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Monday, November 28, 2011

Democracy in a Startup? Only if You Want Super Committee Type Results

I spent more than 14 years of my life working for the Federal Government on a Military Base.  During that time, the institution had countless changes in organizational structure and frequent interactions with political figures and military officers.  I have watched politics over the years and continue am always amazed by the partisan divide and lack of ability to come together on key issues.  This seems to have gotten worse recently with Congress and the “Super Committee” failing to come up with plan for deficit reduction.  The whole situation is just one example of why running a business on pure democratic principles is not a great idea.

The military exists in a political world and the USA military has as a major responsibility to protect this democratic system.  Yet the can you imagine running any war where a >50% vote is necessary before taking action.  That would be disastrous for the troops and the outcome would suffer for sure. In WWII, some generals directed their campaigns in a manner at odds with the leadership above them. Abraham Lincoln experienced this in the Civil War and had to replace multiple generals before putting Grant in charge.  Successful or not, the generals were replaced.  None of the generals ran their campaign by taking a vote!

Working with your team requires that obtaining feedback on ideas and making the team feel part of the business and its success.  It is essential to get your team involved and enthusiastic about the business.  Doing so will ensure the best ideas are put into place and programs run in the most optimal manner, but what if you decided to put every action to a vote?  It might work out ok, but more often than not, you will get bogged down and gave poor results, like Congress and the Super Committee.

Leadership takes many forms.  Generals want their troops to follow, but they may not care about popularity. Yet, some troops will do anything to support the military command because some officers are more than a person barking out orders.  Working with a team can be similar.  Work alongside them; earn their respect.  Having the team want to support you as their leader and the company is important.  Keep in mind, it is not possible to put everything to a vote and end up with important decisions. The reason being that there are many ways to solve a problem and not everyone on the team would solve it the same way.

As the CEO of the company, investors expect you to be a leader and take charge.  You are the person that the management team sees as the final decision maker.  This means you consider all information and get the team involved.  When it comes to the final decision, the CEO is the one that takes the blame if it goes wrong.  The CEO may get the credit when things go well, but the CEO can share this with the team as well.  Why not, sharing the credit helps to build and enhance the team.

I can go on about why Congress has difficulty in making decisions and getting results.  That is not the purpose of this article.  The real purpose is to make sure you know who is really in charge and that you remain prepared to make decisions when difficult ones come around.  They will come around, and YOU MUST DECIDE.  That is your job.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Meetings (UGH!)

If a company has 2 employees or more, meetings are absolutely essential to running a business.  Getting everyone on the same page and organizing tasks takes alone time and it takes team face time. The number and quality of meetings requires thought and planning.  Too many meetings and people cannot get their real work done.  Too few and you may not have the organization and timings you needed to accomplish a particular project.

Duration of meetings is something to consider.  I have been in meetings that lasted all day. But, everything could have been accomplished in about an hour.  I have also been in meetings where the boss runs in barks out some instructions and leaves; short meetings are liked for duration but may leave too much unclear.  After the a meeting of this type, everyone spends lots of time trying to figure out what they are supposed to do and how to get it done.

I kind of like the meetings that have a short presentation to set the background and outline what needs to be done.  If the boss does not know, then he leaves a slide for brainstorming discussions.  The goal of this time is to lay out the strategy and steps.  If the meeting is running too long, then consolidate the thoughts and have a second meeting to review and discuss the process and timings.

The better prepared the boss is, the better the meeting should flow.  It helps to take time to have individual discussions in advance in order to gain the background before calling the meeting.  The boss needs to be educated sometimes, but not in a long meeting with everyone in it.  Learning the info and planning prior to getting everyone together works better.

Sometimes, meetings for brainstorming can be done off site or around pizza.  Get everyone relaxed and toss out ideas.  Have someone keep notes and try to summarize the thoughts for later.  Brainstorming in a relaxed environment can yield ideas that are more creative if the team is not afraid of looking silly or stupid.

I have been in meetings where the boss just berated everyone in the meeting one by one.  Maybe that worked for him, but all it did was have everyone wanting to see the boss leave.  People want to be treated with respect.  Being intentionally aggressive or ugly to them in public is not a great way to build a team.

I particularly remember a boss that had a unique talent of having discussions that carried multiple meanings.  It took me 2 years to learn I had to pin him down on every point to make sure I understood what he really was saying.  Being unclear or too politically correct does not provide useful guidance to your team.  Figure how to make specific statements that are not ambiguous when you provide instructions to your team.

In short, meetings are essential.  Try to organize good meetings that get to the point and yield outcomes quickly.  People may learn to like you, work harder, try more, accomplish more, and meet your timelines; if you are not being a real ASS!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Do Not Go Virtual Without a QB or Coach!

Startups usually began with a single entrepreneur or a few working together.  One way to manage expenses and keep burn under control is using a virtual or semi-virtual work force.  This works great in many cases but requires more attention for the in-house management team. But sometimes, the in-house team is just YOU!

It is possible to run a company and develop products with a check book and a rolodex.  The business plan done well can provide a road map for the direction of the company on a 30,000 ft level. The real day-to-day activity takes more monitoring and hand holding; especially with a virtual team.

There are a can be advantages for having a virtual team.  Here are just a few:

·       The cost can be cut on a moment’s notice simply by canceling a contract

·       A highly experienced team can be assembled quickly with minimal risk.  Removal of personnel does not require firing people and having to deal with following personnel issues that are related to the removal

·       A change in direction is managed by alteration in agreements or retaining new people

·       Teams are assembled to fit project needs and go away when the project is over.

 A more important issue in having virtual teams is managing the programs the team is involved with.  This is not so much an issue as it is for you to know what is needed and how to deal with the virtual team.  There can be problems with any personnel and virtual teams do not eliminate this possible event.  Cost containment with virtual teams can be a concern, because contracts have overrun clauses that protect in case the scope of work exceeds what was originally requested.  Management of the programs requires careful monitoring just as if the people were in house.   The only problem is if you or the in-house team is missing a quarterback or a coach type person, you will not have enough experience to know what is to be done and when.

If you are considering having a virtual or semi-virtual team, the following is a list of items you may want to consider:

1.     Have a quarterback or a coach type in-house:  Regardless of the activity to be performed, someone in the company needs to know and understand most aspects of the  activity.  Developing a program and having a team means identifying the path to the goal and setting down objectives.  Then making sure the team is working toward the goal and completes objectives in in a timely manner.

2.     Have some type of project management software or method: It is possible to write down the timelines and objectives.  Assign the tasks to personnel and have them report back using paper and pencil.  There are software applications that can do this and use of such a method may be a bit easier to manage over a wide geographical area in which the team may reside.  Having the timelines and goals and the team reporting back by clicking on DONE, can be helpful in between calls or meetings. 

3.     Have REGULAR meetings or calls: The coach or QB really needs to monitor progress in real time and have regular discussions and reviews.  Problems can come up.  Having the calls can allow for adjustment of timings or changing path to achieve the goals.  Remember, if you do not understand and know the processes or tasks, the team can be doing things all wrong.  You may just end up unhappy and this will partly be your fault.

4.     Make a big deal over accomplishments or lack thereof:  The team needs to know how important the objectives and goals are.  Not meeting them or exceeding expectations is something requiring the right type of recognition.  Let them know when they have done a great job and when they have not.  If you are Coach or QB, remember that this is part of the job.

Taffy Williams is the author of:  Think Agile:  How Smart Entrepreneurs Adapt in Order to Succeed to via Amazon

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Just Because I Am a Hamster, Does Not Mean You Should Be!

OK, I admit it.  “I am a Hamster.”  I run on a wheel all day long but never seem to get where I want to be.  Over many years of working in a company, I was always a workaholic spending all my waking hours trying to achieve the goals that make a company successful.  Then one day, things go my way and I achieved everything I set out to do.  Now, POOF, I am working to be successful but with no real defined goal.

Someone recently asked me why I was writing so much.  My answer was rather simple, “No one was around to help me when I needed it.  I am trying to make it a bit easier on entrepreneurs.  After all, the economy really needs new businesses now.”  That is sort of a goal, but not a real business one; maybe a bit more altruistic, but not real money making business goal. There is no real way to measure my success.  Nor can I grasp the true success of the efforts.  In some respects, I am a Hamster on a wheel running as fast as my tiny little legs will go.

It is so easy to be a Hamster.  Just like riding a bicycle.  Put your helmet on, don’t look at the road and peddle.  It does not matter where you end up, only that you are working as hard as you can.  I do not know if I can reach my goal because I really do not have one.  But wow, I am running fast!  Wonder if that counts?  Maybe someone will see me run by and say “See Him Run Fast.”

In so many companies it is amazing to see how many people those are like the Hamster.  They never look up.  They have no idea what the goal is. They can’t possibly know if they ever reached it.  Most likely they have no real dreams to achieve either.  But, man can their little legs run on that Hamster Wheel. 

I bet you know people like me.  No dreams, no goals, just running.  Maybe you are there now!

So what does this have to do with being an entrepreneur or having a startup?  Well, remember when I said:

·       Create a business plan? 

·       An investor pitch?

·       A budget and 5 year projection?

That was not for your becoming a Hamster on the wheel.  It was to help you get off that thing and ensure you always stay on track. It is a living document and can be changed, but is should always define your goals.

You will find that is so easy to run around doing business without remembering what the goals are and knowing when you achieve them.  It is easy to get lost.  That plan was not just for your investors, it was for you TOO.  Use it to make sure your priorities are defined and that you are running toward achieving your goals.  Yes YOU MUST HAVE GOALS TO ACHIEVE THEM!

Next time you get on that wheel with your little legs running.  Stop a second and review what your goals were.  Maybe you need to adjust them, but reviewing what you wanted to achieve at the start of the business may help you get your focus back and get off that Hamster Wheel!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Do You Have A Closed Mind or Are You Really Interested?

Being an entrepreneur requires changing direction and activities regularly with the sole purpose of making things work.  This means trying to keep an open mind about how to get tasks accomplished.  It is sometimes hard to remain open to suggestions when you get too focused on how a project is to be completed.  Process is always important, but not always them the only thing that is required to get an outcome that meets the objectives.

Being a manager means having people around you helping to reach a common business goal.  They may be working directly for you or several levels down in the managerial chain.    In addition to full time staff, there are advisors, consultants, and partners that are working hard to make the company successful. Each of them has ideas on how to achieve the assigned tasks.  Some may go about in a circuitous route while others are direct and to the point.

The outcome may not always be exactly the same or what you originally wanted.  But what if it is much better?  The starting points are going to vary and the paths to the end point may be diverse.  In the end, there are a few key questions that you should ask:  1) is this what is needed, 2) did it cost more or less than expected, 3) does the end point provide a good outcome, and 4) can we get to where we need from here? 

It is hard to assist managers that have a fixed mind on what is desired and how to get there.  It is good to be focused in most cases, but not to the point that you are unwilling to consider other alternatives.  Believe it or not, others have ideas and may even have some better than yours!  The outcome and goals must match the need, or at least be better than what was originally desired. 

As an entrepreneur it is important that you need to intact with the team and understand what may be alternatives and whether they are better.  In short, when you ask advice:  Do you have A Closed Mind or Are You Really Interested?  Maybe, you will get much more than you desired just by listening and keeping an open mind.

Taffy Williams is the author of:  Think Agile:  How Smart Entrepreneurs Adapt in Order to Succeed to via Amazon  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Who Is That?

Networking is an essential part of building any startup. That is why I wrote 3 articles on networking for an online paper; 1) Networking, 2) Networking:  Essential for Job Search & Startups , and Networking Can Enhance Chances for Success in Your Startup.  The need for developing the skills to network and develop a great list of contacts requires practice for most people.  It is not natural to walk up to someone you have never met and enter into a discussion.  It is even harder to get them to reveal people you should meet or agree to introduce you to their friends.

In a recent meeting on Angel investing the message delivered by professional Angels was the exact same message delivered by Venture Capital investors in a meeting in the NC area; “we do not look at business opportunities that are not brought to us by people we know.”  In a sense, one of the filtering factors used by many people is to eliminate those sending information without an introduction or a known advocate.  By the way, this tends to be similar in many business development scenarios with prospective partners.

One of the primary tasks of any entrepreneur has got to be to develop a network that will help open doors.  Some of the contacts may serve as advisors, mentors, or board members, but the network really needs to be developed more globally.  For example, the legal firm, accounting firm, PR firm, and other service providers can help tap into sources of funding.  Making contact with new people at meetings and networking events is a great way to build a list of people you can rely on.

One great way to get to meet people at meetings is to get a really social friend to go with you.  For example, I have a friend that knows almost everyone in a particular city and has connections worldwide.  He loves to make introductions and sometimes calls himself a matchmaker.  Every time I go to a meeting where he is present, I hang around him.  One of two things usually happens;  1) people will come up to meet him and I get an intro, or 2) he sees someone across the room and flags them down just to make the intro.  This is so great that I have even used it to help my friends.  I have even modified it by flagging people I do not know.  I then introduce them to a friend just so I can meet them too.

Investment professionals that help startups raise capital have a special connection to the funding sources.  While these finders and bankers are helping you, their real client is the funding source.  They develop relationships with the fund managers just so they can get them to look at new investments.

Networking really goes well beyond anything I have addressed this far.  It is important in job search, getting to key people in any venue, developing new friends, and more.  So with that I can conclude:

Who is That?”          The Answer:  It is someone we need to know.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Hiring quality personnel in a startup is partly an art and partly a learning experience.  Most likely when creating the startup business plan, an organizational chart and budget was created for long term hiring.  The titles should fit the anticipated needs and the timings of the hires become part of the future projected budget. 

It takes time to collect resumes and interview each candidate.  Possibly, it cost a lot to retain a recruiter to help with the process.  Relocation expenses, bonus, options, and salary were negotiated.   The entire process has a singular purpose of selecting that stellar team that is going to make the company a success.

Development of a trained and smart group of people can make a huge difference in increasing the chances of success.  It takes some skill in managing the group to achieve tasks.  Some of the team will be managers of other employees and have more experience.  Hiring managers included a review of the ability to manage not just create or conduct functions that are needed.  Given the importance, time spent, and expense it is really important that entrepreneurs get their team engaged. 

One of the problems with startups is that experienced and new entrepreneurs are so eager to achieve success that they forget they have a team.  The entrepreneur has spent so much time pulling the company together, learning all aspects, and promoting the business that they tend to try and do everything alone.  Maybe, the entrepreneur wants actions done faster, done a specific way, or has not developed confidence in the team.  The reason is not important, but leaning to trust is.

Not developing a mechanism to set goals and allow your team to perform can lead to long term problems and possibly high turnover.  A lack of trust will develop in both directions.  The entrepreneur can miss out on great ideas the team can deliver.  The entrepreneur becomes too diluted to perform some really key tasks like raising funds or keeping investors happy.  The team will respond defensively and may feel the boss does not trust them.

One task the entrepreneur must learn is trust in the TEAM.  The entrepreneur needs to become familiar with setting specific objectives and monitoring the TEAM for achievement.  The TEAM may deliver on the objectives in a different manner than the entrepreneur would, but that is just fine.  Developing the trust and working with the TEAM should include encouragement of sharing new ideas and recognizing the team members for their contributions.

So learn to work as a TEAM LEADER and to treat the TEAM well.  Let them do their jobs!  If they fail, understand why.  Sometimes things just do not work.  If it is due to incompetence than make changes as needed. So what is the point of all this discussion:  You have a TEAM, USE THEM!