First Step: Starting your own business

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About 1 month ago, I decided that I would start a business, in addition to my day job. Fortunately, my day job provides me with relatively predictable schedule, a few free evening hours, and a (mostly) clear weekend. Entrepreneurship has always ranked high on my bucket list. Plus, I’m still relatively young and have no major responsibilities, so why not? But the key question was “How?”. How do you take that first step to start a business?

 

Light Bulb Moment #1: You are the average of 5 people you spend the most time with.

 To change yourself, you must change others around you. Outside of my spouse, I spend most of my waking hours with co-workers, who generally seem overworked and / or disgruntled with their cubicle job. As a first step, my environment had to change. If I wanted to be an entrepreneur, then I need to spend time with entrepreneurs. But where do you find these people?

I spent the next few weeks signing up for every single entrepreneur-esque Meetup event you can imagine. I wanted to meet people who would inspire me, mentor me, and maybe even start a business with me.

However, my first meetup event was a complete disaster. I felt like the ugly, pimply, new girl in high school who would eat lunch in toilet stalls. Nobody wanted to talk to me; and nobody remembered me. Upon reflection, it’s no wonder this happened. I would introduce myself as such: “HI. I work at a large company in strategy and marketing. I’m here because I want to start a business, but I’m not sure what kind yet.”…followed up a big, goofy yet quizzical grin.

Shoot…I wouldn’t even want to talk to myself. On top of that, the only business card I had on hand was my corporate name card, so I had to hand out a card from a giant company to people that frown upon the cubicle types. Ouch…

But then it struck me…

 

Light Bulb Moment #2: Re-Brand Yourself

 At these networking events where there are countless entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs, you need to stand out like a peacock in a sea of pigeons. A random corporate cog in the wheel with no idea what she wants to do next is not a good brand to have. For my next entrepreneur networking event, I decided to create a new brand. After floating around a few ideas, I decided to pick one and focus.

New identity: I am the Founder and CEO of an education crowdfunding startup. (How much cooler does that sound?)

At the next networking event, the new personal brand worked wonders. Several people approached me and wanted to talk about potential collaborations. I even had someone offer to design my non-existent website. People volunteered to mentor me. It’s remarkable! Between the first and second networking event, the only change was my introduction, but that made all the difference in the world.

 

Light Bulb Moment #3: Follow-up or FAIL

 One wise entrepreneur said this to me (and a bunch of wannabe / newbie entrepreneurs). It has stuck with me ever since then. After each event, I followed up with almost every single person who I snagged a business card from. I would send them a short (but nice) follow-up email, reminding them of who I am. And then, I would connect with them on LinkedIn. Even if it’s someone with a seemingly unrelated interest, you would be surprised at how useful it is to follow up.

At this point, I was just a self-proclaimed founder of a non-existent startup. I still needed to create an entire business. At one of the events, I met a guy who ran his own dating consulting service. Very unrelated, right? Well, I met him up for coffee on a whim, and he not only walked me through basic steps on how to set up my own company email address but also linked me with a few potential customers. WHAT?!? Crazy…

 

I’m still taking it one step at a time and one day at a time, but it’s AH-MAZING how a small change in self-perception and environment can give you the right push to start your own gig. Stay tuned as the journey continues…

 

 

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Why is work life balance a women’s issue?

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The last time I checked, children are produced by their mother and father. Women have children, and so do men. But why is work life balance usually framed as a women’s issue?

In one of my previous companies, flexible work arrangements were available. Great! How progressive! But it was available only for women. Also, I was recently invited to a seminar to discuss women’s leadership and work life balance. However, all invitees were women.

Let us not forget one of the most successful books on women’s leadership in recent times: Lean In. I admire the author, Sheryl Sandberg, greatly. In fact, she was even my business school commencement speaker. Again, the focus of this book is what women should and can do to rise to leadership positions while balancing work with life.

It seems like we’ve created a gender-based bubble around work life balance. Women talking about what women should do to improve women’s work life balance so we have more women in leadership. This is a pretty lonely conversation.

So, where in the world are the men??? 

Because men have children too, these fathers should have work life balance issues as well. Well, according to this HBS study, many men simply don’t see it as an issue. Society has always casted men as the breadwinner, so if a guy has to work more, then he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing. In fact, by working longer and earning more, he is providing a better future for his children.

But men are changing. Men today and tomorrow seem to care more about spending time with their offspring. Since women are now sharing the bread winning responsibility, men are starting to share more of the care-taking responsibility. This isn’t just some feminist cry to turn men into diaper changing machines. This is just good for people. I’d even argue that this is just good for society. A US national survey indicates that more involved fathers are with their children, the children not only have better academic performance but they also have less risk of delinquency.

Until society and companies broaden the work life balance discussion to women and men, it will be difficult for men to spend more time as fathers and for women to spend more time climbing the corporate ladder.

Getting things done: Do more, talk less

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My last two days were spent in a workshop, where we were tasked to generate new ideas to keep our business ahead of the competition. The participants were super excited and energetic, exclaiming “Oh! We should do this! And that! And this as well!” With ideas plastered all over the conference room, it finally came to creating action plans to ensure these project ideas come to fruition. All of a sudden, the energy faded. Nobody wanted to step up to lead and execute. There were some soft murmurs and offers to support, advise, or consult, but no one wanted to DO.

In my experience, we spend way too much time talking about what we want to do, why we want to do it, how we want to do it, and what could go wrong if we do it. After hours, days, months, or even years of talking, nothing is done. As the Texan saying goes, it’s all hat and no cattle. Or, as Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb and held over 1,000 U.S. patents, eloquently stated:

Vision without execution is hallucination.

When you’re working in the business world, you simply can’t afford to have endless meetings and consultants talking about what should be done. If you don’t do anything, then your competitors will. And eventually you talk yourself out of a business.

The business school education system exacerbates this problem. As this Harvard Business Review article astutely points out, business schools focus too much on creating and publishing scientific research rather than equipping business practitioners with practical skills. When I was in business school, there were no classes on sales, which is the oldest and most useful skill you need in business. However, there were a ton of classes that studied philosophies regarding investment techniques or strategy development. Professors tend to get tenured because their research is widely published rather than because they built successful companies. Students are encouraged to write several iterations of their business plan before actually starting a business. On top of that, most MBA grads go into jobs in consulting or investing, which involve talking about what a company should do or about which company they should invest in. More business school grads should actually run businesses, whether they are the CEO / co-founder in a start-up or a product manager in a giant tech company.

On a daily basis at work, how can we focus on getting things done? How can we talk less and do more?

1. Eliminate useless meetings: For me, this is the biggest time suck. If someone schedules a meeting without clear objectives and agenda, press the decline button. If someone schedules a meeting with too many people for an effective discussion and decision-making, press the decline button.

2. Reduce consultants: This includes internal and external consultants. I was on a project last year where there were 6 consultants and only 2 doers. That is ridiculous and a complete waste of time for the doers. Move the consultants, so that they either become doers or they are simply informed. You have to earn your right to be involved.

3. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission: People spend alot of time talking because they are afraid to make mistakes. They need to make sure all of the relevant stakeholders are aligned and agreed with the decisions, and then they start to execute. The problem is that often it’s too difficult and time-consuming to align ALL stakeholders. The longer it takes, the less competitive you become. Therefore, once you have the few key stakeholders on board, just go for it. If some people are peeved, then so be it. You did what you thought would be the best for the business and your customers.

4. Just do it: Ok. I recognize that even writing this blog post I am talking about doing something. Therefore, whatever it is you want to accomplish, as the famous Nike slogan goes, just do it.

What happens when your career is stuck?

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Recently, a friend of mine quit her job. She had been in the same position for 4 years without any prospect of moving into a new role. She had tapped her manager and her internal network for years, but nothing came. In her mid-thirties, she knew she needed to take action before she became truly stuck.

Unfortunately, my friend’s case is not unique. Especially in the 30’s / post-grad school level, I’m seeing quite a few talented, young business professionals getting stuck. They are stuck because 40 and 50 year-old’s in the next level are also stuck, creating what is being coined “the grey ceiling” and backing up the talent pipeline along the way. They are stuck because the company doesn’t get rid of under-performers but simply “repositions” them.

As a result, the following scenarios usually play out when young professionals are stuck:

1. You work longer and harder. To vie for that one promotion (because someone finally retired!), you compete with at least 10 smart, capable, driven co-workers for that golden spot. As a result, you try to get an edge by gluing yourself to the office. If you do end up getting the promotion, then the question is will you have to go through this all over again?

2. You keep moving laterally. You squeak long and often enough to your manager, your manager’s manager, and anyone who’s willing to listen. As a result, the powers-that-may-be answered your prayers for a new position, but it turns out that it’s not up but sideways. The good thing is that at least you get a holistic perspective trying out different job roles. The bad thing is that years later you still find yourself moving in a crab-like fashion.

3. You’re bored. This is the worst scenario because you’re young, good looking, and ready to do something meaningful. At this point, you’ve invested a boatload of money and time into your education, so the worst thing that can happen is that you waste all that potential by sitting idle at your desk, pretending to work while surfing Facebook / Instagram / Twitter. 20 years later, you find yourself still sitting idling but at a desk in the basement with the same job title (and stapler).

4. You’re bored but enterprising. This is basically Scenario #3 but instead of surfing social media sites, you end up using that idle time and potential to start your own gig. Another friend of mine has been doing this for months. He wakes up early every morning, goes to work to fulfill the minimum requirements, and focuses his energy on his start-up. He’s about to quit his corporate job and launch his start-up full-time. Good for my friend, but not so good for his company.

5. You quit. Sometimes, you gotta get out to go up. As much as you may like your company, if there’s limited upward mobility, then sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is to look elsewhere. Another friend of mine did just that. He went from years of being individual contributor to a job at another company that was willing to give him people and a budget to manage. The company and your manager may have the best intentions to help you progress, but sometimes you have to be very keen about what is possible and what is probable.

 

How to motivate others to work with you

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Whenever a particular co-worker passes by my section of the office, I witness grown men and women attempting to dive under their desks to hide from him. Whenever he leaves, you hear comments such as:

“He just scheduled another hour long meeting with 20+ people to talk about nothing.”

“He asked for 5 minutes of my time, and he ended up talking for an hour!”

“I already gave him this information. I don’t know why he’s asking me again and again.”

“He always wants something from me. I don’t know what he’s done for me in return.”

To avoid being that guy, here are some ways to increase your likelihood that people would want to work with you.

1. Cherish people’s time

We are all busy. For people to pay attention to you, you are competing with a zillion things – emails, unfinished work, phone calls, meetings, urgent matters, instant messages, and (potentially more important) people. It’s more likely that people will pay attention to you if they know you respect their time.

A. Understand clearly what you need and what they can offer

I think the key to respecting people’s time is to first clearly understand what you need from engaging them. Instead of approaching someone with a vague question, think carefully beforehand so that you can ask them very specific and pointed questions which are relevant to their function / expertise.

B. Do prep work to save time

People hate giving you information that they know you have or that is widely available. If you have questions to ask someone, be sure to check first whether you have this information on hand. Additionally, be sure to get background information before you approach someone. This will save both of you some time.

C. Select an appropriate mode of communication

Has this happened to you before? Someone sets up an hour long meeting for something that could have been easily resolved through a quick email. Or, someone sends two dozen emails for something that could have been resolved through a quick face to face or phone call. Think about the nature of the conversation and select the most appropriate form of communication.

D. Keep to your reserved time

My fellow co-worker is quite famous for his drive-by’s. He will walk past my group’s section and stop next to someone’s desk and say “Hey! Do you have 2 minutes?” The problem is that 62 minutes later, he’s still there!  The opposite extreme is the people that reserve your time for a meeting, but then they themselves are 30 minutes late! People do not want to work with you if you waste their time.

 2. Listen

People are inclined to work with you if they know you genuinely listen to them. I’ve been on telecoms where a question is asked, and someone will immediately start answering the question only to realize that they have no idea what the answer is 3 minutes later. Thus, 3 minutes of everyone’s time could have been spared if the person just listened to the question in the first place.

A big part of listening is giving people a chance to speak and asking probing questions. I’ve seen people that just ask a series of questions and then try to answer the questions themselves or keep on explaining the questions. The other person only needed to be given the chance to answer. Often times, probing questions are necessary if you are listening to understand rather than listening to get a superficial yes / no answer.

Remembering is proof of successful listening. OK. Maybe we don’t all have great memories with so many things going on. However, if you don’t remember, then people don’t think you’ve listened to them.

3. Earn their time

People generally respond well to give and take relationships. Even outside of work, you would probably stop inviting / hosting a friend for dinner if she never reciprocates. Hence, nobody likes a taker, so don’t be one.

The best way to get someone to do work for you is to do something that benefits them. The first step to do that is to have a good understanding of what they do, what common issues they may face, what support they need, and what you could offer, which could include:

  • Relevant Information: In today’s data-driven world, information is key to effective decision-making, but there is so much of it and often resides in disparate places. If you have access to a system or have seen a news article / report that could be helpful to the individual, then share it freely.
  • A good word: A super easy way to get on someone’s good side is to give their boss positive feedback about them and let them know that you’ve done so.
  • Contacts: You could refer someone that could help this person’s work or career. For example, for this person’s role, you may know his Africa counterpart. It could be good to put them in contact to share best practices across regions.
  • Funding: Providing someone with extra budget to pursue their project is probably one of the most powerful ways to get someone to work with you.
  • Career Development: If you know of any good opportunities that the person could be interested in, then you should not only point them in that direction but also put in a good word if possible.
  • Personal Interests: Bring up information that may serve their interests outside of work. For example, if you know someone is really into fusion food, then you could alert them if a new fusion restaurant is opening.

Be careful not to make the relationship too transactional — only doing something for someone when you need a favor. It’s important to keep the give and take dynamic in mind, so be sure to give even when you don’t need to take.

4. Maintain the relationship

Once you develop the working relationship, it’s important to maintain it even if you no longer work with the person directly. This is good practice since you may work with this person again or need something else in the future. Periodically, be sure to catch up over coffee or lunch just to see how they are doing. It’s much easier to rekindle a relationship than to establish one from the beginning.

Public speaking = a necessary evil for managers?

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak in front of 100+ people, including fellow employees (among them our high flying execs), external groups, and the media. I almost fainted when I received the news. All I could imagine was looking like this kid…

Since then, I have been observing various managers in my company and their relative public speaking ability. We all know that great leaders are typically amazing public speakers (think Martin Luther King Jr. rather than George W. Bush). However, I am learning more and more just how important good public speaking skills is to becoming a great manager (and not just a sports coach or political leader). This is a shame because public speaking is so feared that it has its own phobia name: glossophobia. Jerry Springer made an astute observation / joke about public speaking once:

I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing – number two was death! That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Why public speaking is must have skill for managers

From “rigorous” research after weeks of observing other corporate leaders, I believe here are some reasons why public speaking is a necessary evil to becoming a good manager (no matter what organization / sector you are in).

  • Communicate your key points and messages clearly and convincingly: For me, this was particularly apparent during conversations about budget and resource allocation. For managers that could clearly get your message across, then to them the spoils go.
  • Build credibility: Stuttering, limited eye contact, and plenty of filler words don’t exactly inspire confidence. Thus, people may automatically dismiss you even before they actually listen to your content (no matter how good it is).
  • Inspire and move people to action: As mentioned earlier, this is a key part of a manager / an organizational leader’s responsibility, marshaling the necessary people and enabling them to accomplish certain objectives. This is much easier if you can rally your team like Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.

How to improve your public speaking ability

In preparation for my dreaded speech, I’ve been on a quest to improve my oratory ability. Here’s what I picked up so far as some critical must have’s for a convincing speech:

  • Get the mechanics right: These are the basic foundation for a great speech, including: no stuttering, no filler words, look confident and make good eye contact, insert natural pauses, place your hands, feet, and body in natural position (vs. wringing your hands or putting them in your pockets). The list goes on…
  • Identify your key messages and keep them simple: People have attention spans shorter than a dog in a park full of squirrels. Therefore, it’s crucial to figure out what are the key 1 to 3 takeaways you want to impart on your audience. Once you have identified those messages, you need to embed them in you speech in a simple, direct, and highly digestible way. A tactic that some politicians use is the “tell them” method. (1) Tell them what you’re about to tell them; (2) Tell them; (3) Summarize what you just told them.
  • Use the power of stories and stats: Since childhood, we’re all programmed to pay attention and listen to stories. Embedding vivid and interesting stories in your speech will make it more memorable. It’s also important to incorporate some statistics in your story (if relevant) to establish more credibility in your messages (so it doesn’t sound like you’re just making everything up.)
  • Speak authentically: Bill Clinton is the king of connecting with this audience and speaking as if he’s just chatting with you over a beer. The most inspirational and moving speeches are those that come from the heart. Ok, but how do you do that? I think the most important elements to convey authenticity include: (1) revealing something personal (not too embarrassing…but much like the one in the Al Pacino video above), (2) understanding your audience and tailoring your speech to their interests / concerns, (3) believing in your message, and (4) injecting some emotion in your speech by changing your speaking pace, volume, and non-verbals.

When should I speak up in a meeting?

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Recently, I was asked to join a senior management meeting that involved people who were much above my pay grade. The host thought my attendance would serve 3 purposes: (1) provide support for tough questions asked regarding my business area, (2) provide me with a good development opportunity / visibility, and (3) (of course as the most junior person in the room) record meeting minutes and action items (When can robots take over this function?).

Where to sit?

I entered the room and scanned about 15 participants in a semi-circle. That guy has 20+ years of experience, and that guy probably has the CEO on speed dial, and then there’s me who joined the company a year ago fresh out of business school. The first question I asked myself was: “Given my support / development / note-taking role, where should I sit?”

At first, I played it shy and tried pulling up a chair at the side. Then, I caught the eye of a familiar face and took the opportunity to catch up by sitting right next to him…which also happened to be the middle of the semi-circle. Nothing like a note-taker in a power seat.

When to speak?

Throughout this multi-day meeting (yes…another issue for another time), I struggled with deciding when to speak and when to keep my trap shut. Fundamentally, the struggle was between my support / note-taking role versus an inclination to assert myself as a competent business leader versus a risk aversion to not look like a babbling idiot.

Learning from this experience and other meetings, I realized that there are a few appropriate and important times to speak up when you’re the most junior person in the room:  Continue reading