Category Archives: Business

Getting Back Up

Fred Wilson has a post at AVC that isn’t mind blowing, but it is oh so right:

I recently had breakfast with a friend who is an entrepreneur. He had a really rough start to 2015. His business had a tough year in 2014 and he realized at the start of 2015 that if he didn’t make some big changes to the team and operating structure and costs he was going to hit the wall. He sort of did hit the wall to be honest.

He cut out a layer of management, he cut costs across his entire operation, he got back involved in his product and operations, he worked harder and longer than he has ever worked, including when he started the company…

After he told me all of this, I told him that I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t get knocked down in the ring at least once or twice. I told him that you can read all you want and get all the advice and coaching that is available and you still will not learn the hard lessons that one has to learn to become best in class at what you do. I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to learn some things the hard way to really learn them well.

Back in the 90s I started a small b-to-b newsletter publishing company. For the first couple of years things went well, and then they didn’t. Before long the business was running on fumes and my personal life was in a shambles. In retrospect the traits that allowed me to start the business in the first place – being young, dumb and brash enough to think I could do it – ended up being my greatest weakness when the business struggled. I didn’t know how, or who, to ask for help. I thought I could figure it out on my own and I couldn’t.

In the end I shut the business down because I didn’t have the energy to save it and my marriage/family life. I moved on to another publishing company and actually got to do some pretty cool things for them that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. My marriage and family stayed intact and became stronger as a result. Eventually I went back out on my own as a consultant and had a great run before taking the job that I’ve enjoyed for six years (and counting).

The lessons learned from that “failure” included:

  • Family first. Always, and forever.
  • Know the value of humility. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all and you should surround yourself with people who can do the things you can’t.
  • People actually like being asked to help, and if you do ask almost everyone will do what they can to help you.
  • Never stop learning and trying to grow. This applies both professionally and personally, and as Fred points out in his post, your failures are actually great opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Small example: I didn’t use a payroll company because I didn’t want to spend the $100/month for their service. Let’s just say the mistakes I made ended up costing far more than that. One of the first things I did at my current job? Got us set up with a payroll company.

Are these common sense bromides that you can find in any small business/entrepreneurial website, book, blog or magazine? Yep. So why am I sharing? Because I read all those things and the lessons still didn’t sink in until I lived through them. I’m hoping at least one of you will be spared the pain if you hear it from one more source.

I also believe in paying it forward, so if you ever find yourself in a bind and think there’s no way out I’m more than willing to listen and hopefully find a way to help. If nothing else I can offer a sympathetic ear.

There’s no shame in failing but it’s a huge mistake to not get back up and push on. Another well worn sentiment that you’ve probably heard a thousand times, but it’s worth saying again because it’s true. Believe me, I learned the hard way.

Working or Being at Work

The video below about a company that has its employees work a 32-hour week has a graphic that says the average American worker is working 47 hours per week. Maybe, but more likely the average American spends 47 hours at work and only a certain percentage of that is actually doing something considered productive work. The rest of the time is spent on dealing with email, chit-chat with coworkers, Candy Crush, etc. If we all knew we only had 32 hours to get our jobs done I wonder how much more intensely we’d focus on our actual work?
http://www.theatlantic.com/video/iframe/396527/

34 of 100 Don’t Work for the Man

It’s no secret that today many more people in our economy are freelancers than in the past, but would you believe that the number is about 53 million people?

I was on the phone last night with Stephen DeWitt, the CEO of our portfolio company Work Market. He was talking about a specific community of people and I asked him how many of them were likely to be freelancers. He said “well the statistics say that 3 to 4 out of every ten people these days are freelancers.”

I thought that sounded high but after reading Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, in which she says that “34 percent of the work force in the United States, 53 million people, now consider themselves independent contractors, short-term hires or other kinds of freelancers”, I think Stephen has it exactly right.

Look around you on the subway, the baseball park, the movie theater, 3 to 4 out of every ten people are freelancers. That’s a big number. And its growing pretty rapidly. Younger people are more inclined to be freelancers. Older people turn to freelancing for flexibility or economic necessity. And employers are more inclined to hire freelancers as technology makes the management and compliance requirements around freelancers easier to handle.

This has me wondering about the implications for things like benefits. I’m not sure about this, but I don’t think that freelancers qualify for unemployment benefits since they are typically tied to the company you worked for. If you don’t work for anyone how would you qualify for benefits? It also feels like we’ve already seen the impact on health insurance – it’s a safe bet that a good chunk of the uninsured are freelancers who don’t have companies to provide insurance. Even if the ACA is pushing many of them to buy their own insurance, they were an available market precisely because they didn’t have company-provided health insurance.

The excerpt above came from Fred Wilson’s blog and I agree with his last paragraph from that post:

It’s a new era we are living in and the nature of work is changing and changing fast. There are tons of opportunities in and around this trend and we are invested in some of them. It’s one of the big megatrends of this century.

Lies, Damned Lies and …

Mark Twain popularized the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” and it stuck because 125% of humans who have ever lived have been misled using statistics. (See what I did there?) If you think this is a problem unique to politics or baseball, think again:

Reinhart is a physicist turned statistician who has set out to write a book whose aim is to improve the quality of statistical education and understanding that researchers need to have. Statistics Done Wrong is not a textbook. It is a highly informed discussion of the frequent inadequacy of published statistical results and confronts the sacred cow: the p value. Here is what he has to say on page 2.

“Since the 1980s, researchers have described numerous statistical fallacies and misconceptions in the popular peer-reviewed scientific literature and have found that many scientific papers — perhaps more than half — fall prey to these errors. Inadequate statistical power renders many studies incapable of finding what they’re looking for, multiple comparisons and misinterpreted p values cause numerous false positives, flexible data analysis makes it easy to find a correlation where none exists, and inappropriate model choices bias important results. Most errors go undetected by peer reviewers and editors, who often have no specific statistical training, because few journals employ statisticians to review submissions and few papers give sufficient statistical detail to be accurately evaluated.”

Astonishing to my eyes was his conclusion that

“The methodological complexity of modern research means that scientists without extensive statistical training may not be able to understand most published research in their fields.”

The excerpt above is from a post on Boing Boing about a book that Alex Reinhart has written (Statistics Done Wrong) to try and address the issue of statistical malpractice and I’m thinking it could be a useful reference for all of us who need to parse statistics as part of our daily lives, which based on my extensive research would be all 125% of us.

WalletHub Gives Triad Cities High Marks for Starting New Businesses

WalletHub.com ranked the 150 largest cities in the US (measured by population) to start businesses and the Triad’s cities fared pretty well:
#9 Greensboro
#19 Winston-Salem

Here’s the rest of NC’s cities:
#27 Fayetteville
#62 Charlotte
#90 Durham
#106 Raleigh

It’s nice to see that our area is being recognized for its relatively low costs, strong infrastructure and livability.

Here’s a link to the full results and methodology they used for the rankings.

“Professional” Education

For my day job I work for a local trade association and one of our core services is to provide professional education for our members’ employees. We spend a great deal of time trying to make sure we provide the best training and continuing education possible. We have a staff member who, along with a committee of volunteers from the industry, spends a tremendous amount of time recruiting instructors for the various classes and seminars we provide, staying on top of emerging trends in the industry, organizing instructor training and anything else necessary to make sure we have a top-shelf education program. In other words, it’s something we pay a lot of attention to.

Perhaps that explains why I was irked when a friend shared a link to a calendar item on a chamber of commerce’s website. It’s a free seminar on social media that the chamber and a small business center are hosting, which on the face of it sounds pretty straight forward. The problem comes when you do a search on the instructor, which my friend did, and find out that the instructor’s Facebook page only has a few dozen “likes”, the instructor has fewer than a handful of Twitter followers and has a website that can best be described as looking like the campaign page of a kid running for junior class president in 1998.

As I said to my friend I have nothing against the person trying to build a social media business (I think that’s what’s happening), but I have a huge problem with a chamber or other business association not doing its job well by providing quality professional education opportunities. Normally I’d dismiss it as a one-off mistake, but I’ve suffered through some of this particular chamber’s educational offerings in the past and I can tell you this is not the first time it’s happened.

You might argue that it’s unfair to judge the course, or the instructor, without sitting through the seminar. My reply would be that in the world of social media you can’t simply teach theory out of a book – experience matters – and there are SO many people in this area who do have that experience and could teach this course that there’s no reason to recruit someone who clearly hasn’t walked the walk.

Doing a seminar just to say you did it, or because someone raised their hand and said, “I can do this for free” is a terrible idea. You end up diminishing your value to your members, and before long they start running away. Obviously a chamber is more than just education, and this chamber in particular has long seemed to see their small business members as a necessary evil, but if you’re going to do something you might as well do it right or not do it at all.

Should You Treat the New Customer Better?

At the day job I work for a trade association that represents the local apartment industry. The way we’re set up is pretty typical for a trade association, but it can be pretty difficult to explain to people who aren’t familiar with how these types of organizations work. So here are the basics:

  • We have two types of members which is association speak for customers. Our primary members are owners and managers of apartment communities. Our other class of members are “affiliate” members who are basically vendors who sell products and services to our primary members.
  • Our primary function is to provide education and advocacy services, plus networking opportunities for apartment owners and management companies. Our affiliate members are most interested in those networking opportunities because that’s where they can interact with the primary members and hopefully do some serious selling.

One of the questions we get all the time comes from companies that are interested in becoming affiliate members and it’s this: “When I join will I get a chance to speak in front of the members at the next event?” A lot of them are surprised when we say no and of course they want to know why. Here’s our answer:

We don’t allow new members to stand up and give their sales pitch because we have members who have been with us for years, decades even, who don’t get that opportunity at every meeting. We also have sponsors who pay extra to be recognized at our events. Why would we treat a new member better than a member who’s been with us and supported the industry for years on end, or give a new member the same exposure as sponsors who have paid for the privilege? What we can promise you is that when you become a member we’ll do everything we can to make sure you’re treated as well as every other member, that you have equal opportunity to build relationships with the primary members and that you have access to all the sponsorship and selling opportunities that every other affiliate member has.

There are many associations that disagree with this approach and do allow new members to get up and speak at their meetings. I’m sure it works for some folks, but at our place we just feel like it sends a terrible message to our long-time affiliate members who have supported the industry with their time and treasure if we treat the new kid on the block, who might be their competitor, better than we treat them. The analogy I use is this: how do you feel when you see that your cable company is offering a special deal to new subscribers, but when you call to see if you can get in on the action they tell you that you aren’t eligible? Pretty crappy I’ll bet, and the last thing I want is for our members to think of us like the cable company.

The Memo

I’ve worked for quite a few organizations over my career and while they were all unique they all had two things in common – the Personal Usage Memo and the Hygiene Memo. I’m fairly confident everyone has seen these, but if you haven’t here’s the overview of each:

Personal Usage Memo
This memo is sent by the boss to the entire company/department/team to remind them that company property (phones, computers, mobile devices, etc.) are not to be used for personal business. The memo almost always starts with, “It has been brought to may attention that…” and it’s sent to the entire group even if only one person is violating the policy, purportedly to remind everyone of the policy but realistically because the boss doesn’t have the balls to confront the violator one-on-one.

Hygiene Memo
This is my favorite, mainly because it is almost always necessary and it also almost always overwrought. Basically it comes down to this: people are slobs and they’re lazy. They don’t clean up after themselves and, like in most of our households, one or two people end up cleaning up after the rest. There’s also the matter of cluttered desks, which is less a problem for co-workers but can be an issue for companies that might have policies related to security, privacy, etc. So this particular memo is necessary, but when it’s written the boss almost always gets too specific and then defensive about the remedies being sought. It should be as simple as, “Dear everyone, we’re all adults here and as adults you should know our company’s policies related to how your work space is to be kept. In all of our common areas like the kitchen you should know to clean up after yourselves so that you don’t gross out everyone else. Please act like the adult you are.”

Unfortunately offended bosses can’t help themselves and go into excruciating detail about what they perceive as the problem and what they’d like done about it. Those are the memos that tend to make their way into the public realm and open the authors up to some pretty good teasing. Best example of late is this memo from Wired’s editor to his staff and the dramatic reading of it in the video below. Enjoy.

Tweet This, Facebook That

SmallBusiness.com has an interesting post about how the uses of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit differ depending on the subject:

  • Platform usage is context-dependent. Entertainment events are more likely to be discussed on Facebook, while sporting events (and live news events), like the NFL Kickoff or the Napa earthquake, are more likely to be discussed on Twitter. Reddit tends to be the dominant platform for political and international discussion.
  • Timing is crucial when posting to certain social networks. Facebook tends to be the dominant platform to discuss and publish stories 2-3 weeks around an event; but Twitter and Reddit are more reactive, dominating 2 to 3 days around an event.
  • Within 24 hours of a major event, 85% of sharing occurs on mobile devices.

This next one was very interesting:

  • News events like the Napa earthquake and the Ferguson riots are highly localized with sharing. Missouri saw a 7.7x surge during the riots.

Back in the early days of blogging it became trendy to “liveblog” at conferences. Basically attendees would send out rapid fire blog posts sharing what they were seeing, hearing and learning. While it still happens that action has been largely replaced by people Tweeting their experiences and using a hashtag so that their observations will be group with other attendees’ in a stream of conference-related information that any Twitter user can see. That’s why every conference now has a #ID printed on everything so that everyone knows which one to use and they can generate some real-time conversation.

Facebook is also used at conferences but usually it’s people posting photos, letting people know they’re there, or at the end of the day saying things like “Had a great day at JonCon. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s session on excellent enemas!” It’s not nearly as spontaneous and, to use a real world analogy, is the conference yearbook vs. Twitter being the conference newspaper.

What does all that mean? If you’re using social media for business, church, non-profit, school, club or whatever, you need to make sure you utilize the proper social media channel at the right time. If you don’t you’ll be whistling in the wind.

That Degree in English Might Finally Get Some Respect

I might need to dust off the old resume, because apparently my English degree makes me a hot commodity:

…the skills you develop as an English major are the skills American business always says it needs more of: critical thinking, analytical ability, and the ability to communicate clearly. That was true 32 years ago and it remains true today. Those skills will prepare you for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I know that’s true because they did for me.

In fact, American business’s global competitors are finding they need the same skills, and that their job-focused college educations aren’t providing the people they need who have those skills. So they’re retooling their higher education along the U.S.’s traditional liberal-arts model.

And if you don’t believe Lex, well then check out this piece from American Express that he linked to. The article outlines some of the skills that employers are looking for that English majors have in spades; communication, writing, researching, critical thinking and empathy. That’s all great and good, but if you really want to be a stud you still might need to add a specific area of expertise to those broad skills:

The Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a recent survey of what employers want from new hires. Its survey report, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success, shows that more than half of business executives want college graduates to have not only field-specific knowledge and skills, but a broad range of skills and knowledge. They place less value on the undergraduate major and more on a capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. In an interview, Debra Humphreys, vice president at The AACU, said that the economic downturn has “put a premium on college graduates who are really multifaceted … people who have both broad knowledge and skills, as well as field-specific skills.” According to Humphreys, this concern has intensified over the years.

So if I dust of that resume I might want to consider adding a line to the education section. As an English major I’m sure I’d find a second degree, perhaps in nuclear engineering, to be a piece of cake.