behavior. It may take a month, a year or even longer, but eventually the jig is up. Maybe it’s karma or there’s some other explanation, but the entrepreneurs who don’t play it straight will lose in the end.

There are many existential threats to entrepreneurship. A negative mindset, low resilience, a lack of vision, poor communications skills and a deficiency in the integrity department, top the list.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 112 – Asshole Self-Test.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Trust Me . . .

There’s a priceless element to an entrepreneur’s success when it comes to his or her customers, employees and investors. This element can be broken. It can be elusive. And it can be very difficult to regain when lost. Of course I’m talking about “trust.” But this isn’t so much a blog about trust as it is one of the foundational components to building trust. Let’s explore the concept of transparency.

Transparency is a word that is used a lot these days – sometimes it becomes a bit trite as well as overused. Don’t you just love print advertising and television commercials that implore us to “trust” the company peddling the product? My guard goes up when I hear this sort of naked appeal – I probably am much more cynical about companies that resort to this messaging. If we start with the premise that “trust” is the given baseline, why then, is there a need to say, “Trust me?”

If I do a poor job of delivering what I promise to my customers, I’d much rather admit in an open and honest manner that I screwed up. Too many times we see companies stonewall, deny and otherwise obfuscate when the train goes off the track. Of course this results in mistrust rather than accomplishing whatever we had hoped for by not being transparent. The old saying that the cover-up is worse than the crime certainly applies here!

Transparency begins with the basic core value of integrity. Either we have it or we don’t. We use this core value to guide us in the actions we take to fulfill transparency. I know that there are those who will say, “I’d like to be more transparent but in today’s litigious society I can’t say what I really want to say – I’ll be sued if I do!” However, there are ways to be open and honest without creating legal jeopardy.

We must also remember that most people don’t like surprises – at least not the negative kind. This is especially true when we’re working with our team members and investors. A number of years ago we acquired some land and launched a residential subdivision which turned out to be a bad idea. Shortly after we completed the purchase, installed the streets and sold our first three lots, the financial world came to an end (2008 – 2009). Our lot sales came to a screeching halt and remained very anemic for several years thereafter. We had raised substantial investor equity for this project and needless to say, the lack of sales was a difficult thing to report. Nevertheless, we dutifully wrote and sent investor reports every year laying out the facts. There was no sugarcoating nor did we try to sound overly hopeful. Eventually there was good news to report and we were naturally pleased to do so. I’ve been told by several of our investors that they never lost confidence or trust in us because we were totally transparent throughout the process. It also helped that we explained in detail what we were doing to try and solve the problem.

Transparency means getting in front of the message rather than being behind the curve. Here’s an example. We learned that a major employer was about to close its doors in a market where we had an apartment property. Immediately, we contacted the investor and let him know that this was happening and apprised him of how we thought this closure might impact the property. We also laid out our plan of action for minimizing the negative impact to the investment. He was also an investor in another property in the same market that was handled by one of our competitors. He told us he never heard from the competitor and appreciated the fact that we delivered bad news as soon as we knew it. Our transparent approach built trust and enabled us to do more business with this investor.

Transparency is one of the cornerstones of trust. By operating with integrity we are never afraid to deliver good news or bad, and share all that is relevant with our customers, team and investors.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 24 – Disruptive.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

transparency

The Zone of Doom

What do we dread most in our business and personal lives today? No, it’s not losing. When that happens, we simply pick ourselves up and go after it again. And it’s not being overwhelmed by our workload. We solve this with a few adjustments to time management and delegating to other team members. Our biggest “dread” is insidious and frustrating beyond belief. Here’s an example of what happens. We’re attempting to do business with someone. We’re past the cold calling stage and actually have been interacting with other party. We send an e-mail and wait a day or two. Then we call and leave a voicemail. Perhaps we even send a text. A week goes by with radio silence. We’re officially in the Zone of Doom.

The Zone of Doom is the black hole of non-responsiveness. Unfortunately it’s become an epidemic. With caller ID many people simply ignore calls from those of us with whom they do not wish to speak. Blowing off e-mails is even easier. I know I sound like an old geezer, but when I was growing up in the business world I quickly learned that protocol dictated the return of every phone call the same day or next morning. We didn’t have e-mail back then so letters and memos were the standard for written communications. The expectation was that the response be immediate. There never was any thought of not responding at all. In fact, when someone slipped and failed to provide a timely response, the word usually got back to corporate leadership and there was hell to pay.

The biggest challenge relayed to me by members of our team is that their interactions with so many people outside the company are one-way. Simply trying to reach people is so much harder than ever before. Long ago, I resolved not to fall into this category. I think I’m about 95% true to this resolution. I do return my phone calls in a timely fashion – though I will admit that there may be a cold call here or there from a salesperson that I miss. I believe most people will attest to the fact that I usually return all my e-mails the same day if not the same hour.

So how are we supposed to deal with the Zone of Doom?  How are we supposed to do business when people are so unresponsive? There’s no question that failure to respond is not acceptable. But we must ask ourselves what might be the root cause for our receiving the silent treatment? This goes beyond the fact that people are busy. It all boils down to priorities. Think about how we develop our own set of priorities. What goes at the top of the list and what goes at the bottom? I find that the things that are most important are those which are most impactful to my business and my life. It’s a pretty good bet that others set their priorities in the same manner. When I’m trying to reach someone else I try to bear in mind whether or not communicating with me will make that much difference to the other person. There’s the word . . . difference.

We must be able to differentiate ourselves when competing with someone else’s priorities. Is what we are attempting to communicate really that important to them? If not, then what can we do to push it up toward the top of the ladder. This is where relationship building becomes so important. I’ve written many times that relationships are all about service. I’ve found that the harder I work to establish and serve a relationship the more likely someone will reciprocate my attempt to communicate. You may be thinking, “How can I possibly build and serve relationships with everyone with whom I come into contact?” No one said it would be easy. Relationships take time to build and there’s no time to waste. Any and every little thing that can be done to help someone else builds that relationship. Many business people seek to establish relationships to benefit themselves. If we do it differently and make every attempt to help others, our efforts will be recognized as genuine and authentic.

We can avoid the Zone of Doom by building relationships for the purpose of serving others. And through our relationships, we move up the priority list of those we are serving.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

abyss

The “Disneyland” Story

We’ve explored the concept of Vision in this blog before. But I’d like to share a technique that has worked for me – perhaps you’ll find it valuable too. Simply put, vision is “what it looks like when we get there.” Remember when we were young and a family vacation to Disneyland was being planned? What was the focus? It wasn’t so much on the long journey to get there. Instead, we could see ourselves riding in the Tomorrowland Jets (long gone now) or in a Matterhorn Bobsled. We could taste the cotton candy and hear the whistle on the Mark Twain Riverboat. In other words, we had a vision in our minds-eye of what we were going to experience.

As entrepreneurs we have that same vision. The problem for most of us is that it remains trapped inside our heads. We struggle to articulate it to others. And so our team members punch the clock every day with no clear idea of “what it looks like when we get there.” It seems pretty clear to us, but they don’t have a clue.

I’ve been struggling with communicating my vision for many years. I often launch initiatives and undertake projects that all make sense within the framework of my vision – but to others it seems like a helter-skelter approach to something that is undefined. At times, members of our team have expressed frustration with the process and begged for a clearer picture. I’ve tried reducing my vision to writing, but a few bullet points later even I’ve been uninspired.

At the urging of a friend and former colleague I took another stab at it recently. But instead of trying to put it on paper in a concise one or two paragraph manner I went a different direction. I decided to tell a story. I mocked up a Wall Street Journal masthead and put myself in the shoes of a WSJ reporter writing a profile of my company – ten years in the future. I actually picked the name of a real reporter and the date on the masthead was really ten years out. And then I told the story in considerable detail. What unfolded were several aspirations; explanations of how the aspirations were to be achieved, and ensuing measures of success. I quoted real people. I talked about how our customers were going to feel. Our culture was highlighted and several strategies were outlined. One thousand seven hundred and seventy words later a clear picture emerged representing “what it looks like when we get there.”

I’ve started sharing the vision story with various teams – our Executive Leadership Team, Senior Managers Team, etc. My vision needs to become a shared vision and I’m eager and willing to tweak it so that it is inspiring to as many members of the team as possible. We’re beginning to work backwards from what it looks like ten years in the future, to identify the various strategies that will be needed to reach the vision. Clearly there’s a lot of work to be done – but finally; for the first time in more than 40 years, everyone has a clear picture of where we’re going.

If you’ve been having a tough time articulating your vision, I encourage you to write your own story. And if writing isn’t really your thing, sit down with someone who has the gift of prose and tell him or her the story from your heart. This person can serve as your translator and put on paper the story that you will share with your team. You’ll have several re-writes. You’ll add, delete, clarify, expand and fine tune. Just remember that the final product should be inspirational. It should be as big and bold as you desire. And anyone reading it should come away without any doubt about “what it looks like when we get there.”

We all have a Disneyland image of some sort for the organization to which we have committed so much of our lives. We can share it with others through a storytelling process that creates clarity and a call to action.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Disneyland

Simplicity

In today’s business world there is a constant drumbeat for clear communications. And without a doubt, we’ll find a lack of clear communication at the root of many of the issues that we have with each other. OK, I get it. We need to communicate more clearly. But here’s something you won’t hear as often. There is also a need to simplify our communications. Sometimes we may think we are communicating clearly when in fact the message we are conveying is so convoluted and complicated that our audience gets lost.

I’m involved with a venture capital business that screens large numbers of start-up companies in the biotech space as we look for potential investments. One company in particular stands out from the rest – not because of the product it was developing, but because its pitch was so impossible to understand. We have some technical people on our board as well as advisors with whom we work, and no one understood what the pitch was all about. This company used highly technical terminology and language that no one ever hears in day-to-day conversation. I suppose that it’s possible that the product could have been an amazing breakthrough in its field. But we’ll never know because we declined to invest for the simple reason that we couldn’t understand the pitch. Here’s an excerpt from the pitch summary.

(XYZ) technology allows RNA to be manufactured using well proven large scale fermentation processes. Prior to (XYZ) manufacturing innovations these large scale fermentation processes were not viable because of the ubiquitous and unavoidable presence of RNAses (enzymes that break down RNA) in the fermentation process environment. (XYZ) technology sequesters, inside a protein capsid, the RNA as it is produced thus protecting it from RNAse degradation. This protein capsid protects the RNA allowing subsequent isolation and purification. There is also a high level of interest in using the protein encapsidated RNA as a delivery mechanism.

The preceding is an extreme illustration of overly-complicated communications. But there are countless examples that occur daily to a lesser degree. I moderate panel discussions at several apartment industry conferences each year. We talk about a number of aspects of the business including debt, equity, construction and operations. Often we have audience members who are new to the industry. While the subject matter can be complex at times, the bigger problem is all of the acronyms that are the plague on our house.

It doesn’t matter whether the communication is written or verbal, we must redouble our efforts to simplify, simplify, simplify. When we write like we speak, we tend to accomplish this objective. And if we think before we speak, it’s likely our communication will be understood. Guarding against ego-creep is also in our best interest. We’ve all seen the pontificators who like to show everyone how smart they are by spouting a bunch of intellectual-sounding mumbo jumbo. Staying humble and being respectful of the audience’s desire to understand what we are communicating should be our guiding principle.

A man or woman of few(er) words conquers rambling purveyors of verbosity every time. Striving for clarity and simplicity in our communications will ensure that we are persuasive and convincing.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

einstein lecture

A Warm Blanket

I was waiting for a flight and a lady came to the ticket counter from an adjoining gate and asked the attendant if an announcement could be made about the status of the flight from that gate. Apparently it was past the departure time; the monitor revealed nothing, and there was no airline person at the gate. A few minutes later an announcement about the delay was made, but not after several moments of irritation on the part of the passengers waiting for that flight.

Why is it that so many companies communicate so poorly with their customers – especially when things aren’t going quite right? Common sense tells us that communications should be amplified in such instances. And yet it seems that there is a bit of a “run and hide” mentality when the train runs off the tracks. Airlines may be the worst where this is concerned – we all have more airline stories than we can remember. But this malady is shared across the business spectrum. While visiting a resort community in California, I walked past a grocery store that had a sign on the door at midday saying, “Closed – Computers Down.” Customers were trying to open the locked door and shook their heads after reading the sign. What a missed opportunity!

There are a couple of reasons why this happens, neither of which are good. The first is a cultural issue. If a company adopts the philosophy that the customer comes first, then its response to anything going awry impacting the customer will be immediate, complete and ongoing communications. Anything less is contrary to a customer-first culture. We entrepreneurs must decide if we are going to embrace such a culture and if so, determine the steps that we are going to take to ensure that come hell or high water the customer will always be wrapped in a warm blanket. Which brings us to the second reason why many companies fail at communicating effectively when things go wrong.

A company may have every intention of effectively communicating with its customers through thick and thin. But unless there is a clearly defined strategy that translates into actionable steps for every member of the team, there’s no way that successful implementation can happen. Take the airlines for instance. I have trouble believing that they don’t have great customer service as an intention. However, there’s no other explanation than there’s a disconnect somewhere between their strategy and putting it into practice.

In our respective organizations, we can make certain that our strategy and implementation are seamless through simulation. This involves identifying every possible mishap that could occur, causing issues for our customers. Next we can create a step-by-step process for dealing with these problems while maintaining a constant focus on how we smooth the way for our customers. It will require a combination of urgency, honesty, straightforwardness, empathy, clarity and frequency. In other words, we’re going to quickly tell our customers what has happened in clear and concise terms. We aren’t going to lie – if the airplane is broken, we’ll tell them that the airplane is broken and not make up some other excuse. We will apologize for any inconvenience and take the necessary steps to make things as painless for the customer as possible – even if it costs us some money. And we will continue to communicate early and often until the situation is resolved. Every member of our team will know exactly how they are supposed to make this happen and we will practice, practice and practice some more.

If we truly care about our customers, our bottom line will be the better for it. Thus, we should do everything in our power to make sure that the customer has a positive experience even when we have trouble delivering our products or services.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

electric blanket

Hello, Hello?

Question: I’m having trouble getting someone to answer my business e-mails. I’ve thought about sending a text message but wonder if it’s appropriate. Should I do this?

Answer: I would do something else first. Pick up the phone and call the person. I’ve written about this subject before but I believe the message is worth repeating. For some reason we aren’t calling each other as much anymore. This trend is especially prevalent with the millennial generation.

So what is happening to some of the basic forms of communications these days? I still receive a letter occasionally – usually in the form of a PDF document sent to me electronically. Ninety-nine percent of the snail mail I receive is junk that gets tossed. We send massive numbers of e-mails. Text messages are as commonplace as waking up in the morning. We Tweet and we re-Tweet. We send private messages via Facebook and can e-mail through LinkedIn. In other words, it’s easier for us to be in touch 24/7 than ever before. But are we truly in “touch?”

My phone hardly rings anymore. In the mid-80s my company had two full-time receptionists who processed thousands of calls each day. They wrote message slips that we used for returning our calls. Voicemail was not yet fully developed. Today some companies don’t even have a live person answer the phone. An automated attendant handles the function in a very sterile and antiseptic manner. We tried that for a while and realized how much we didn’t like it. Now a live person answers our phone.

I’ve become a champion of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. It’s not that I have a problem with e-mail or text messages, but I miss the human-to-human personal interaction. All of the modern electronic methods of communications are one-dimensional and lack the ability to convey true feelings. Oh, and what we say (or don’t say) in an e-mail or a text can easily be misconstrued.

Not only have I become a champion of the phone, I’m also a big fan of videoconferencing. When you and I talk, or better yet, when we see each other and talk, the dynamic changes considerably. We can hear voice inflection and read facial expressions and body language. I constantly hear people complain about their e-mails being ignored. We’re at the point where ignoring e-mails may even be excusable when the guilty party throws up his/her hands and says, “I’m sorry. I get 200 e-mails a day and can’t possibly keep up!” Maybe we can all relate. There’s something different about the phone however. Perhaps the etiquette standards are higher. Of course there are people who blow off phone calls too, but I find the percentage to be lower than those ignoring e-mails.

We can improve our chances of building lasting relationships and communicating more effectively when we make that simple phone call. Give me a call sometime. I’d love to chat.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

phone talk