Is Your Idea a Business or a Dead End?

Ha! So you think you have an idea that you can parlay into a good business, whether it’s a cutting edge technology or a tried and true formula, like a car wash.

Regardless of the industry that you’d like to enter, there is a more or less standard checklist of factors you should consider before investing your money, time and hopes. Before fantasies of entrepreneurship carry you away, do yourself a favor and answer these questions first. You’ll know how to proceed from here, whether it means that you meet with the Branch Manager at your bank to learn about business financing options, or you take a trip back to the drawing board.

1. Who are the target customers and what is the size of the market?

Define your market demographic. Who will pay to buy what you plan to sell? Is this a product or service that is growing in popularity, or maintaining its broad appeal, or is there a shift in customer preference on the horizon as those who would be your customers learn about a new choice that may persuade them to switch to The Next Big Thing?

In addition to demand for your intended product or service, are there enough customers in your location to support the business? By the way, how are your competitors doing? Do they appear to be thriving?

2. What is the problem that target customers want to solve or avoid when they do business with companies like your proposed venture?

Understand the back story of why customers would buy the solutions that you plan to sell. What is it that they’d like to achieve or avoid? One calls a window washer when the windows are dirty because clean windows demonstrate the owner’s desire to protect and enhance the value of his/her home.

3. How are target customers meeting their need today?

What businesses would be your primary three or four competitors? What factors persuade their customers to do business with them—a convenient location, exceptional product variety, discount pricing, the right relationships?

What advantage can you offer that customers might be drawn to—more convenient hours of operation, for example? Can you provide a product or service that meets a need that is valued but not currently addressed?

4. What is your solution (product or service)?

Describe your proposed product or service. You should be able to easily and clearly describe (and sell) your product. Develop an off-the-cuff sales pitch, record your delivery of it, then listen and evaluate. Would you buy this product or service?

5. How will you reach your customers?

If your business is B2C and requires a physical location, can you afford to set up shop in an area that potential customers will visit? If your business idea is B2B, do you have a plan to access customers and referrals? If your plan is for e-commerce, how will potential customers learn about your website?

6. Do you have the credibility and credentials to do business in this industry?

Especially if you plan to enter the B2B sector, be certain that your education and experience will command respect and trust. If obtaining certain licensing, certifications, or an educational degree is vital (even if not required), investigate the process, plus the time and money involved.

7. Do you have the funding to launch the business?

Research the expected business start-up costs and think objectively about how long it might take you to start making sales you can live on.

Pay your bills and get your credit score. Build up your savings. Whether you expect to self-finance, ask to borrow from friends, family, or your retirement account or apply for outside funding, you will need a lump sum of cash on hand when you launch a business.

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Photograph: Financial District, Boston, MA. Kim Clark, September 23, 2018

Advertisements

Resources to Grow Your One Person Shop

Every business owner dreams of growing his/her venture into a thriving entity and some even enact plans to make that happen. Once in a while, a business owner has the good fortune to create a venture that takes off like a rocket but usually, building a business is a slow boil. Whatever your circumstances, it will take time and resources to grow and expand your enterprise.

Most business owners and Freelancers think first of investment capital, an additional product or service line, or increasing the client list and billable hours when contemplating what it will take to grow revenues and profit, but the process of building a bigger business almost always requires additional staffing as well. For the typical business, that means deciding whether new staff members will be full or part-time employees. Freelancers face a different picture, however, since most work alone. Still, additional staffing will make it possible for you to more quickly and effectively position your Freelance consultancy for growth.

So what kind of hired help might a Freelancer bring on, once the growth strategy has been determined? Start by considering which of your business functions might be successfully outsourced, perhaps to a fellow Freelancer. Specialized tasks, such as your quarterly tax preparation and filing, can be performed by a Freelance bookkeeper. Your new bookkeeper will also be able to prepare and send 1099 forms to those who bill $600 or more/year to you for professional services rendered. Furthermore, your bookkeeper can ready the information that you’ll deliver to your accountant for the annual tax preparation and filing.

Accounts receivable and accounts payable functions are other tasks that a bookkeeper can take on, since these are financial transactions. Accounts receivable management means invoicing, a task that many Freelancers have difficulty keeping up with. You’ll have to supply information about the project fee, payment schedule, hourly rate and hours worked for each billable client, but the invoices will be prepared and emailed on time. Moreover, a savvy bookkeeper will give you valuable advice about maintaining healthy business cash-flow and other financial management suggestions.

Marketing tasks, including the editing of your blog and/or newsletter (which you may prefer to continue writing yourself), is another business function that might be successfully outsourced to a fellow Freelancer. If LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms play a regular part in your marketing campaigns, then contact a social media marketing expert to discuss how s/he can help your organization.

A talented marketing expert will bring a fresh perspective and innovative ideas that can reinvigorate your overall marketing strategy, refine your approach to social media and also manage social media postings on your preferred platforms. Not only that, your Freelance marketing specialist will read and analyze statistics for each platform and use the info to guide future campaigns.

When you’ve removed a few important, yet time-consuming, tasks from your plate, you can then freely direct a laser focus on finding and creating opportunities that will ensure that you achieve business goals. You’ll design and implement an effective launch strategy for the new products or services you plan to introduce. You’ll have time and energy to network your way into a longer client list or pursue new or niche markets that will enlarge your customer base and pump up your billable hours and sales revenue. You might also explore outside funding sources that will allow you to purchase new equipment or open your first office.

Now that you understand the role that staffing plays in business growth, let’s take a look at the hiring process. Personal referrals are usually a good place to start and no doubt between the contacts you’ve made at business association events that you at least occasionally visit and your list of contacts, potential candidates will surface. You might also try an online resource such as LinkedIn ProFinder or Upwork. The Freelancers on these sites are carefully vetted and closely monitored to ensure that they meet client expectations. As you interview potential hires, keep a few things in mind:

EXPERIENCE—Does the candidate possess the necessary skill set to be an asset to you and your business? Ask to see examples of the kind of work that you’ll request.

RAPPORT—You will discuss matters close to your heart with this person, so it will be important that the two of you communicate well and get along.

AVAILABILITY—Does the candidate have time to take on the projects that you need to get done? If you envision just 4-6 hours of work per month, for example, is the candidate willing to take on such an assignment? Also, if you expect emails and phone calls to be answered on the same business day, make that known. Get agreement on when the business day begins and ends and how each of you expects requests made over the weekend to be handled.

FEE—Shop around and get quotes from three or four service providers, but understand that the lowest fee may not result in the best value for dollars spent.

REFERENCES—Inquire as to the types of clients your candidate has worked with. Ask to speak with two current or former clients, so that you understand the depth of expertise and the type of customer service that your candidate provides.

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Photograph: Nina Leen, 1948. Eileen Ford (1922-2014), co-founder with her husband Jerry Ford (d.2008) of the Ford Modeling Agency, at their New York City office. Ford Modeling Agency represented supermodels through the decades, including Cheryl Tiegs, Lauren Hutton, Naomi Campbell, Suzy Parker and Jeannie Shrimpton.

How to Make Better Decisions

Making good decisions is a crucial life skill and a defining component of success in life and business but so many times we wonder what the best course of action might be. Theoretically, we make decisions after evaluating the available information, weighing the potential impact of our actions (or inaction) and determining what appears to be the best option. But truth be told, we rarely have all the information that could guide us as we decide and as a result, decision-making is loaded with unknowns. Not only that, our perception of the best course of action is inevitably shaped by our past experiences and personal biases.

Fortunately, methods exist that have been designed to limit some percentage of the unknowns and biases inherent in decision-making. One approach, a type of strategic planning known as scenario planning, has been attributed to 1950s era executives at the RAND Corporation.

In its most simplified form, scenario planning involves imagining three possible future environments for each decision alternative: a future where things get better, a future where things get worse and a future where they stay about the same. Scenario planning also allows decision-makers to factor in variables: what you know, what you don’t know and what you don’t know you don’t know.

Scenario planning requires decision-makers (and strategic planning teams) to think outside the box and imagine what might happen if a certain road is taken and then create a story line that “paints a picture” of what your life or business will look like while on that road.

When faced with an important decision, we all tell ourselves a story that describes an idealized version of what our life will look like if we do (or avoid) a certain thing. For example, if you’re thinking of changing careers, you tell yourself a story of how much more satisfying and/or lucrative work will become if you make the change. If you’re considering a move to a warmer climate because you’ve had enough of winter, your story focuses on the avoidance of snow and ice and the warm, soft breezes that await in the new location.

If you include a scenario planning exercise in your decision process, you’ll be encouraged to fill in a few more potentially relevant details that go beyond the rosy picture that you paint as you daydream about new possibilities. If you’re seriously considering a job change, scenario planning will guide you to fully investigate, among other things, the credentials or professional experience you must earn to successfully change careers and how much time and money that will cost you. The ROI of the career change is another component you’ll examine as you objectively evaluate your likely job prospects and reasonable expectations for professional advancement and earning ability.

In addition to scenario planning, there is also a clever decision-making support tactic called the “pre-mortem” that was developed by psychologist Gary Klein, Ph.D. and his team in 1989. Inspired by the post mortem, when a coroner or hospital pathologist performs an autopsy on the deceased to determine the cause of death, Klein’s pre-mortem technique flips the script. “Our exercise,” Dr. Klein explains, “is to ask decision-makers to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out—-and it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.”

So you think you want to move to Florida? OK, so you move down in early November, just ahead of winter. You’ve got no snow to shovel and that’s a relief. But there are alligators on the golf course and you know, those things eat pets and people. You’ve been down there for 8 months and you’ve had to call an exterminator 3 times because there are these scary bugs crawling through your house. Not only that, but Christmas didn’t feel like Christmas when the temperature was 80 degrees. Oh, and in the winter everyone you know begged to stay with you for a week so they could escape the snow and ice but you were in no mood to entertain people because your vacation is scheduled for August. Maybe this move was not the greatest choice? The pre-mortem will make you think about many potential downsides to your decision and help you understand if you can live with the fallout.

Klein attests that the pre-mortem has proved to be a much more effective way to recognize the lurking flaws in a decision. Magical thinking, from groupthink to confirmation bias, blinds us to potential pitfalls once we’ve become attached to a decision. By forcing ourselves to imagine scenarios where a decision turned out to be disastrous, we can discover the holes in the plan.

Eventually you must pull the trigger and commit to a decision. In some cases, working through the initial phases of decision-making will lead to an obvious choice. But if a decision you can accept still seems unattainable, the final phase can be completed with an old-school pros and cons list. What have you got to lose?

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Image: Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848 – May 8, 1903) detail of “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1978-98) courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Post-Speech Q & A

Everything has gone swimmingly with your presentation. The room is full, you held the attention of audience members and your timing was spot on. There are 10 minutes left for the question and answer session. You think you’ve won, but you have no idea how vulnerable you are.

Speakers often don’t realize it, but those brief minutes in the post-speech Q & A session have the potential to become your Achilles’ heel. The post-speech Q & A is un-mapped territory. You don’t know what’ll be thrown at you. The Q & A is a variable that few speakers prepare for, because they assume they can’t prepare for it and so they wing it and figure they’ll muddle through. Not!

As Tesla CEO Elon Musk now knows, winging the Q & A can be a grave mistake. At the conclusion of a May 2018 investor’s meeting speech, Musk had a heated exchange with a financial analyst who asked a couple of apparently incisive questions. Musk didn’t come out of it looking good. You may have heard that Musk has recently said “lack of sleep” and “stress” have been wearing him down. Sorry, it’s a weak excuse.

Executive Coach and speaker John Millen points out that when speakers mishandle post-speech or other questions, they can appear uninformed, hostile, or even dishonest. “How leaders answer questions is enormously important in building trust. If you come into a high-stakes situation talking to investors, employees, regulators (or a potential client) and you don’t communicate properly, there can be huge problems.” So let’s consider tactics that can bring you through your next post-speech Q & A with flying colors.

PREPARE

Take all precautions to avoid being perceived as clueless, shady, or defensive. If a question is posed for which you don’t have an answer, say “That issue is under review and I don’t yet have enough information to answer.” You can also turn it around and ask the questioner “Why is that important to you?” The answer may open your eyes to aspects of the subject that you had not previously considered and can be a teachable moment for you.

Start the process by thinking your subject through so that you can anticipate questions that could be asked. Next, do some audience research and ask the program organizer if there might be audience members who could oppose your goals or point of view, so you can rehearse answers designed to neutralize a campaign to undermine you.

CALL IT OUT

Be mindful of aspects of your speech that could potentially seem controversial to certain audience members. A good defensive tactic is to proactively address a possibly sensitive matter in your speech, preferably toward the end or in your concluding remarks. Acknowledge the elephant in the room.

“That way, when it comes up again from the audience you could say ‘Right. As I said earlier…,’ Millen advises. “Then you are reinforcing your answer and it feels more truthful and honest.” Also, you’ll avoid allowing an angry questioner to set the tone. “You can get it out there on your own terms,” Millen notes.

CHERRY PICKING

Sometimes a speaker is hit with a multi-part question and when that happens, the recommendation is to answer that part of the question you can answer most adroitly, the part that reinforces your viewpoint or supports your goal. Speakers can usually get away with this tactic because audience members may not remember the entire question and in fact, they may have little patience with a complicated question. So cherry pick those parts that you want to answer and slide away from what you are unable or unwilling to answer.

NEUTRALIZE OPPOSITION

Unfortunately, there could be an audience member who doesn’t so much have a question, but an axe to grind or s/he is in search of attention. Jo Miller, founder and CEO of Be Leaderly, a professional development training consultancy based in Cedar Rapids, IA, cautions speakers against getting defensive when encountering such a questioner. “The best way to deal with those questions is to maintain a confident and unapologetic posture,” she says. Miller suggests that adopting a tone of amusement can help get the audience on your side. She adds “Respond as if you are enjoying a game of intellectual ping-pong.”

EXPERT HELP

If you are a company leader who will speak to employees, investors, an important client, or others with whom you must build trust and meet or exceed expectations, bring along two or three ranking team members and have them ready to step in and answer questions aligned with their areas of expertise. In other words, defer to the experts, share the spotlight and promote leadership skills development as you do.

End the Q & A on an upbeat, positive note and if possible, after you’ve given a well-received response to a question. If you are asked two or more challenging questions, Millen recommends that you
“Tell them they’re asking the right questions, then bring it back to your overall message. They (the audience) shouldn’t leave with a bad taste in their mouths.”

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Image: Cesare Maccari 19th century fresco depicts statesman, lawyer and orator Cicero (January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) as he excoriates Senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (108BC – 62 BC) in the Roman Senate for Catilina’s role in the conspiracy to overthrow the Republic and, in particular, the aristocratic Senate. Courtesy of the Palazzo Madama (Rome).