My friend Tom

From time to time I am asked if I can offer some advice, today was such a day

As a member of EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) I am less inclined to give advice and opt to share experiences instead, allowing the other person to make up their own mind as to where they want to go or what actions to take.

The condensed version of the experience sharing is bulleted below:

  • Create the vision, share it visually. Tom has a great visios, he explains it simply and passionately. To build what he needs and accomplish the vision, others need to be able to see it, understand it, share it and embrace it with him. Where do you want to be in 3 years? Show me what that will look like. Look at it daily and focus on getting there.
  • You have to do well before you can do good. Tom’s vision is to help, to educate, to read, teach, share and improve the lives of those within his community. Finances are required if he is to focus on the giving aspect of the vision. Therefore, in order to do good, an un-distracting stream of funds must be present first. Get that house in order first (do well) and then give back as you wish (do good).
  • Focus, blinders, Top 5, Top 1 of 5. In order to do well so Tom can do good, the business needs to get ramped up and profitable, unfortunately there are too many distractions each day that slow or stall the progress. What are the Top 5 things you need to accomplish to become profitable? What is the single (Top 1) most important thing on that list? Write them down, look at them (Top 5), focus on it (Top 1) all day, every day, look again every 15 minutes until that task is completed. Repeat.

The more detailed conversation... The three points discussed are not easy and require a lot of patience and persistence. All of them are areas of my own business and personal skill-set that I am actively working on and likely always will be.

Tom’s Story: In a nutshell, Tom is an educator by trade but left teaching to start a bookstore with a loft for reading, storytelling and after school activities for community members. Bookstores these days do not generate sufficient profit to fund the operations such that there is ample time to focus on the community programs envisioned and ultimately where the passion lies. Tom is not a businessman, he wants to teach, to help, to do good for his community. Within the building, in front of the bookstore, there is a vacant coffee shop that previously had customers and from the records of the prior owner, there may have been enough to fund the operations of both. For the past several years Tom has been getting by with help from sponsors, donations, fund raising, grants and some book sales. So, here we are today and Tom spends much of his time chasing down potential financial resources (people) instead of doing what he really wants to do, to do good. He’s not doing well and asked for advice. I replied with some experiences for him to glean from.

Create the vision, put it down on paper, make it visual and share it. I’ve personally been working on this one for some time and though it may never truly be completed, it does transfer what is in my head and put it down on paper for sharing with others. In Tom’s case, this is exceptionally important as he needs help from volunteers and ideally from like minded people with similar visions of helping the community they share. I’m thinking of where I want the company to be in 3 years, what will the company look like? How will it be perceived by outsiders? What will the people working there be doing and how will they be acting? What sort of customers will be there, how many and what will they be doing? What will the finances look like? What will the local news be saying about the company? What are the core values of the company, how do they support the vision and how are the employees and volunteers living them? What is the culture like, who is running the operations and what celebrations are there? I know where Tom wants to take the company and what he wants it to look like in 3 years. If more people saw the same vision, they too would love to be involved and help get there. Tom needs these people and sharing this vision will help attract and retain them.

You have to well before you can do good. Certainly not true for a lot of actions, but for sustainable giving back to the community, there are expenses like payroll, rent, operating expenses, utilities and many more. My story has been the same at times and the lesson has been experienced, unfortunately more than once. We as a company enjoy helping out, giving back and being a part of something larger than just the company and corporate profits. It makes us feel good and provides a sense of purpose above and beyond the day to day work required to earn a paycheck. There are a lot of things that we would like to do to further these efforts and increase the amount of involvement locally. The hitch is that we have to ensure that everyone is able to get paid to take care of their lives, the company needs to pay its bills if there are to be lights and power next month and we need to care for our customers if we are to earn their trust and business. We have to do well (financially) if we want to do good. Tom has the ability to create sustainable profits through the coffee shop and book sales. In my opinion, rather than continue to chase money from short lived donors, Tom’s funding needs to come from a renewable source (the business) by attracting, serving and wowing customers. Do well, do good.

Focus via blinders. What’s your top 5 and what’s the top 1 of those 5? This is by no means a strength of mine, I am not the best at remaining focused for a long period of time. I’m an entrepreneur. Nonetheless, in order to do well so that you can do good, sometimes you have to buckle down and focus on what needs to happen before you can enjoy what you want to happen. One of the tricks I’ve learned over the years and employed on many occasions has been to create a list of the 5 most important things that I need to be working on in order to achieve what I need to finish. Writing that list one a small piece of paper, reviewing the list and identifying the single most important thing on that list. One the other side of the paper, write down the Top 1 item that I need to be working on. Carrying this paper with me at all times, I make a point of reviewing the list and most importantly my Top 1, EVERY 15 minutes. If I find that I am not working on my Top 1, I stop and get back to focusing on that which is most important thing for me to work on. My thinking with Tom’s situation would be to include the documentation and visualization of his vision to be shared as one on the list and getting the coffee shop generating profits to fund/fuel whatever else makes it on to the list. Chasing temporary funds in an endless circle probably would not make it on my list of the Top 5. Focus and put on the blinders.

We are a proud sponsor of Tom and his endeavors. If you want to help him, feel free to do so by purchasing books online or at his store in Buffalo.

Business Intermission or Post-Mortem?

Sometimes taking an business intermission to reflect, re-group and then re-engage is best, better than quitting.


I’ve tried a lot of business ideas, some better than others. Some fail, more succeed and many of the successes have had to take a break before breaking out.

With there being so many complexities in creating, building and effectively running a business, it is pretty hard to get them all right the first time around.

While busy most of the time working on VoIP Supply, my core business, I often build prototypes of businesses/products, prove their viability and (the hard part) hand the idea and basic objectives off to someone hired to build it from the ground up. Ideally remaining very hands-off and allowing the professional hired to build a plan around it and successfully execute on their plan. “Ideally” isn’t always the outcome.

One such project led to the following analysis which is shaping the second period, areas for improvement in many businesses. These are listed in no particular order.

  • Insufficient Planning and Metrics for Accountability and Measurement: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. That which gets measured gets done.
  • Ineffective Leadership, Not Able to “Wear All Hats” as Needed in Start-Up Mode: You have to be able to see the business at 30,000 feet AND 30 feet.
  • Confusing Messaging to Customers and Staff:  Within a multi-tenant holding company, who are we, how do we fit, why are we here.
  • Lack of Focused Effort, Too Much Time Spent on Non-Essentials: Customers (sales) pay the bills, focus there first. Profits make pretty.
  • No Simplistic Message (“Why Buy”) to Present to Customers and Partners: Explain it clearly in 30 seconds, once.
  • Not Leveraging Strength in Brand and Reach of Strategic Partners: Don’t walk past five $10 bills just to get a $20 bill.

It is my belief that, had the leadership been more tech savvy with interest in learning and using tools to improve efficiency, had they created a plan that included measurable goals and the activities required to achieve them and had they rolled up their sleeves to complete the required tasks before dwelling on non-essentials, they would have been more successful. Furthermore, the messaging, the “who, what, why and how”, the “why buy”, along with their visual and textual representation needed to be simple and crystal clear without detailed explanation. Lastly, the pre-established partnerships and primed customer base wasn’t leveraged effectively.

Second period, back on the ice, avoid these six bullet points and do the opposite. Simple right?

For Entrepreneurs Only

Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely job, often thankless and a non-stop roller coaster.

Explaining even that simple statement to someone that has never been one is more or less futile as much as explaining what it is like to visit space to someone that has never even been on an airplane.

After building and running companies for more than 15 years, I decided to seek out a group or organization of like minded individuals in order to discuss various business and personal situations only experienced by those that have founded and run a business of some significance.

I have never been the type of person to join networking organizations that have a primary objective of meeting, swapping business cards, soliciting business and/or seeking ways in which members can work together. I was not looking for a networking group, there are plenty of those out there.

Surely I can have conversations with colleagues, friends, my family, spouse or even my children about work related topics, but the feedback I can expect to receive will never be experience based nor will it be delivered within the context of business as a whole where each decision affects multiple areas of the business and not usually just the topic at hand.

For example, let’s say I find out that a senior level executive has been stealing from the company for several month, quite likely even longer. In deciding what to do, there are legal, financial, ethical, morale and operational impacts to consider, how to inform or not inform customers, vendors, partners and possibly even other employees. Do you react immediately or play dumb to gather evidence and catch them in the act? — I can talk about this to non-entrepreneurs and at best receive emotional support, but with other entrepreneurs I may receive a lot of comprehensive information in the format of “Wow, that happened to me last year and this is how I handled it…”

What to do? Where do I find these people?

In the search for people, groups and organizations of fellow entrepreneurs, I found the group to join in EO (Entrepreneurs Organization).

EO is a global collection of more than 7,600 members, all of whom have walked the walk and are in the organization to share and learn together. While not an invite only group, in order to be part of EO you must be the founder and/or owner of a business generating more than $1 million in annual revenue. For me, these basic requirements set the bar immediately and profiles the types of people I can expect to interact with. The organization also has a fairly strict set of rules as to how members interact in a non-solicitational, experience sharing, safe environment designed to help those that have all hopped onto the same roller coaster ride.

If you are an entrepreneur and find yourself, from time to time, seeking like minded individuals that can truly understand and help you run your business, I would highly encourage you to take a look at EO and all of the benefits available to its members.

Initial Entrepreneurship Questions (9945)

Some feedback after initial questions about being an entrepreneur and starting one’s own business…

I got started on this project with some discussions around entrepreneurship, some with my 11 year old and some with various people that I interacted with who have some of the spirit in them.

Starting with my oldest son, I’m discovering if he has what it takes, is it too early to explore for him individually, does he have some understanding of the task, ideas on where to do and any fundamentals that are brought out in the subtleties of the answers themselves. Without going into great detail, some of the questions are:

  1. Do you want to be an entrepreneur?
  2. Do you know what it means to be an entrepreneur?
  3. Do you want to run your own business?
  4. Do you have any ideas as to what you’d like to do with this business?
  5. Why do you want to run your own business?

He had some good answers, the best was the answer to #5. We talked about writing content to help others understand a particular product from the vantage of an 11 year old and how he could monetize that service, expand on that type of service and where it could go from there. His answer(s) were as you’d expect with the addition of the value side of it whereas the service (business) would be helping others and solving some of their problems with a greater understanding. Centering the mindset of running a business around helping others and solving problems is a huge step in the right direction. Making financial reward (non-value) the focal point of starting a business and/or running a business is a recipe for failure.

Then on to some general discussions with various others during the week.

I received this from a business student finishing up at university. I’ll leave out the specific answers, they are as you might expect.

  1. Do you have any specialty in study as a business student?
  2. What sort of business do you want to run?
  3. Why do you want to run your own business?

While it is completely hypocritical of me, please don’t start your business to revolt against years of others that “don’t get it” or can’t do it as well as you can (think you can). The business was a good one but the motivation was wrong in my opinion. The idea of starting the company because my boss sucked and because starting my own business will allow me to make my own schedule is a rational one, just not particularly realistic. Maybe my boss does suck or maybe he thought the same thing and is now overwhelmed with the realities of running a business. Making your own hours… I suppose this works it if is a lifestyle business, but as they say, if it’s not growing it’s dying. To build and grow a business allows you to set your own hours alright, you get to set them between 6 am and 2 am with a few hours to sleep or maybe eat. It is a lot harder than it looks, takes a lot more time than you think and can often pay a whole lot less than you’d hope. The rewards though far outweigh the negatives if you truly want to fulfill a need, solve a problem and provide value.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

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!