So…. Now what?

I’ve been coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs for a handful of years now, and a regular part of that interaction is working with them to figure out what to do next.  Many times it comes down to simply not knowing the next step in a process they are unfamiliar with, and I am.  Other times it’s a “forest for the trees” thing.  Then sometimes, it’s a much more personal thing.

This became a post-worthy topic the other day when a college entrepreneur I had been working with for a few years, talked with me about deciding to quit pursuing the start-up she had been working on.  There were the usual feelings of guilt and defeat which we worked through fairly quickly.  Then she caught me off-guard a bit.

“I’ve known for a while I didn’t want to pursue this anymore, but what really held me back is not knowing what to do next.  I’m very goal-oriented and not having any new goals to replace this business really hindered me truly letting go of it.”

Whether it’s the typical entrepreneur with so many ideas she doesn’t know where to start, or my college graduate who was afraid to move on with nothing to move on to, sometimes you need a simple way to figure out where to head next.  It’s a fairly common question I deal with in a fairly simple manner.

First – Narrow the Field

A very simple exercise you can do to narrow down your options, is the tried and true Pro/Con method.  Take a piece of paper or spreadsheet and create four columns.  Label the columns “Idea”, “Pros”, “Cons”, and “$$”.  Write all your ideas in the Idea column.  Then for each idea, start to document all the good things about it under “Pros” and all the challenges you will face under “Cons”.

The “$$” column is optional and meant to represent some ideas around how much money it will take to get started.  This could be a simple Low/Medium/High ranking, or you could get more specific if you like.

How much or how little detail you write is up to you – just keep the level of detail relatively the same for all your ideas.  Also – this doesn’t have to be done in one sitting.  Keep your list handy and work on it whenever you get a few minutes, or make it a task to do on a Friday night; it’s completely up to you.  Let your own sense of completion guide when the list is done and ready for review.

Once you feel your list is complete, take a comprehensive read back through it.  Normally, most people I work with find a number of ideas that just naturally fall off the list for a variety of reasons.  Too many Cons, not enough Pros, or maybe too costly to start up.  This process should really help you winnow down your list of What’s Next options.

So what do you with the small number of ideas you have left?  Run them through the Golden Triangle, of course!

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle

I’m not sure where I read about this, even less sure it was actually called the Golden Triangle, but that’s what I call it and it’s very useful.

The Golden Triangle is that place where your passion, ability and connections align for any particular endeavor.  While not a predictor of success, nothing is, it is a great place to start.

Taking the ideas that survived the Pro/Con exercise above, create another four column list with those ideas in the first column.  Just like before, to whatever level of detail suits you, document how those ideas fit your passion, your ability and your connections.

For example, I’m a runner.  Let’s say I had an idea for a new type of treadmill I was thinking I might want to pursue.

Working at a company that has an entire consulting division helping customers with Product Development and having run a product-focused incubator for 5+ years, I have fairly good connections in the product development space.  I’ve also been a lifelong runner, so I have a good connections in the running and general fitness space as well.  Green light in Connections!

Having coached entrepreneurs for a while now, and previously been a software developer, I have a fairly well-developed toolkit for project management, business development and business planning.  I’ve also helped a number of entrepreneurs pitch and raise significant money from investors and clients.  That said, I’ve never personally built a new product, nor started a company myself.  Let’s give this one a Yellow light tending toward Green.  So far so good.

As a lifelong runner competing in ultra-marathon events you would think Passion would be a no-brainer green light as well.  Here is where things get tricky and this simple little exercise can not be so simple.  My passion is for running, not necessarily for designing, building, pitching and ultimately manufacturing and selling a piece of exercise equipment.  While I have a strong amount of passion for running and fitness in general, the idea on the list is not running, it’s creating a company around a new piece of fitness equipment.  Quite an undertaking.  While I do like creating things and building programs, starting a capital-intensive fitness equipment company from the ground up is not something I want to tackle right now.  Yellow light tending towards red!

In the end – This idea goes from top of the list, to off the list in two simple steps, freeing up precious time and energy for other ideas with better rankings.

What’s your Process?

That’s my simple process for helping entrepreneurs and personal coaching clients think through the question “Now What?”  As you can see, simple as it is, it can be helpful to have someone guide you through the process to think objectively.

What’s your process for figuring out where to guide the boat?  Do you have one?

Five levels of Nike…

More running inspiration tonight from, of all places, the treadmill:

Do it when you’ve never done it before: Passion.

Do it when you know you can: Consistency.

Do it when you don’t want to: Committment.

Do it when you’re not sure you can: Faith.

Do it when you know, in your heart of heart you can’t, but you do it anyway: Pure Inspiration!

Dealing with Defeat

Christmas of 2009, a friend of mine gave me the book Born To Run.  The book is about a secluded tribe of Indians living in the Mexican Copper Canyon.  Isolated and independent, a large part of their culture revolves around running – extremely long distance running to be specific.  If you are a runner, you will love this book.  If not, it is still a fascinating read and brings plenty to the table on the topics of personal excellence, perseverance and competition combined with fellowship.

Well, I am a runner and this book inspired me like few others have throughout my life.  After reading it, I immediately set a personal goal to run an ultra-marathon within two years.  2010 I focused on rapidly increasing my weekly running miles.  In retrospect, I know now I greatly over-trained, but was lucky enough to escape the year with only a couple minor injuries.

2011 then became the target year to accomplish my goal.  My first try was in late March, running the Green Jewel 50K.  (An “ultra-marathon” is defined as any race longer than a marathon.  A 50K race, at just over 31 miles, is the introductory ultra length).  I was in fantastic physical shape, having trained especially hard over the winter.  I failed to finish that event, dropping at mile 20.   At the time, I blamed it on back problems, but the fact is while I was prepared physically, I wasn’t prepared mentally.

Training throughout the Spring/Summer then became a mix of continuing to develop my physical foundation, while specifically exercising my mental and spiritual discipline.

I took another “run” at my goal in September at the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic, another 50K run on the gorgeous trails of Mill Creek Park just outside Youngstown, Ohio.  I was nervous but excited about the event – while I didn’t feel I was quite as physically prepared as I was in March, I knew I was much tougher mentally and spiritually.  I told my friends “even if I have to crawl over the finish line bloody and broken, I will finish this race.” Continue reading

A measure of effort

I regularly have grand inspirations while I run; this is pretty common with other runners I’ve found.  Generally though I either forget my inspiration once I get home, or I remember it but it doesn’t sound as grand post-run once all the endorphins empty out of my brain.

Not only did I remember tonight’s inspiration, but it seemed worthy of sharing:

“The true measure of a man’s effort is not that he has reached his destination, nor even how long it took him to get there, but rather how many times he wanted to give up along the way.”

The Irony of Aspiration

I had the opportunity to run in the Akron Marathon this past weekend.  Some friends of mine were putting together a relay team and invited me to run one of the legs with them.  For those of you in the Akron area, or anyone looking for another marathon option, the event was a lot of fun.  This was my first year participating and I was definitely impressed.  Akron offers a multitude of ways to participate (marathon, 1/2 marathon, relay, kids, etc.), and seems very well-organized.  One of the best parts was finishing the race by running the bases of Akron Aero’s ballpark (full of cheering spectators)!

My team asked me to run the final, 8 mile leg of the relay, and I was happy to have some miles to run.  Having not run the entire week as rest after the previous weekend’s 50K attempt, I was restless to get back out.

The Aspiration

It ended up being a perfect day for an event.  Some early morning cloudiness gave way to sunshine, blue skies and temperatures in the high 60s / low 70s.  While I was absolutely at the event just to have fun, I have to admit in the back of my mind there was some competitive aspiration bubbling up.  Having failed again at my second ultra-marathon attempt, I think I was subconsciously looking at this race to somehow “make up” for not finishing my race the week before.  As part of a relay team, I’m not sure exactly what kind of performance I was looking for to feel better about the previous week, but for eight miles I was interested to see both how fast and how comfortable the run was.  Of course, neither of those (fast and comfortable) have anything to do with ultra-marathons!

After standing around my relay station for a couple of hours, finally my transfer was made and I was off.

A week off from running shouldn’t affect your performance greatly, unless of course you fall off your athletic diet.  I didn’t completely fall off the wagon, but I definitely indulged more than I had planned on.  Sometimes it’s just nice to take a break.  Anyway – the run went okay, but I never really felt like I feel into a running groove; something I was expecting for only eight miles after a week’s worth of rest.  While I never felt overwhelmed by the effort, I did feel like here and there I had to push myself to keep going at what felt like nothing more than an average pace.  So if I was seeking vindication for the previous week’s failure, as the race ended, I didn’t feel like I got it.

The Irony

I ended up running those eight miles in 1:08 – certainly not an overly competitive pace but not too bad considering the port-o-potty break I was forced to take and the two aid stations I sauntered through drinking some water.  Factor those stops out of my time and I ran my eight miles in right around an hour, which is a pretty good pace for me.

I had in my mind that I wanted an “easy” run to prove to myself that I “had it” (whatever that means), to make up for my disappointment the week before.  When the run ended up challenging me a bit, I immediately began to feel like it was just reinforcing that disappointment.  The irony of course is that I ended up with a pretty good run, especially considering the casual way I approached the effort.

My Takeaway

If you live aspirationally, then you will continually be pushing boundaries.  Yet, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are raised to believe that doing well is aligned with feeling comfortable.  So the bit aha moment for me thinking back on this race is to not confuse discomfort with lack of ability or progress.

Just because something requires effort, even considerable effort, does not mean it’s beyond your capacity or that you are not “good” at it.   But when you almost constantly press to get better, to go just a little faster or longer, to finish that project a week ahead of schedule – the stress and pressure can all too easily be internalized as a failure or lack of ability.

“The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work.  The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”  ~Steven Pressfield

For those of us committed to excellence, committed to pushing boundaries, the “fear” can be replaced by “lack of knowledge” or “discomfort“.  Accept that you can never know everything; you will not always feel comfortable.

Start a (positive) movement

Those of you that know me, know that I do a fair bit of running; trail running to be specific.  I’m blessed to live in an area of the country where within a 5-15 minute drive, I can be on virtually limitless, forest canopied singletrack trail.

While I prefer more primitive, and therefore more remote trails, I often run a more popular trail called the Towpath: there is a trail head literally two minutes from my house and is perfect for those nights when I just want to get some miles in quickly.  The Towpath is quite popular and is heavily used by hikers, runners and bikers.

Early this year, I started my own little “movement”.  Without really much thought or reason why, I started acknowledging fellow runners on the Towpath.  Kind of a cross between a thumbs up and that low wave motorcyclists give to each other, it was just a simple “hey, how ya doing?  Good job, hang in there…”.  The trail regulars caught on quickly and it wasn’t long before I found some of them waving to me before I did to them.  Most everybody else also responded, and with the few exceptions of the people that simple didn’t see me, almost everyone waved back.

Here it is the end of Summer and I’m pleasantly surprised that I see runners waving to each other all over the Towpath, and more and more runners are waving to me before I can even get my hand up.  I often wonder if it was really me that started this “movement”; it could just as easily be the same phenomenon where once you buy a new car you suddenly seem to see your model everywhere you go.

Does it matter?

No, of course it doesn’t.  Whether I simply started participating in something positive already happening, or did have a hand in creating something new, it was still new and positive to me.  Whether I created the awareness inside myself, or created awareness within my running “tribe”, I added positive energy to that trail.

So – go create a positive movement.  Whether it’s something brand new, or just new to you, our lives, our jobs and our world can use all the positive energy they can get these days.

Stop defending your Passion

Passion and Entrepreneurship go hand in hand.  Read any blog about entrepreneurship, or written by an entrepreneur, and you’ll find an abundance of it.  Do a Google search on entrepreneurial qualities and you’ll find passion at the top of many of those lists.  Passion is considered so important to success, that we entrepreneurial coaches actually look for it in entrepreneurs.  You still need to tell us all the things we need to know about your start-up, but do it in a flat, monotone delivery or fail to inspire us, and we’ll actually start to think something is wrong.

Passion is the blanket that keeps you warm against the cold winds of uncertainty and chaos.

Why is it then, that many of us end up defending passion in our personal or professional lives?  Put too much time and energy in at the office and you’re a workaholic.  Commit to a healthy lifestyle including plenty of strenuous, consistent exercise and you’re addicted to fitness.  The list goes on and I’m sure you could share your stories with me in comments.

Passion is just as important to us in our daily lives and jobs as it is to entrepreneurs.  Yet every once in a while I catch myself apologizing for my passion (with me, I’m one of those fitness fanatics).   For me personally though, I’ve apologized less and less over the years.  Partly this has come with the wisdom of accepting myself, but there have also been some conscious thought process I’ve gone through.  With this short post I want to share that thinking with you and solicit your ideas as well.

  1. Personal / Professional growth IS Entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurship is one of those funny words; it means something different to everyone.  That said, I think people tend to think of entrepreneurship in a strict sense focused around the creation of a money-making business.  I tend to view entrepreneurship more broadly around concepts like risk/reward and growth.  If you are trying to create something bigger or better and there is risk involved – I say you’re an entrepreneur.  Passion is therefore indispensable for growth.
  2. Identify and accept your sacrifices.  Sometimes those comments about being too passionate can ring true in our inner selves if we are struggling with what we have given up in our quest for growth.  Stay vigilant as to what you are sacrificing and come to terms with the sacrifice.  Be especially wary of sacrifices involving other important to you who may not have bought into your passion as completely as you have.
  3. Draw a line in the sand.  Once you’ve identified your sacrifices, draw a line in the sand where you won’t let your passion take you past.  This may be a certain number of hours a week working, or childrens school plays, or dinner out once a month with your significant other.  For me, it’s social time with my friends – I try very hard not to miss time with my circle of close friends for no other reason than having to get a training run in.  I have all kinds of contingencies to get my training in via alternate means, but my deal with myself is that I have to stay willing to miss a run every once in a while if that’s the only way to spend time with someone important to me.  It becomes about staying in balance.

So those are three ways I’ve made sense of my personal passion and accepted the single-minded focus and sacrifices I have made in the quest for extraordinary growth.  What is your passion?  More importantly – what tricks have you employed to integrate it into your life?

The Pitch Staircase

flickr: rpongsaj

There isn’t a whole lot of mystery as to what should go into a basic investor pitch, yet the entrepreneurs I coach have a habit of getting in their own way.  I’m not sure if it’s because I deal mainly with early stage, high-tech start-ups and scientists/engineers love details, or whether people just want to do a good job and think that more information is better.

It’s not (generally).

What most entrepreneurs don’t know (or forget), is they are the thousandth+  person to pitch that particular investor / funder / reviewer.  They’ve heard and seen it all before.  Overselling and under-informing, not to mention presentation errors, go a long way to explain why those Blackberry’s start getting checked.

If you’re pitching as part of a competitive funding process, then if you’re not the first presentation of the day, you’re fighting information overload (not to mention post-lunch hypoglycemic-induced fatigue!).

So what are the basics? Continue reading

A Simple Trick for Strengthening Customer Relationships

Continuing the Customer Satisfaction theme of late, DCO reader Lauren sent me an article related to my recent post asking if your Customer Satisfaction questions have meaning.  Thanks Lauren!

As I read it, the article set out two important points:

  1. A relationship that has had a problem, and the problem was handled well, is a stronger relationship.
  2. When problems aren’t handled well, it’s management’s fault.

I found these two suggestions to be intriguing, just as applicable to personal relationships as business ones.  The article was fairly short and didn’t go into much depth on either one, but did suggest a “magic phrase” that should be part of every business’ customer problem resolution toolkit:

I’m sorry.

I couldn’t agree more with the author.  In today’s world of lawsuits, plausible denial, and abdication of responsibility, actually stepping up and taking direct responsibility for your customer’s negative experience will almost immediately set you apart.  I’d love to hear your thoughts (via comments below) on this topic.  Here are some of the ones I had:

  • Be Genuine.  Not saying you’re sorry may not fix the problem, but as all married couples know, eventually the issue fades and both parties move on (okay – humor me).  A disingenuous apology however, only serves to make the situation worse.  If you can’t figure out how to effectively and honestly apologize for your error, better to not apologize at all.
  • Saying “I’m Sorry” isn’t admitting you screwed up.  Our litigious environment has us all a bit on edge when it comes to “fessing up”.  As pointed out in the article that Lauren forwarded to me, saying you’re sorry is not admitting fault.  While admitting fault is also important in any relationship, it can only be done after a thorough examination of the facts.
  • Clearly establish a process.  If you’re going to say you’re sorry, then be clear with your employees what happens next.  What is the business process should the customer want to escalate?  What latitude does each employee have to attempt to repair the relationship?
  • Show a little love.  You know those surveys that come out every once in a while that say employees value a simple “thank you” over pay raises?  Your customers are no different – all they want to know is you appreciate them and understand that they are the reason you get to stay in business.  Past a sincere apology, is there some other small, special way you could show that customer you are truly sorry?
  • Apologize, then move on.  Apologizing isn’t a panacea, and we all know there are some customers that live for the fight.  While I am suggesting that an honest, sincere apology can go a long way to repairing many of the negative experiences your customers have, it won’t fix all of them.  Likewise, even for those it can fix, I’m not a fan of grovelling either.  Make your apology, make it sincere, then move on.

Those are my initial thoughts.  What about you?  How do you approach repairing a customer relationship that has been damaged by a negative experience?  As a customer, what have you seen that you responded to, either favorably or not?

Do your Customer Satisfaction questions have meaning?

I stopped at Lowes tonight on my way home to pick up some deck cleaner.  I was standing in line behind a guy buying a length of copper pipe.  When it was his turn, the first thing the cashier asked him was the obligatory “Did you find everything you were looking for today?”.

The guy replied with a simple “Actually, no”, which seemed to catch the cashier off guard a little.  She quickly recovered and asked what he was looking for.  I’m not a plumber, but it sounded like he was looking for some sort of copper coupler, although he quickly followed up to say that they were getting harder and harder to find.

My ears kind of perked up at this point.  We hear the obligatory customer satisfaction questions all the time when shopping, from sales clerks to cashiers to roving “helpers”.   Finally a customer that took someone up on their implicit offer to be helpful.  I was very curious to see what happened next.

The cashier said she was sorry they didn’t have the part and something like it was odd they didn’t since they carried so many products.

No offense Lowe’s – but if this is your response, you’d be better off not asking the question.  I’m not posting this to pick on Lowe’s, it just happened to be where I was at the time, but too many companies try to appear as providing great customer engagement and simply fall short at best.  It seems to me the customer’s comments could have been the springboard for all kinds of genuine customer satisfaction outcomes:

  • Give the guy a small discount on his purchase, or a store credit for his next visit.
  • Call over a manager to capture the product he couldn’t find; if it’s that hard to find might it make sense to carry it?
  • Enter him into some sort of monthly drawing.

You get the picture.

Instead, I was left wondering what went wrong.  Does Lowe’s really ask the question without a valid response?  Or is there a genuine response that the cashier either wasn’t trained on or didn’t execute?

Where does your company interact with customers directly or indirectly?  What questions do they ask?  Better yet – what do they do with the answers?