Ready, set, wait…

Entrepreneurs (E) don’t wait, if they did, they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs.

Waiting is for the faint of heart, the skeptics and the big corporate (C) machine. It has little place in my heart or of that of my businesses. Sure, I could plan more, test, re-test, even put it to a focus group. What for? While waiting, does the idea become stale? Do other distractions come along and sidetrack the concept? Does word leak out and the idea get snatched up by someone lacking creativity?

In effort to grow more intrapreneurial/entrepreneurial spirit within my own company and in the minds of others (should they happen to read my blog), I bring up this point to highlight the value of prototyping ideas and if necessary, failing time and time again. At VoIP Supply and within Sayers Technology Holdings, I’ve completed this prototyping process dozens of times and it has resulting in a variety of results. Not all succeeded on the first or second time and some continue to be revised to this day, but none have failed permanently, just evolved with the results. It usually revolves around some sort of product or services, presentable to a global audience via the Internet or to a select group of customers. It generally fills a void, creates a new market or a spur off of our existing market. So… What are you talking about?

OK, here is an example to compare the E-way to the C-way.

We’ve got an idea for a product of the comedic kind, far different from what we do today but well within our range of expertise and capabilities. We kick the idea around and decide we are going to do it. Bar napkin financial projections, some general ideas and order of tasks for project completion (v1), no real expense other than our time and budget set aside should it be needed. The E-way, we divvy up the tasks at 6 on a Friday, work over the weekend to build the prototype, content for the site, basic process and procedures for the landslide of orders we expect 🙂 and prepare for the week ahead. Baring any craziness, we chisel some time each day to handle project tasks no completable on the weekend. Friday comes, we cycle through it one more time and slap together the pieces, prep for launch and push the button. Ten days max, sometimes just the first weekend is enough time. The C-way… not really worth trying to get into it, it would take meetings, business planning, departmental approval, engineering would freak out and require 4-6 weeks just to plan out the project and ultimately upper management wouldn’t like the idea so the budget would be declined.

If the prototype is a success, then we can take the time to plan out version 2 more thoroughly. If it fails, then we can examine it to see if revision is best or if we chalk it up to a fun ten days.

The same goes for lots of great ideas, big and small. Something as simple as, “Hey Ben, I was thinking about this ____ and wanted to try it out. I’ll do the extra work myself, no expense upfront, upside potential is this ____ and if it doesn’t work, all we risked was ____ and a bit of my time. Can I do it?” Absolutely, full blessing, support and appreciation for taking the initiative. The C-way… No, get back to your desk and do your job!

The term that comes to mind when thinking of and discussing this topic (usually) is ‘Acceptable Loss‘. I often explain it as my college tuition and the extensive loan repayments as each attempt is an investment in the future, an opportunity to learn and improve and ultimately an accumulation of knowledge to be recycled when needed. Since I missed out on that expense, I can rack it up elsewhere and know that I received an education worth every penny. For me, most of the time, the term Acceptable Loss is reserved for investors and/or the CFO. What is the potential of this idea and how much are we (I) willing to sacrifice to a) see if it will fly and b) ensure that it flies or c) accept that it won’t fly and move on.

Somewhat stream of consciousness? Yep. Truth about coming up with an idea and being appreciated and/or rewarded for it? Also a yep. The terms to take home and incorporate into your own plans for success? Prototyping and Acceptable Loss.

Food for thought(s) gleaned from HBR

A collection of thoughts, ideas, suggestions and calls to action for entrepreneurs and business managers alike.

Harvard Business Review Magazine
Harvard Business Review

After a few months of having too much to do and too little spare time, I grabbed a handful of the monthly Harvard Business Review issues that had been holding down my desk and proceeded to skim through the articles. Typically I would take the time to read each article and spend a fair bit of time reflecting on the topics that are relevant to my current situations, this time was different. Instead of diving in and soaking it up, I just skimmed through three of them and jotted down some nuggets here and there. Below are these nuggets in no particular order. Do what you will with them.

  • Turn challenges into opportunities.
  • Simplicity is power.
  • Management is NOT a profession.
  • People with international experience (travel/life) are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.
  • Failure demands a response, yet the status quo is embraced and, incredibly, protected.
  • Simply stepping back to observe how you work can yield game-changing insights.
  • Good leaders protect their employees from lengthy meetings, meddlesome superiors, and a host of other roadblocks to doing real work.
  • The best leaders orchestrate constructive battles – enabling people to feel safe speaking their minds, even to their leaders.
  • The forgetting curve is sometimes more important than the learning curve.
  • You are what you measure.
  • You are what you do, not what you say. You’re not fooling anyone for long.
  • Experiment relentlessly, yet holistically.
  • A company’s value is just a sum of the decisions it makes and executes.
  • You build a culture of trust by telling the truth, even when its hard.
  • Even successful companies have to shake things up to stay ahead of the competition. Change for change’s sake.
  • High potentials always demonstrate results, master new types of expertise, and recognize that behavior counts. But it’s their intangible X factors that truly distinguish them from the pack.
  • Be clear. Be consistent. Be creative.

I can’t take credit for any of these statements, nor can I say that I do or don’t do them 100% of the time. I can say that I work hard at them 100% of the time and the status quo is NOT embraced or protected.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Entrepreneur

Who’s going to build the businesses of the future?

The economy is built and grown through the efforts of new businesses, small business and entrepreneurs. Are we preparing today’s youth to be successful as tomorrow’s entrepreneurs?

Reflecting back on the tools I had when I started my first business, those that made it successful and the very same that were required to build my current companies, I’m not sure that our kids are going to have what it takes. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.

So what’s it take? In my opinion, to be successful in starting on your own and building without a bankroll, you need a broad range of skills, aptitude to learn anything, desire to learn as much as possible and a work ethic rarely seen these days.

I have to go back to my youth and remember what it was like, count my blessings now, counting the very things I cursed and hated when I was a kid. Tough love and physical labor, difficult financial times yet the support to earn what I need so that I may get what I want.

Growing up in an area surrounded by rural communities where most made their living off of the land and to gain was to work harder, maybe our future entrepreneurs aren’t coming from the communities where today’s entrepreneurs reside, rather from areas of the country where the tools are still ingrained at an early age.

I’ve often thought of where and how I could share some of my experiences to both help those that want to start their own company and to ward off those that think they do but won’t be able to cut it. While I could go to he “best” school systems or work with a business college, I have to think that my time and effort would be best spent at the grade school and high school level in an area of the state/country where hard work is still a part of life and instilled by the parents.

Words of advice to myself and others that want their kids to be something special in their future careers would be:

  • Put your kids to work (even for no reason other than to make them work hard). Do this consistently and with very little reward, if any, other than the thanks for pulling their weight.
  • Give them the tools and encouragement to learn a variety skills from accounting to technology, from listening to being accountable and an understanding that failure is required on the road to success.
  • Teach them the upside of personal sacrifice in pursuing a greater goal rather than just today’s wants.
  • Provide the means and/or encouragement for them to earn “it” on their own rather than getting for them as a reward for something they should be doing anyway.
  • Reinforce independence, common sense, decision making and self-awareness by teaching, noticing and acknowledging success in these areas.

It’s going to take a lot more than your experiences and financial resources for your kids (or mine) to be successful in business and in life without the right tools in the toolbox.

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!

Business Fraud Prevention Series – Part 1

Protect yourself from Scammers – Part 1 – Check FraudProtect yourself from business fraud

This post contains a few examples written from personal experience where I / we were either a victim or very nearly taken advantage of. There are ways to protect yourself but not all are obvious and, without taking the appropriate measures, you may well find yourself in a similar situation. In this series I’ll write about check fraud, credit card fraud, identity theft, international transactions and other methods that dishonest people will attempt to take advantage of you and your business.

Part 1 – Fake checks: Over the past eight years that VoIP Supply has been dominating the online retail marketplace for new and used Voice over IP hardware, we have had several waves of fake checks totaling well into the high six figures and possibly over the seven figure mark. People have created and delivered hundreds/thousands of checks with our account numbers, company name and address to victimized individuals and businesses around the world. Someone sold their Harley Davidson on eBay in exchange for one of these checks, delivered the bike and a few days later found out the check for $10,000 was not legit. Companies have sold goods to people impersonating VoIP Supply, delivered them COD and received a fake check in return. Those are just a couple of examples, there are hundreds more…

How they did it: First things first, they got our checking account number. At VoIP Supply and IP Camera Supply, we have a lot of customers that choose to pay by wire transfer and we generate plenty of quotes with our wire transfer instructions on it. These instructions contain our account number and our bank’s routing number. In addition to that, every check we cut and send to vendors, partners, customers and affiliates (just like your checks) contains the same information. Once you have this information, all you (they) need to do is march on into and office supplies store, buy some blank checks and start printing. It’s that simple and not much of a secret.

How to protect yourself: Here are some ways we’ve done it.

  1. Setup a separate checking account for incoming wires. Your bank can setup an account that does not permit checks to be cashed against it and use it in a one-way manner for deposits only. Once your incoming wire arrives, the bank can then transfer the funds to your primary account(s).
  2. Talk to your bank about check fraud protection programs they may have. We use a program that requires all checks that we generate to be registered with the bank prior to them being eligible for cashing or deposits. We provide the bank with a list of check numbers, amounts and payees and they will only cash checks that appear on that list. It may be an inconvenience from time to time, but well worth it for both us and for the bank.
  3. There are several well known brands in the check printing industry, companies like McBee and Deluxe. If you can, reach out to them and provide your account number if they have a program to register accounts not eligible for printing. They have their own fraud prevention process as well.
  4. If and when you see your first check like this or find yourself in this situation, brace yourself, it will likely be just the start. Don’t wait for them to begin piling in, take action right away. Let your bank know what’s going on, call the police and file a report and begin working on steps 1-3 above. If the tally continues to grow, keep the local police involved, they will escalate it to a federal enforcement group once past a certain dollar figure or volume of transactions.

In our case, while this fake check issue continues to present itself from time to time, it has been put in the hands of the Secret Service and several of these people have been tracked down and prosecuted. Because they were fake checks and the bank caught it, we were not out any funds. Nonetheless, individuals and businesses were victimized and they should be protected by your proactive fraud control measures. Be smart, plan ahead.

  • Credit card scams – See part 2 – This one cost us a long time ago. We learned the hard way so you don’t have to.
  • Identity theft (business and person) – See part 3 – This is a growing threat for individuals and businesses, don’t ignore it, prevent it.
  • International – See part 4 – If you service a global customer base as we do, be cautious and don’t be afraid to walk away when it seems to good to be true.
  • Internal affairs – See part 5 – Dishonest people are everywhere, protect yourself from being victimized from inside your own walls.