This past weekend, I took the kids and the dog out into the woods for a walk.
It was a beautiful, warm day and we decided to explore the land behind our neighborhood school. We had just begun walking when my daughter, Lexi, discovered what she called a “secret trail.” This trail seemed to go straight up the side of a fairly steep hill.
The kids and the dog took off and I followed. I must admit, it’s been a while since I negotiated a mountainside of that magnitude. Some of those grades had to be a good 30-40 degrees.
As we kept going along this very well-kept trail, I started to notice certain exhortations, written in what looked like spray-paint, on the trail itself. Things like “suck it up” and “keep your eyes on the prize” were printed every dozen yards. Clearly, this was the work of some diabolical coach.
It took me a few minutes, but I figured out that since we were right behind the football practice field, this hillside must be some sort of pre- or post-practice “gauntlet” for the kids to run. This made sense to me, not only because the breadth of the trail was enough to handle maybe five or six kids abreast, but also because it was one grueling challenge!
It took me back to my own high school days. After three hours of grueling hand-to-hand combat, our coach --- probably the meanest, most ornery bastard a high-school footballer would ever encounter (and I loved him dearly - but only years later) --- would then tell us to “hit the trail.” This meant that we were to now run a course that took us through the local neighborhood, the public park and finally, the woods --- on route to nirvana, aka the shower room at the football stadium.
It also reminded me of a trail that my buddies and I put together the summer before my senior year. We simply called our trail “The Route,” and it partially involved us running straight up Potomac Avenue in Dormont --- this in itself is a 45-degree, half-mile jaunt.
How many times, in my mind, did I want to just say “to hell with this, I quit.” Many. I assure you. But each time, I somehow found the strength and energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
To Finish Reading "The Impossible is Possible" CLICK HERE
When I was a Cub Scout so many, many years ago, I and my “pack members” would from time-to-time go out and earn physical representations of our meritorious achievements. These were called, and simply, “Badges.”
(I know exactly what you’re all saying to yourself right now --- well, the guys anyway --- “Badges? Badges!? We don’t need no stinking badges.”
It’s from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.
OK, back to reality.
I hear that some of the badge names have since changed --- for us, it was (and I THINK): Wolf (base level), Bear (somewhat advanced), Lion (very advanced --- very tough badge to earn), and Weblo. And “no” --- I have no idea what a “Weblo” is. And “right” --- I never earned one.
You earned a badge for doing things such as: helping an old guy cross the street (yikes! Now I’M that old guy!); building a baking-soda powered boat; and/or painting a fence bright yellow. In most cases, either society or one’s immediate family benefited from these badge-earning activities. How proud I was when I had my mother sew each patch onto my royal blue uniform.
We entrepreneurs earn badges, too. And, we earn ‘em all along the way --- and not just when we are starting out.
Recently, I counseled a young man who had just gone through one of MY badge-earning episodes. I could tell he was sick about the fact that one of his people had left him. And, that was the problem -- he regarded the resignation as someone leaving HIM, and not his enterprise. He was very, very depressed.
In reality, he had just gone through the same circumstance that so many entrepreneurs endure. A guy quits -- so what? This is not on you. It just didn’t work out. But, for the angst and anxiety something like this produces, you really should receive some kind of badge.
So, let me right now describe just a few of the badges that you as an entrepreneur may have either already earned, or else WILL be earning in the near-term future. It’ll be fun, and hopefully, it will help others avoid the mental anguish that I experienced way back then.
Have you ever noticed how much you can learn about people simply by watching them?
A few years back, one of my very best clients called to say that he would be coming into town and that he would like to drop by the office just to say hello.
“Sure,” I said, “It will be great to see you and I’m sure we can catch up on old times.”
I should point out the fact that this particular client, and although he had not been by to see us for some time, paid a lot of our bills. If not our biggest client, he was certainly in the top five.
At that time, I had a young and ambitious guy who pretty much ran my customer service department. He was very effective, but had a penchant for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. In other words, he was political.
That combination, “political” and “ambitious,” can be quite harmful to start-ups. It’s instead the stuff of corporations. In fact, it’s the kind of stuff that keeps me from growing my companies to the point where they become corporations.
But, you take everyone on balance, and this guy’s contributions were more than enough for me to overlook his blind ambition.
This guy had another talent. He also seemed to be very good at garnering and harboring information. (Part of the package, it seems.) In this case, he had learned in advance that our visitor had also recently been the recipient of a very prestigious award. Neither I nor anyone else in our company knew about this.
Long story short, our young friend went out and had a plaque made. This plaque congratulated my customer on his achievement. And, here’s the best part...the damned thing came from “him,” and not our company. You could imagine my dismay when he made this presentation right in front of a half-dozen of our people. My customer was flattered and grateful, but I could tell he also was having a lot more fun just watching my face.
Regular readers of this column know that I do a good deal of Angel Investing. For the uninitiated, Angel investing is the practice of putting one’s hard-earned cash into a start-up in exchange for equity.The hope is that this investment will someday turn into a windfall.
Over the past few years I have noticed a trend among those seeking investment dollars. Specifically, the individuals behind these start-ups are increasingly building into their business plans language that directs a percentage of the overall profits of that organization toward some sort of charitable or “do good” type of venture.
For example, some years ago, I invested in a start-up that was developing software for an application related to senior care. I remember that particular entrepreneur saying to me, “We will put ten percent of our net profit dollars into a fund that will subsequently award them to third party non-profits that help elderly folks.”
This was the first time that I had ever heard of such a thing and I really wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. But my instincts told me that it wasn’t a great idea ... especially since most of the awards would be made surreptitiously.
More recently, I walked away from investing in a company that was planning on directing one percent of its sales into a similarly-structured charitable fund. I remember thinking, “That’s a bit like borrowing start-up money from a loan shark --- every time you sell something, you’ll have to take money off the top of that sale and give it away. Meanwhile, your competition has no such stress on its free cash flow.”
I remember the first time I met with Dave Nelson, he of TalkShoe fame. (TalkShoe is a means by which anyone can become a talk show host. It also is a terrific device for those wishing to send me messages whilst I’m on-air. BTW, its www.talkshoe.com.) Dave had a “giving” clause in his business plan. I didn’t like it then, and I’m pretty sure its now gone. Gone because it was just another “feed the pig” type of money-grabbers that killed us (I was on the board) when we had real expenses to deal with (like payroll).
Which is just one of the reasons why I am dead-set against this trend. Hell, its already tough enough to make a profit in this economy. Now, that bar is set even higher.
Let’s think this through:
Find The Biggest Smallest Niche
A niche is an area unoccupied by competitors. The biggest difference between a small business person and an entrepreneur is that a small business person starts a formula business (a restaurant, small retail or grocery store, etc.) something for which there is significant competition. An entrepreneur finds ways to avoid competition so he or she may take that same idea for that restaurant and combine that restaurant with some bizarre line of food that specializes only in wraps or drive-through salads. This allows them to find a way to be alone in their category. That's an entrepreneur.
Now, needless to say you need to have niche expertise. If you don't have it, that's ok. You can hire it or you can learn it. I prefer that you learn it. I prefer that whatever business you are in, you yourself be an expert in that businesses.
Who Are Your Customers?
A very tough step and a step that most people avoid is figuring out who your first three customers are. This is a question I like to ask guys that come to me for money (if I get that far). I'll say 'Alright. Who's going to buy this and why?' Tell me the names of the companies that will be your first, second and third customers. ... And I don't mean generically describe them. I mean, tell me who they are, who you know there and why that company is going to buy.