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Focus on your talents. Hire or partner to cover your weaknesses

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I am great at one or two things. Good at a couple more. Okay at a lot of things and pretty bad at others. I don’t always know what my strengths are, and it’s often interesting to have them pointed out by someone else, but I have a generally good idea of what I can and cannot do well. Maybe you’re the same.

Yet, often, even at my age, I find myself wrestling with things that I really should learn to just pass on to someone who could handle them with ease. I don’t know if it’s arrogance or fear. I do know it’s a waste of time.

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as an entrepreneur, is to learn how to delegate. There are many things that drive my business, and only some of them are things that I can do well. Helpfully, three of them are things that I excel at, but the others, are simply things that if I choose to do them personally, will hinder growth, probably forever. Sales is one. Marketing is another. I know people who are outstanding at these things and it doesn’t make any sense for me to try to do what they do better than I can. My concentration is better focused elsewhere.

Delegation is key to growth. It’s also the most liberating feeling in the world when you finally learn to embrace it. That part is at least not new to me.

But here’s what I keep rediscovering: delegating the stuff you can’t be great at is only helpful if you get serious about the stuff you can be. In my case it’s research, content creation and delivery, and delegating the sales and marketing of that frees up more time for me to do it. If I don’t use that time fully though, the team doing sales and marketing will quickly find itself recycling old material, which defeats the object.

The point in delegating sales, as an example, is that there will be far more deals closed by someone who loves to focus on business generation. If I don’t give them updated or even brand new things to sell however, their results will be no better than if I did it myself.

Delegating therefore isn’t about getting work off your back so that you can do less. It’s about getting the wrong work off your back so you can do more of the right stuff. It’s not less work; it may be more. I think, however, it’s what Americans may call ‘finding your bliss’ or something like that.

I’ve never been afraid of hard work. I don’t think you can be and still be serious. I am however, terrified of futile work. Time invested to no good end. If you’re to use the best of your talents, assuming you know what those things are, you simply have to let go of the rest and find someone else to do them.

There’s an irony though. The one thing you can’t delegate is the act delegation itself. And that’s the one thing almost nobody is very good at.

Sell. You’re not above begging.

I’m always baffled when people say they can’t sell because there doesn’t seem to be any point in that statement if you want to grow your business. The backbone of such arguments normally references someone who is really great at sales as proof that they can do something you can’t do. It’s such an innate way of being, you may argue, that there is no way you could possibly be good at it because you ‘lack the gene’ or something.

Maybe. But you know what irks me? The only time people are polite about salespeople is when they’re using them as a smokescreen to get out of the line of fire. The rest of the time, you probably aren’t nearly as positive, which tells me something important: it’s not that you can’t sell; it’s that you won’t because you think it’s beneath you. You’re the creator, the mastermind, the visionary; why the hell would you subject yourself to a situation in which you might conceivably have to beg?

The answer is a simple one. Because starving to death is worse.

Anyone who can clearly identify a role they refuse to take on during the building stages of a business, simply isn’t fully committed. I’m not what you might call a salesperson either. I also believe there are people who can do it better than I can. I believe some of those people have genuine intuition. I’ve seen it, and it’s impressive.

But nobody wants this more than I do. Nobody cares about the success of my business more than I do. The business depends on paying customers, which means I have to play a leading role in finding those customers and having that sales talk. It’s not a choice. It’s a responsibility.

Sometimes what I do feels a little bit like begging. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Much of life is like that. If you’ve got any juice in you at all however, you’ve probably embraced discomfort many times, in order to get something you want. I doubt there is anyone who can honestly claim they have not.

So you can do this.

The ultimate advantage of getting out and selling is that if you do enough of it, and you’ve got something worth buying, you’ll begin to make money.

If you think that is beneath you, you’re in the wrong game.

Work is not an end. It’s a means to an end.

Around about 3am, I had a reality check. As I looked up, bleary-eyed from my laptop where I had been putting the final touches to a pair of proposals, I looked straight into the equally bleary-eyed face of my wife, Linda, also working away late into the night. The children were asleep. Even the dogs had long since gone to bed. It suddenly felt like perhaps, this demands some attention.

I don’t think it’s uncommon for entrepreneurs to keep odd hours. I don’t really see how it’s avoidable, especially when there is a family that needs attention and life-matters that take up inconvenient amounts of time. We stopped work in the late afternoon when the child minder knocked off, bathed the children, had dinner together, read stories, put them to bed, and caught up with what was going on in each others’ lives, and then we simply flipped back into work mode. Another eight hour day on top of the previous eight hour day, and that’s kind of how it goes for us.

The conversation took an ugly turn at 3am however. What the hell are we doing? And why are we doing it? What is the overriding idea, here? It’s a crisis of common sense that we both love what we do so much that we like to press on long after all the healthy-minded people have gone to bed. There is always more to do, and bigger and better ideas that capture our attention, and so we constantly find ourselves putting in just one more hour to keep things moving along. That much is probably a blessing.

But how long is this going to be fun? How long until something snaps? And is it all worth it?

The pursuit of a business dream requires as much focus on the journey itself as on the end goal. If you want to create riches through your own endeavours, you’re going to have to have the mental and physical capacity to ignore normal limits and really push yourself. Linda and I are experts at that part of it. It’s why things keep building around us and we can both clearly see growth in all the desired business areas.

But it dawned on us that we’ve largely lost sight of the goal. And neither of us realised that had happened. For me, the dream has never been a garage full of Italian cars or any of the other trappings of wealth. I want my children to have the very best opportunities around and if they do well enough to be accepted at the best university in the world, I want to be able to pay for it. I’m much more driven by responsibility than greed.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in sending them to Harvard however, if I don’t live to see them graduate, or have mired myself so thickly in business responsibilities that I can’t get over to the United States at any point during their studies to visit them, buy them a meal or take a holiday with them.

It’s easy to get carried away by what is happening right now. But the conversation we had early this morning is one I recommend every entrepreneur engages in. I don’t buy the theory that you must always build a business with an exit strategy, because it’s not my intention to stop what I am doing and cash it all in. I do think it’s critical however to get it solidly in mind that what we’re doing right now, must have a purpose beyond the mere doing of it.

These late nights, and all this extra effort must themselves be part of a fixed-term goal to release responsibilities and take a more relaxed role. Work itself cannot be the end. I bet there are more than a few entrepreneurs who forget that.

Pick your mentor wisely to find someone with provable experience

I’m a big believer in mentors. Coaches. People with experience, who can help me do stuff better, in life and in business. I find it really useful to talk things through and since I’m determined to grow, I’m open to having my opinions swayed. The challenge for me has always been that of finding people who have the magical combination of real experience and the time to talk about it.

I don’t necessarily buy into the trite and slightly insulting saying that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ but I am certainly wary of the hundreds of success and business coaches out there who seem to exert as much energy blurring their back story as they do promoting claims of their own capabilities, all the while offering to turn your life around for a hefty fee.

Since there’s too much at stake for you to risk dealing in snake oil, you’re better off finding an executive – a CEO if you can – who is actively involved in the business they have built, and offering them a fee for a monthly hour of their time. It’s my inflexible view, that if they’re to have any real value, mentoring should not be their primary role.

There are two reasons for this: the first is that they have real experience, not theoretical knowledge. You can learn from business books, but knowledge is always out-trumped by experience simply because the pain and elation of associated emotion gives you a much richer experience. You can read about something from the sidelines, but it’s nothing compared to 80 minutes on the field.

The second is that because they are still active, their experience is still being built. There’s nothing master/servant about a relationship built between two people who are battling through similar things. At times, the mentor can become the mentored, adding loads of extra depth.

The snag is that because they’re actually doing the things they claim to know about, they’re mostly not available to share their time, and can be unreliable at that. Sudden crises happen and the Tuesday morning session you’ve planned has to be postponed. Added to that, their weekends are not for sale because their weeks are so densely packed.

You’ll have to find a way to fit flexibly into their schedule therefore. A month is 168 hours long. for a CEO, it’s probably closer to 220. Maybe a few more. Your hour can probably fit snugly in the middle there somewhere, but be prepared for it to move around.

Be prepared also, to be specific. It’s your money you’re spending, and their time you’re taking up, and you should treat both of those with respect. Even if you’re willing to drop thousands for little return, you won’t earn their interest for very long unless you’re bringing them something interesting to help work through. Let your mentoring sessions be problem-solving ones. There’s no other real value in a mentor than that. You can chit chat with your friends.

I’m a big believer in mentors. But the wrong one is as value-less as the right one is valuable. Make your decision carefully.

How much information do you really need to make a decision?

One of the worst things for any entrepreneur is to deal with a perfectionist. These people are like Kryptonite to Superman when it comes to decision-making because at least in the early stages of a business, absolutely nothing is perfect. It’s chaos. It’s madness. It’s not even very clever half the time, no matter whether we think it is. Perfectionists are just a terrible fit.

If I have learned anything in the insanity of building businesses, it’s that you have to make decisions with a limited amount of information. That may be anathema to an MBA graduate, but it would probably make perfect sense to a military leader. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. You can’t make the perfect decision. Sometimes you just have to go.

The question then, is how much information do you really need to make a decision? The only possible answer is that it depends on your appetite for risk. If it’s high, you don’t need much. If it’s low, you can never have enough. That’s probably obvious.

What’s not obvious is the dividing line between intelligent low-information decision-making and gambling. Gambling, no matter what the movies attempt to depict, is bloody stupid. Which means to me, you’ve got to have a little more intelligence about you before you leap into the unknown. Appetite for risk isn’t the same as willingness to commit financial suicide.

So how much information do you need?

Let’s break it down. Ex-United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was and remains a jerk and there’s little to be learned from him short of a billion cautionary tales. But he did once say something which in his bizarre rhetoric came across as … bizarre … but which is actually surprisingly bright.

He spoke about four things: known knowns, the things you are certain of; known unknowns, the things that you know you don’t have enough information about; unknown knowns, the things that you don’t realise you know until they’re suddenly up in your face, and unknown unknowns, the things you don’t have the faintest idea exist and therefore have the ability to blindside you.

I know. it’s gobbledygook. But bear with me.

Leave out the things you know you’re an expert in and the things you know you don’t know enough about and therefore approach with trepidation. Leave out also the things you don’t realise you know, because they’ll present themselves to you when you’re forced to think a little harder.

The buggers are the things you didn’t even know you needed to know.

Those are the ones that make the difference between gambling and low-information decision-making. The gambler is unwilling to predict that anything unusual might come around the corner. The low-information decision-maker is at least half-primed to accept it. Neither of them is particularly well-equipped to deal with it in advance, because by definition, you can’t be. How can you prepare for something you haven’t even imagined?

There is ample evidence however, that in at least knowing that your greatest plans are probably flawed, you can react intelligently, as long as you’re deep enough and broad enough to be able to apply lateral context. Your most important knowledge is non-specific. What have you seen, heard of, read about, that triggers a linking of dots? If you don’t have that, you’re naked.

Which bring us back to the first guy. Perfectionists don’t have any context beyond the flawed object that is in front of them.

How much information do you need? The truth is, you cannot know. Sometimes you just have to go. Preparation isn’t science. It’s a way of being. That’s probably why so few entrepreneurs actually build businesses that grow.

You can’t hope for success and keep wasting your todays

There’s this scene in the George Clooney movie Up in the air, in which he tells a character named Bob (who he is in the act of retrenching from his job), that he doubts his children ever really admired him. Naturally, it angers Bob, but Clooney’s character isn’t just being obnoxious. The Bob character studied French cuisine in university 30 years before, but gave up on whatever dream he had to be great in that field the moment he was seduced by a corporate job, even one that didn’t pay very much money. Fast forward 30 years and Bob, who has performed averagely in his average job, and achieved average amounts of recognition, coupled with average raises, is considered to be superfluous to requirements. Companies do that. It’s the worst thing about them.

There’s a fork in the road here. I could create an argument that any company that has a Bob on its payroll is one that obviously doesn’t grow its people very well and ought to be shamed into taking a long, hard look at itself. I reckon I could do that pretty successfully, because I believe it. More companies are like Bob’s employer than any of us cares to admit, and that is the worst thing about work.

I could alternatively create an argument that Bob should have tried harder. Having made a decision, he should have grabbed it with both hands, and all of that pseudo-motivational BS that management trainers and the like, try to tell you. Except that I don’t think the guy ever had a chance at being good in a job that was a compromise from the outset. His mistake was to sell out and you can’t just decide to love something.

I could make those arguments, but neither of those is the most important one in that scene, which I have watched over and over. The thing that gets me every time is the fact that Bob, much like the overwhelming majority of the western world, I have no hesitation in saying, is a sleepwalker. I’ve personally experienced this. I’ve allowed a year or two (thankfully never more than that at any one time), to pass by almost unnoticed as I talked myself in and out of the job I was in. You go through the motions, you do what is expected, but never enough to get any recognition. You’re just kind of, there.

And then it’s a year later. And then it’s another one.

I’d like to see a sequel to Up in the air in which Bob has rediscovered his excitement for French cuisine, opened a restaurant at the age of 55 and is finally having more fun days than boring ones. That’s probably pretty sappy, but I’d like to see it.

We’re all guilty of a little sleepwalking through our lives. But you can’t do anything worthwhile if you’re not excited enough about today, to do something about it. All those todays add up to one big chunk of either wasted or well-spent time. But don’t kid yourself that they’re ever just freebies.

You owe yourself the self-respect to think more broadly

I wish to compete at what I have chosen to be my highest possible level. It is true that it takes some people more time than others, and at nearly 45, I’m only a couple of years into my best idea yet. If I connect the dots, I can trace this back over a decade now, and possibly much longer, but as 2015 unfolds, the brainchild that was Happy Sandpit is evolving into an organisation that I wouldn’t bet against being a R1-billion pan-African business within another ten years. It happens to some people at 35. I’m aiming for 55. That’s just how it is.

But here’s the thing, and there is really no way around this: the narrow band of expertise which I spend my days selling is fatly embellished by a broad and constantly-increasing pool of connected knowledge which while often specifically irrelevant, is critical to its overall enrichment. You cannot dominate anything unless you give in to the fact that your quest for domination requires incessant growth. You cannot, ever, know it all.

In building the knowledge that fuels my organisation, I can tell you straight that I am borderline distressed by what I thought of as knowledge only two years ago. That realisation has given me a strategic goal of being equally distressed in 2017 by what I thought was detailed knowledge in 2015. There’s not only so much more to learn, things change.

What is at stake in all of this is the notion that it’s possible to ever be an expert over any sort of period of time. You can be sensational right now, and redundant tomorrow. That should scare you.

The goal therefore, must be expansive learning. But you run the risk, in focusing too narrowly, of being uni-dimensional. I could own a unique perspective on employee engagement, organisational culture and other people matters that fascinate me, and be able to add absolutely nothing of value to any conversation, even on that topic, because in isolation it lacks important depth.

Knowledge of how people behave in corporate banking environments is enriched by knowledge of global politics. As it is by war and conflicts. As it is by gender battles. As it is why people choose mainstream pop over mathcore punk.

Context matters. To me, the only solution is to be basically interested in absolutely everything, and as unbiased as you possibly can. You owe yourself the self-respect to think more broadly.

You can’t preach morality when there isn’t enough to eat

Missionaries and politicians alike know the solid brick wall of trying to convince role model-deprived people to modify their thoughts and activities. Employees of new businesses can often face exactly the same challenge in dealing with their founder bosses.

Even if we get over the fallacious statistic that nine out of 10 startups fail in their first year, the challenge of growing a business beyond a one- or two-person operation is huge.

A better statistic for failure, must include a clearer definition of what failure actually means (far fewer businesses close their doors than simply come to a stop with neither debt nor a clear revenue model) and some sort of industry segmentation (perhaps more restaurants shut down than do advertising agencies). Without applying such variables, any discussion of the topic is nonsense.

The real challenge for entrepreneurs isn’t survival, but growth. You can be a one-person show for years, while other businesses around you grow from zero to 200 employees within two years. Why is that?

One overriding reason simply is that entrepreneurs who haven’t got used to sharing early on, find it increasingly hard to do so later. The perception held by the leaders of a growing business, that people add to the experience, revenue potential and overall strength of a company, is often the opposite of that held by the solo entrepreneur once they have experienced any sort of business success.

Where for the growing business, adding people is a long-term strategy which carries short-term sacrifices in an expanding bottom line, for the solo entrepreneur, they can simply be viewed as a cost that limits immediate earnings. If you’re used to banking everything, even the ease of finding new business can seem like a poor trade off for 70% of your previous haul.

Employees who sign on in such a scenario, find themselves parring with a boss who feels that their very presence, however necessary it was considered to be at the hiring time, deprives them. In reaction, those bosses feel they are sharing too much already in providing a salary, and struggle to come to terms with the fact that their new member of staff has ideas that may change the business. It’s too vast a leap to make, so they get locked into a cycle of hiring, draining and losing employees, constantly returning to their solo status, which represents an exhausting sort of comfort zone.

It’s common wisdom that nobody ever achieves anything great on their own. Supportive people matter. If your dream is to build something substantial, you’d better learn to share, quickly.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Financiverse

One of my favourite feeds on Facebook is the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, which routinely debunks idiotic science including the anti-vaccination craziness, creationism, and the like. Its solid scientific approach to taking down pseudoscience is important work and I recommend that everyone subscribes.

Science requires no supportive adjectives. There is no ‘pure’ science, no ‘true’ science, no ‘real’ science. There is researched, then peer-reviewed science, and there is stuff that simply isn’t science at all. The Skeptics’ Guide doesn’t take an apologist stance; it is self-assured in its quest to stop stupidity from spreading.

It’s so good, that I think the model should be exported to other topics. Business and personal finance come to mind. In the past year, I’ve had a front row look at some truly audacious sales pitches for what is fundamentally vapour, and I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the way in which ordinary people have leapt to sign up. Something is wrong here.

Get rich quick schemes aren’t new of course, but perhaps because we’ve lived in such a lousy economy for such a long time, they seem more attractive than ever to the thousands of people who attend conferences because they’re just so tired of fighting.

But they’re a lie, make no mistake. And they’re sold by liars who haven’t achieved the success they lie about having achieved.

When I was a kid, growing up in Belgium and surrounded by American friends in our expat enclave, I used to read Archie and Jughead comics, and the thing I remember most about them were the cool ads at the back. You could buy a fully working nuclear submarine including crew, for $7. You could buy a full-size log-cabin or your own Frankenstein’s monster; a machine that printed real money or x-ray specs that fuelled all sorts of perverted pre-adolescent daydreams for a 10-year old Colin. All for $7. There were those who said that it seemed too good to be true, but I knew a good deal when I saw one. They didn’t ship to Belgium, so I never found out, and in my later years, I have found them a source of genuine delight. You can check some of them out here.

Get rich quick schemes act in precisely the same way, except they appeal to adult minds which should be skeptical enough to know better. Clever salesmanship, encased in perceived content, backed up by outrageous claims, all of it obfuscated by an almost invisible Internet presence, is con-artistry, in its most basic form.

Here’s what I know, and I hope you respect what you already have, enough to believe me: you can’t get rich quick unless you get into drug distribution, are lucky enough to make it in show-business, or you’re into wild gambling. And in all of those cases, your success is under immediate threat of evaporating from the moment it arrives.

Riches are acquired over time. They take effort and positioning and more often than not, they demand sacrifices. You’re surrounded by rich people, every day, but you’d never know it from their cars, or the seats they occupy on commercial airliners because they know that it was too hard to make their money in the first place, to spend it so easily.

There’s salvation in that, though. If it was so easy to get rich, you’d really have to be pathetic not to be it. But in reality, you’re probably neither.

The ultimate enemy of riches is impatience. Please don’t be suckered.

The new rules of online self-promotion

Oscar Wilde would have been stunned into silence by Facebook. It was his suggestion that the only thing worse in life than being talked about, is not being talked about, but there is no way he could have imagined a world of daily selfies and self-quotes as attempts at attention seeking. If you use social media, and Facebook in particular, as a promotional tool for your professional activities, you’re in need of some new rules:

1. Stop the @#@^&* Selfies and start thinking Groupies.

There is nothing more narcissistic and desperate than a Selfie with only two exceptions: (1) the profile picture … if there is nobody around to take one when you need it, and (2) the contextual Selfie, in which the point of the picture is something other than you. If your t-shirt says something rib-ticklingly hilarious, by all means, snap it up. If you’re about to jump out of a plane, do the same. Otherwise, if you’re that interesting, why do you have to take your own pictures? The Groupie on the other hand, may have merit. You and other people. You doing something unusual, especially if it involves other people. Groupies get a green light because they’re not only about you and probably have a story to them, which is actually what’s interesting.

2. You cannot be the one to decide you’re profound.

My timeline has a constant flow of pictures bearing inspirational quotes, attributed, sometimes correctly, to the historical figure who said them. I tend to skip over them because I say cleverer stuff than that, all the time. So do you, if you have a vocabulary that spans more than 200 words, and are perceptive enough about the world, to notice irony and humour. Public personalities speak in soundbites in order to get quoted, but the potency of that activity is dependent on other people deciding that what they said was profound. Posting your own quotes as if they’re the smartest things anyone ever said, is worse than posting a Selfie. And we know you spent more time on the font and the background than on the actual quote, which puts it all into perspective.

3. Think, the content of your character, not the content of your wallet.

Alain du Botton’s book Status Anxiety, is based on the hypothesis that we measure success not by how we’re doing on a macro-scale, but how we’re faring at a micro-level. You don’t lose sleep over the fact that Bill Gates continues to be richer than you, because he doesn’t offer an immediate reflection of your life. When the neighbour gets a new Porsche however, or a colleague gets promoted and you don’t, it’s a good, swift, kick in the ego. It is for that reason, and no other, that you posted a picture of your new car or announced that you’re sitting in first class on your latest trip overseas. Social media in most forms, offers you an opportunity to share ideas and create conversations, to share jokes and insights about the peculiarity of life, and Facebook is at its best when that is how it is used. The rest of this stuff tells us only about your need for attention.

Self-promotion is a necessary thing. If you aim to be relevant, it’s madness to hope that people will notice you on their own, so it’s worth putting some effort into it. Oscar Wilde’s statement is relevant for a Facebook world, because if your self-promotion activities are based on these three, they’re not really paying attention to you at all.