Business Discussion at Houghton College

Houghton College

Too many topics, too little time. Some of my story, experiences and thoughts on business.

Yes, I am aware that blog posts traditionally should be fairly short and concise. Sorry, this one doesn’t conform.

Coming up this Friday I’ll be having a discussion with some college students and faculty members at Houghton College in the town where I spent many of the formative years of my life. In advance of the presentation I was given a list of questions from some of the students in the business and marketing programs. Unfortunately the list is too long for me to answer all of them within the 30 minute time slot so I figured I would answer them here and share for those who’s question goes unanswered.

A little history on me…

Businesses: I started a few “businesses” when I was a child, not unlike many kids. My brother and I would make tea from the mint leaves in our backyard and sell it door to door. In a town of 500 people, who is going to say no? Following that I invented a burglar alarm that consisted of a tennis ball and a piece of string. Once positioned above the door, any burglar that entered would get a tennis ball to the face. Thanks to my dad on that one for taking out the ad in the college paper and helping me close my first and only customer. Lastly, my brother and I built up a pretty decent base of customers in the lawn mowing business. The effort, gas and profits were ours, mom and dad provided the mower. Making a couple hundred dollars a week at the age of 12 was pretty nice. None were formal businesses yet all had the potential to earn. I was a poor kid that wanted stuff and couldn’t wait for my birthday.

Aspirations: Did I know what I wanted to do early in life? Yes I did, but it was a toss up. The choices were to be a garbage man (so I could have lunch with my mom) or a businessman (so I could wear a suit and carry a briefcase). As it turns out, I get to be both as CEO and Janitor at the company.

Japanese?: What was the original goal in studying Japanese in college? I, like many, was an undecided student and wasn’t sure what to do with college. The culture, class, respect and manners of the Japanese along with the complexity and challenge of learning the language drew me to taking it as pretty much the only class I enjoyed. My senior year of high school I boarded at Houghton Academy with a lot of Japanese kids, that had a fair amount of influence as well.

College drop-out: Yep, like plenty of other entrepreneurs, I did drop out of college after a couple of years. Why? The pace of education was far too slow and my level of interest in uninteresting topics was too low. I like to work, wanted to work, didn’t want to be told that I had to take classes of no relevance and felt that I was wasting time. Why a call center? No reason, it was a job and fortunately it led to many opportunities for advancement and self-promotion to anyone willing to put in the effort and prove themselves. Plus my friends worked there.

Starting a business…

There is a lot involved with starting any business and no way for me to do justice to that in a blog post or a 30 minute discussion. Nonetheless, I’ll answer the questions asked based on my experiences.

First steps: What first steps did I take in starting my business? The first time around (1995) I was winging it, making mistakes, falling down and getting right back up. The second time around (2002) was a lot different. I knew enough to build the plan and had established solid relationships with financial and legal counsel. You can read hundreds of books on starting a business and most will say very similar things. Just like the things your parents told you when you were a kid, lots of people (me included) don’t listen to the expert advice and take the position that it doesn’t apply to them. Wrong. Take the time to build a solid business plan and don’t ever expect it to be “finished” as it needs to live and breath in order to be successful. Be conservative in your planning and understate your market, capabilities and revenue. At the same time, make sure to over estimate your expenses. Expect to work long hours, all days, all nights for months or years and, unless you are well funded, expect to do it without a paycheck.

Non-compete: When I left my last employer I was pursued legally on the grounds of non-competition and/or theft of company information. To be clear, I was competing directly but had not stolen any information, it just happened to be in my brain. Unfortunately for my former employer, I was not bound by any employment agreement or non-compete agreement and ultimately there was nothing he could do.

Biggest challenge: The answer to “What was your biggest challenge in starting a business?” For me, the first time around was a general lack of experience, funding and planning. The second time around (this time) it was inadequate documentation of process and procedures as well as the difficulties of finding superior talent. For other businesses it will often be completely different challenges depending on their industry, experience, business knowledge and level of funding.

Promotion: How did you promote yourself to the public when starting a business? Again, this will depend completely on the type of business in discussion. For my businesses it has been a mix of online advertising, focus on SEO, trade show attendance and industry relationship building. Almost all of my businesses and their success has come from attracting customers rather than seeking them out directly. Bug zappers.

Running a business…

It’s easy to run a business, right? I’d beg to differ on that one.

Keys to success: What are the key components to having a successful business and how do you incorporate your faith in business? Business success depends on a large number of things including hard work, solid planning, adaptability, experience, relationships, timing, focus and patience. Another important key relative to faith is the integration of high quality business ethics. Success will often depend on your reputation and it should be one of professionalism and sound ethics.

Standing out: What made you stand out in comparison to others running a business? Our reputation and the quality of our brand is a big difference as well as being in sync with the markets and our desire to sell value over price. Plus, we’re better than them and it gets noticed.

Frustration and failure: How do you handle frustration and failure in the workplace? To be successful you absolutely must fail and become an expert at failing often. Running a business is often frustrating and there is no easy way around it. Patience, patience, patience and a profound sense of confidence in your plan, your skills and capabilities. When others fail around you or become frustrated, some options that we employ are using the situation as a coaching opportunity to dispel and prevent it. We also use resource re-allocation whereby an associate is re-tasked in a role that is less frustrating and offers an opportunity to return to success – when possible. Sometimes you simply give them an opportunity to find a new place of employment.

Marketing: What marketing techniques and strategies do you find most effective in your business? Pretty much the same ones that we started with, including a full suite of online channel marketing. We built a strong brand, reputation and business infrastructure. Now we ride it and perfect it along the way.

Job benefits: What benefits would a job such as this one bring? The benefits can be just about anything you are looking for if you have the drive and endurance to achieve them. For me, I find it a lot more fun to be the drive than the passenger and having a hard time with people telling me what to do, this job allows me to avoid that. Second to that, the opportunity to create, build, grow and enjoy the fruits of labor are important benefits. Lastly, when you achieve your own designated level of success, there is little greater than knowing you did it, got there and have every reason to be proud of yourself.

Job quality: Would you say this is a good quality job, even if you are not as successful as others? So long as you are successful at your own level, irregardless of others, the quality of this job is second to none. However, it is also much harder than many jobs and a heavy burden to carry from time to time. I’ve often thought that if I gave up this job that I would want to be an EMT as the job quality of saving lives is one of the few steps up in my book.

International Business and VoIP Technology…

There were a few other questions not specific to the three sections above.

Overseas: Do you work with companies overseas? Yes, we are a global company with customer and vendor relations around the globe. Roughly 16% of our business comes from outside of the US.

International Business: Is it possible to take your business model internationally? How hard would it be? Yes, we currently conduct business internationally. It is harder than domestic business, particularly in retail where the import duties and taxes coupled with international fraud controls make it extremely difficult and risky.

Freshness: How do you remain fresh in a competitive and cut-throat marketplace overrun with regulations? Telecom regulations do not affect us much since we are not a provider of services rather a reseller of hardware. Remaining fresh is another matter altogether. We do not pay attention to our competitors rather we lead with our own freshness. New services, more value adds, product additions, site revamps and new markets introduced or incorporated into our existing model keep us different and on the move all of the time.

VoIP and the workplace: Would you say that VoIP (Skype in particular) is changing the workplace? Is it creating a new “business norm” in regards to decorum and expectations? Yes, VoIP is changing the workplace or assisting changes already in progress. Much more than a change in decorum, VoIP is helping to change the location of the workplace and helping more and more people work outside of the traditional office. VoIP is adding to the “Always on, always available” culture of this country and many others. For better or worse it is helping to increase the speed of life and connectivity of individuals.

Thanks for the questions, I enjoy answering them as best I can!

Progress and Morale

Progress and Morale, Morale and Progress…

Keys to success for sure, one helps the other and creates a positive spiral.

It’s been a bit since I posted anything here and thought this would be a good topic to rekindle with. With 2008 being a trying year in the business world (and elsewhere) and 2009 not highlighting too many significant improvements or substantial leaps at recovery, giving up seems to have been a rational choice in many people’s minds.

I didn’t (we didn’t) give up despite our circumstances and by focusing on Progress and Morale we have not only endured but improved on the inside and out. Our business is stronger, more stable, more efficient and better suited to serve our customers than ever before. This happened because we kept our heads high and crossed tasks off the list each day.

It’s pretty easy to get down on yourself when times are tough and as a result progress can halt and morale can fall through the floor. Giving up or jumping ship is just not an option in my book. Even in tough times, a lot of effort is put forth in making sure my teams are looking at the light at the end of the tunnel and working on tasks (even tiny ones) that demonstrate forward motion and progress towards improvement.

Motivated and rewarded people generate a positive atmosphere where there is genuine understanding and willingness to work hard for the sake of progress. At the end of the day, there is little better than reflecting on progress (any) as a reward and as a motivating force when the alarm clock goes off the next day.

Tomorrow I am going to make progress towards my goals and when I’m done I will reflect on them, know that I was successful and prepare to repeat the process.

Business: Recovery or Wholesale Change?

Recovery may not be the right word to describe it.

VoIP Supply - Get More
VoIP Supply - Get More

For the record, I’m a pretty optimistic person about most things and not siding with recovery as the answer, the end result remains upbeat. Looking back at recent history for us and most in the telecom/technology retail space, spending jumped off the cliff back in August or so.

While we (VoIP Supply) have seen some stabilization and slight upticks in revenues, far more important changes have occurred and been highly visible. The customer has changed and I’m pretty sure the old one has gone away. We may well be in the midst of a “recovery” but it is more like a rebirth of a more fiscally responsible customer. Gone are the days of spending to spend, spending to meet budgets and buying just to have the latest features and widgets. This is a good thing in my opinion.

We’ve changed and so has our customer.

Interestingly enough, the change has not been our customers running away in search of a less expensive seller (many of our competitors) as the need for value remains despite the need to spend less money. Instead of simply heading for the lowest cost, our customers are just being more careful in their selection, less in need of fancy bells and whistles and more in need of a partner that understands. Rather than drop our pricing to make sure customers are not heading away in search of lower costs, we have increased our offerings and rolled out programs for the customers that offer alternatives and configurations that meet their needs without breaking the bank. They seem to like it.

While I believe we’ve seen a bottoming in the economy, I’m not planning on a V shaped recovery here, I’m pretty sure this is the recovery phase and we’re seeing a new breed of customers. If I’m wrong, the upside is a faster recovery, if I’m right then we’ve got no worries and a lot of value to offer. If I’m really wrong and we haven’t seen the bottom, we’ll be here offering value just the same.

Good Ideas Lost (re-post)

Re-posted from The VoIP Insiders (May 18, 2008)

As with many of my blog entries, the intended audience is just as much my staff as anyone working elsewhere and is not necessarily focused on the VoIP industry as much as it is general business, entrepreneurship and effective management. Please comment with the intention of improving the idea and providing additional value and insight.

At VoIP Supply, we are not a large company by any means, but large enough to have a layer of management between the executive layer and the departmental team members. While sometimes this layer of management is a bridge for the staff to reach out to the owners with ideas and suggestions, often times it is a dam preventing ideas from reaching the surface for a variety of reasons.

Often times the management layer uses its insight into the big picture to filter out ideas that do not mesh with the business direction and needs while at other times the ideas may not fit well with the agenda of the individual manager that it is presented to. Still other ideas are not presented in a manner compelling enough to make it to the top and therefore never receive their intended audience.

While it is in many ways the responsibility of the management team to push up staff ideas just as it is their responsibility to push down executive decisions and requests, it is also the responsibility of the team member to push their ideas and suggestions until they receive sufficient feedback indicating either that the idea has been pushed up or it was not pushed up for a particular and valid reason.

Make the wheel squeak – the loudest one is usually heard first and either oiled (implemented) or thrown out with valid reasoning and justification.

The take away: do not assume that because you had a good idea and presented it to your manager that it was heard, fully understood and moved up the chain, adequately re-presented to the company executives. As often as it is, it is not. I, though perhaps not like everyone else, enjoy hearing from staff members directly when it comes to their ideas and suggestions. Bringing an idea directly to the executive team is highly encouraged and the squashing of such action by my management is highly discouraged regardless of the intent to not waste my time or shield me from something that does not fit the needs and direction of the business. Even if the idea is not a good fit at the time, the value to me and the increased value of the employee comes by way of simply having an idea and presenting it well.

My door is open to anyone at any time. Your ideas are valuable and I’ll decide if it is a good fit for the business now or in the future. This statement is true for employees, customers, vendors, partners and the like.

A Good Manager

Comments from Benjamin Sayers on being a Good Manager – (re-posted from The VoIP Insiders)

To preface this, the intended audience may or may not be in the VoIP industry, they may work for VoIP Supply or somewhere else, they may even be the owner of their own business. This commentary is stream of consciousness and written to reflect on experiences during the week at my company that I hope will be of use to others in some manner. Your comments, positive or negative, are always more than welcome and highly encouraged as I too love to see things from someone else’s perspective in effort to always being improving.

At VoIP Supply, we have some excellence within our management team. We also have ways to improve and provide a greater leadership experience to our staff. Some things that our management staff can, should, and generally do exhibit include (though we can all get even better at):

1) Proper delivery of expectations: Staff needs to know what is expected of them in clear and concise terms, preferably written and reviewed in a timely manner. Ongoing support and coaching to ensure that once delivered, the understanding of the expectations are indeed well known and execution is a simple and easily followed path, are necessary from start to finish but not necessarily in a micro-managed fashion.

2) Follow through on delegation, to get what you inspect, not what you expect: Getting work off your plate is only of value if the results are what you expect and are of value to you such that the work does not need to be redone, finished off, or worse–a complete failure. With regards to delegation of work, you will always get the results expected if you inspect the work prior to completion of the task.

3) Providing just the right amount of rope (not a noose): A truly good manager hires people capable of exceeding expectations and providing enough value that the manager themselves can be promoted and backfill their position with a solid replacement. To do so is to encourage self sufficiency, creativity and opportunity to succeed above and beyond their predefined tasks. Letting staff loose to show their talents and help build the business (should they be motivated to work above and beyond their minimal job description) is critical in developing a team of truly valuable assets. Coach, mentor and follow up with them to ensure that they have not been setup to fail or allowed to wander too far without supervision.

4) Proper message delivery and moderated use of tone: Each team member is different, reacts differently and interprets the manager’s guidance and directives differently. Being sure to deliver the message, positive or negative, in the right medium and with the right tone, is important when hoping to motivate the team rather than threaten them, devalue their work, or create fear of failure and its consequences.

5) Accountability relative to expectations delivered: While I am proponent of positivity, patience and understanding of circumstances beyond the control of the staff member that has been given a particular project or task, holding them accountable remains a necessity. If a task is delivered and accepted, the accepting member of your team must be held accountable for completion of it or communication of its pending incomplete status, reasons for its status and a plan for completion within an adjusted timeframe.

6) Encourage and promote positive two way communications: One of the greatest points of failure in any business is within the internal communications between staff and between departments. It is the responsibility of the management to demonstrate the value and process of effective two way communications, leading by example, coaching and promoting it, rewarding it and ensuring that the team is doing their part within the company.

7) Setting goals and defined points of re-evaluation: Along the same line as setting expectations, the management should be setting goals for celebration of the success of the department. Considering the expectations to be the minimum levels of achievement for the department and the goals are just that, the goals. Sometimes goals are missed and that’s ok, you still have something to shoot for and feel exceptional about achieving. When goals are set too high or unplanned circumstances occur making goal achievement impossible, management needs to set points to re-evaluate those goals and maintain realistic levels so-as to ensure that the goal is not completely unrealistic and therefore not worth striving for.

8.) Leading by example: This one more or less goes without saying, but a good manager needs to lead by example and overachieve those working for them. This should not be confused with squashing the efforts of the staff to ensure that managers continue to look good by preventing others from succeeding. The right thing to do in the situation of a superstar knocking it out of the park is to let them pass and be proud that you groomed such a valuable asset to the company.

9) Understanding the big picture and providing visibility into it: When delegating tasks, assigning team members to a project, critiquing their work, dismissing their suggestions and explaining results and expectations, it is important that the manager understands the overall direction of the company, how their department fits that picture and how the staff fits into the overall big picture of the company. Some are comfortable repeating the same task over and over again while others have ideas and suggestions for improvements. While the suggestions may well be valid and good ideas, they may not fit with the current needs and direction of the company. It is important that ideas and suggestions are not merely dismissed, but shown that the reason for dismissal or non-implementation is that it may not fit the current needs and direction of the company. Thank them for their independent thoughts and suggestions, encourage more of it and educate them on where they should focus their attention relative to additional ideas.