The Process of Entrepreneurial Improvement


The so famous and always timely Gandhian creed of “be the change you seek in the world” is never more relevant than when it comes to what entrepreneurs must do to get better in order to lead profitable enterprises and to fulfill on the mission and promise of their organizations.
I experienced this first hand at my company’s quarterly advisory board meeting this past week.

While we are proud that Growthink’s revenues grew 30% in 2011, the complexity of our business model - with a mostly Internet marketing-based publishing “front-end” meshed with a strategic advisory and venture investing “back-end” - has long been a point of spirited discussion as to how to best organize and lead it.

And as the company’s CEO, I was unluckily (or luckily, depending on one's perspective), the focal point of the debate.
I was challenged by our board for, among other things, not clearly enough defining and measuring the business’ key metrics, to not delegating effectively and often enough, to leading in a too "cliché - driven" fashion, to not taking care of myself, to the simple but highly relevant feedback as to my moderation style of the board meeting itself!

The sessions were painful. They were discouraging. They were sometimes anger and soul-search inducing.

And they were wonderful.

It is way too rare in business and in life - especially as an entrepreneur attains a base level of success and/or as they get older - that they are truly challenged and called out on their shortcomings.

Rather, in our politically correct culture, the default is too often to take the “everyone gets a star on their forehead and trophy” approach.

While there is a LOT to say for a kudos - based company culture and leadership ethos, it has its drawbacks.

It can excuse lack of performance and it can lead to a false sense of “faux” accomplishment.

Most insidiously, lack of “tough love” can impede that creativity inducing state of introspection - and even depression - from which often flow breakthrough ideas and profound transformation.

Call them what you will, but these kinds of in-person business “interventions” can propel more strategic and professional growth than a countless thousand e-mails, tweets, texts, and status updates ever can.

Now, the flip-side is that the executive has to be open to this feedback and be fervently committed to an ongoing personal and professional growth mindset and approach.

You see, while life and business VERY occasionally give us savants with so much of the right leadership and management stuff that they succeed in a linear growth fashion, the vast majority of entrepreneurs learn to get better through failing and through crisis.

And in modern business, these crises almost always come unpredictably.

And they are sometimes of such a severity that while wisdom - inducing for sure can also be so debilitating as to impede forward progress for years.

Far more controllable and repeatable are the “manufactured” crises of a board meeting, of a strategic planning process, of a business coaching and mentoring dynamic.

Look for entrepreneurs that are open and expose themselves to these kinds of sessions regularly.

Even better, look for those that once given the goods on what they're doing wrong and why, go out and do something about it.

Like growing themselves and their organizations to all they can and should be.


The Lost Generation?


Unable to build on numerous exhilarating rallies and hyper-sensitive to every geopolitical tremor, the US stock market ended 2011 right where it began it - with the S&P 500 Index at almost exactly (1257) where it started the year.

I guess that given the heart-wrenching volatility that we have all been subject to recently, a flat year should be considered progress.

The longer view, however, is far more disheartening.

When we consider that the S&P closed 1998 – 13 long years ago - at 1229, or within 2.2% of its 2011 close, we have all suffered through nothing less than a lost generation of investment return.

Think about it, a 1998 New Years baby is now a teenager.

The whole lifetime that is her childhood is a memory, yet that same girl's parents that began saving for her college education on that happy day of her birth, have not seen a penny of return on the money that they worked so hard to make and save.

This is discouraging to say the least.

Luckily, the New Year brings with it both the promise of things to come and the opportunity to "reset" old patterns of thoughts and action that no longer serve us.

And is there anything in business right now that more desperately needs a reset than how we think about making money on our money?

Now, for entrepreneurs, adding greatly to the challenge, is that in the natural hustle and bustle of growing a business what is so often overlooked is how a company’s business plan does or does not support the personal financial plans of the individual stakeholders that make up the company.

This is a tragic mistake – where the entrepreneur is so focused on the day-to-day running of the business that they neglect until it is too late how that business is or is not creating assets in exchange for the lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears poured into it.

Given that my company Growthink’s mission is to help entrepreneurs succeed, I consider this challenge so fundamental and the consequences of further failure so dire that in 2012 I am professionally resetting myself to focus on, above all else, benchmarking and sharing best practices in this regard.

Among other work, this will involve building on my now multi-year experience and inquiry into the brave new world of diversified, “Black Swan” based alternative investments.

Pioneered by innovators like Dave Lambert and Kevin Dick at Rightside Capital, this incredibly exciting arena allows entrepreneurs and investors the opportunity to time and cost effectively build risk managed portfolios of positions in early stage technology companies with "Google-esque” and "Facebook-eque" outlier return potential.

It is a strategy that the realities and the probabilities of 21st century business demand, and one that financial innovators are making available for the first time to Main Street investors.

I will also step up my featuring of the entrepreneurs that I have had the great fortune and pleasure to get to know and see succeed here at Growthink.

Men and women like Liam Brown, Rich Corell, Torfinn Johnsen, Vlad Lempert, and Katie Williams.

Because while “on average” these last 13 years might have been flat, during this same time an ultra-select corps of entrepreneurs have built incredibly valuable companies and have inspired us with their determination, their creativity, and their triumphs.

I look forward to sharing the best nuggets of their wisdom, and hope that all of us capture just a little bit of their special something.

2012 awaits - may it be the best year our entrepreneurial and investing lives.

Let’s make it so.


More Powerful Than Money?


In a book full of them, one of the most profoundly powerful points made in Oren Klaff’s bestseller "Pitch Anything," is the subtle concept of the powerless of money in the face of entrepreneurial initiative.

Now before you think that the book is some kind of "sound of one hand clapping" meditation, let me explain by contrasting how money operates these days in the world of investment compared to how it does in the world of consumption.

When it comes to buying things and services - of every type, from everywhere around the world –the liquid and creditworthy consumer stands omnipotent.

In fact, the buying options in our modern world have grown to such a dizzying degree that a whole industry has spawned around managing what author Barry Schwartz in a famous bestseller of a few years back termed "The Paradox of Choice."

In the world of investing however, money holds a decidedly weaker hand.

For when it comes to finding that magical risk/reward sweet spot, money has no price comparison tools to guide it.

No free shipping and certainly no money back guarantees.

And as for variety and choice, well these days investors seeking quality returns are arguably faced with worse options than at any time in almost of our living memories.

The so called "safe" investments - cash, treasury bills, residential real estate – have for a long time now offered only the double whammy of pathetically low yields and far more insidiously have proven to be anything but safe.

As for the public stock markets – the traditional world of “risky” investments – well the risk is still there for sure, but where are the returns?

So into this paucity of choice and return vacuum steps the intelligent and assertive entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur that understands that while this world of ours is awash in vast, mostly sclerotic, often siphoned, and usually very scared pools of commodities and inheritance - based cash, the "man (or woman) in the arena” entrepreneur is the ultimate, scarce global resource.

Because it is only he (or she) that can graciously grant and give money what it wants - what it so desperately needs - positive expected value and manageable risk - return.

In short, that can give money a purpose beyond the latest holiday bauble.

So in his book Oren Klaff eloquently reminds us (and very contrary to popular wisdom), that when money and entrepreneurs meet it is money that is the beholden one, and that is the beta to the alpha man (or woman) with a plan entrepreneur.

And, those entrepreneurs that know this - that work day and night to become and be this - never “need” money.

The opposite, of course, does not hold.


Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything


The #1 book on business development in the world today is Oren’s Klaff amazing Pitch Anything.
It is hands-down the best book on modern selling and deal-making I have ever read, and I have read a LOT of them.
And it is driving a quiet “turn the tables” revolution on the relationship between buyer and seller.
But don’t just take my word for it.  Here are what some of Oren and his method’s thousands of devoted followers say about his revolutionary approach:
“If you've ever come out of a meeting, conversation, or sales appointment with a "no", or "unfavorable" response from your audience or prospect AND didn't know why, then you may want to check out this book.”
“Oren cuts through old patterns of boring conversation that we all despise and breathes new life into the art of business meetings, presentations and pitches.”
“Oren Klaff has a dazzling ability to clearly describe totally new methods for presenting ideas.”
“Pitch Anything teaches you a series of strategies that you can easily employ to shape your pitch, get it heard and close the deal.”
“Now THIS is the “Art” of the Deal – Trump’s got nothing on Oren Klaff!”


Forget About the Numbers


As any venture capitalist worth his salt will tell you, there is a chasm of difference between the mostly grounded-in-reality financial forecasts offered by public companies, and the almost never do come true "rosy scenario" projections offered as a matter of course by emerging technology companies.

Correspondingly, while large public company CEOs and CFOs are judged as a matter of the highest honor on their ability to deliver on projections, exceedingly rare is the entrepreneurial executive that comes anywhere close to consistently matching their actual to forecasted results.

For a sense of the extent of how bad this problem is, a partner I know at a prominent venture capital firm estimates that of the 30+ companies that his firm has invested in since 2000, only two of them have consistently met or exceeded their financial projections.

And let me add that it isn’t like the inmates are running the asylum at my friend’s fund - as a prerequisite of having them as an investor, each of their portfolio company CEOs are required to undertake and report on a vigorous, quarterly budgeting and forecasting cycle.

And also let’s not assume that my friend just works for a lousy fund. Their companies’  astounding lack of consistent financial performance is pretty much par for the course for the emerging technology company space.

So what is going on?

Are the entrepreneurs just not ready for prime time? Are their managerial skill levels at many levels below their big company brethren?

I’ll say this – it is certainly not for lack of trying.

Most small technology company executives work longer hours than businesspeople have at any time in history.

If you doubt this, pick up Ron Chernow’s masterful biography of John Rockefeller.

In it, we read enviously of Mr. Rockefeller's daily 9:15am visits to his barber, his afternoon naps, and his unwavering commitment to always leave the office each day, no matter the season, so he could be home before dark.

And it is not for a lack of education.

Modern entrepreneurs - with their always-on, “click of a button” best practice knowledge and connections base - are a better informed, and globally networked lot than at any time in history.

So if they aren’t the problem, is it modern business itself?

Has it just become -  with all of its technological bells and whistles, all its globalization and pricing pressures, all of its consumer unpredictability and fickleness - just too unwieldy a beast for any small company to ever consistently ride?

And concurrently, has accurate financial forecasting become equivalent to throwing dice?

Or more disturbingly – is it not worth doing as even when they do turn out to be accurate, it just falls into the category of the blind mouse getting some cheese every now and then?

For better or for worse, modern business demands that we take a more “balanced scorecard” approach in judging managerial effectiveness and entrepreneurial progress.

Factors like intellectual property development speed, organizational design, and client satisfaction as measured by a companies’ net promoter score are proving to be just as important predictors of a companies value creation as is its forecasted-to-plan accuracy.

Please let me clear: On their own, these factors do NOT make a business valuable.  Rather, the right matrix of them, properly prioritized, IS highly correlated with businesses that attain high profit exit and investment outcomes.

As an added bonus, these non-financial key performance indicators (KPIs) can be designed to be far more consistently predictable than traditional projections.

As such, they are usually far better measures of executive effectiveness than budgeting and forecasting “gap analysis.”

You just have to have the guts to forget about the numbers for a quarter or two.

Or, if you are really get good at defining, tracking, and accomplishing the right non-financial KPIs, to forget about them permanently as they will just take care of themselves.

Now wouldn’t that be nice.


No Time to Worry, Basketball is Back


The resolution of the NBA lockout this weekend and the news that the games will resume on Christmas is yet the latest example of how when it comes to vastly over-exaggerated predictions of doomsday and worst-case scenarios never coming to pass, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even a casual follower of professional basketball heard over these past few months the media’s over-heated "analysis" of the lockout.

How the two sides were so far apart that it was almost a certainty that we would miss at least one, and maybe two or three, seasons of basketball.

The hand ringing continued on to player's careers being shortened, arenas being shuttered, and hundreds, if not thousands, of administrative, concession, usher, and ticket taker jobs being lost.

And throughout this din were heard the editorializing on the “greed” of the players and the owners, and how unseemly it was for millionaires and billionaires to be bickering in public over how to split such a large financial pie.

Little remarked on was the fact that since the 1980’s about every other year there has been some kind of work stoppage (or the threat thereof) in one professional sport or another.

And even less remarked on was the amazing fact - even in circumstances where whole seasons are lost - that once the games resumed the various sports leagues have grown to be bigger and more profitable than ever.

Yet, the media gives this reality probably 1/100th as much attention as it does to the anger, discord, and disrespect between the warring sides, and to incessant and discomfiting prophesizing on the “worst case.”

This systemic pessimism and negativity is emblematic of what is in my view one of the main conundrums of modern life and business - that in a world of the kind of plenty and opportunity that our grandparents could only dream of, that we too often remain focused on what we don't have, what we can't do and on those things that can go wrong versus the infinitely more consequential and probable number of things that go ever so right.

Exactly why this is the state of affairs is anyone's guess.

But what is equally true is that the real winners in life and business simply do not play this game.

Sure, being human beings they do occasionally indulge in the baser emotions of gossip, envy, and the schadenfreude of watching the mighty fall.

But far from it being their dominant way of thinking or life, those that win embody Peter Drucker’s famous definition of the effective executive and focus on opportunities and not problems.

They invest their precious energy on the doable and the possible.

And they are so wonderfully absorbed in their "micros" that they simply do not have time to concern themselves with the media - saturated “macro” worries of the world.

So, come Christmas, Dirk, Kobe, Lebron and the gang will be back on the hardwood.

It will be, for them, about and only about exactly what it should be – just playing the game.

Each game, every shot - both to win and to the absolute best of their ability.

Everything else is just noise.

The great ones ignore it. Or even better yet, they are just too busy to hear it.


Giving Thanks


Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday.

It acknowledges the best qualities of our great land - hard work, diversity as strength, and a focus on solutions not problems.

Whenever I am feeling down about America’s prospects in this brave new world of ours, I reflect on Thanksgiving’s timeless lessons.

As every school boy and girl knows, Thanksgiving traces its origin from a 1621 Pilgrim harvest feast to celebrate surviving an extremely difficult first winter in the New World.

The Pilgrims owed their survival to the goodwill of the Wampanoag Indians – the original inhabitants of the area - who taught them how to grow corn and how to fish in the very unfamiliar New England soil and seas.

As a gesture of thanks and goodwill, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to sit down and break bread in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie.

What a story. First, let's reflect on the guts, tenacity, sense of adventure, and just “never say die” hard work and perseverance of the Pilgrims.

Think about it - if they can make it then with their oh-so limited 17th Century resources, what can we do, where can we go with our virtually limitless 21st Century ones?

And let's reflect on that happy day of brotherhood and be justifiably proud of the powerful diversity of modern America.

Doubt me? Then spend a Saturday with my 5 year-old son Jay Jay’s AYSO soccer team. 

With its Hawaiian coach.

Its son of Ethiopian refugees star player.

And its African - American, Mexican - American and suburban white kid players all happily frolicking in a melting pot scene not to be duplicated virtually anywhere in the world.

Soccer with my sons is a welcome break from what I am sad to say has become a bad, gossipy vice – keeping up with the “news.”

Between the dire talk of deficits, debt crises, unemployment, crime dramas, and natural disasters, if you don't catch yourself you can't help but feel sorry for yourself, the country, and the planet.

It is 99% bunk.

Both the world and America have NEVER offered more opportunities for a larger percentage of
us to live affluent lives, to do self-expressive, remunerative work, and to be amazed daily by the wonders of modern technology and entertainment than it does right now.

This Thursday, let’s give thanks for all that and more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.


Dancing with the Stars


Last week I had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Mr. Rich Correll. Rich’s father, Charles Correll, was “Andy” of the famous radio duo, “Amos ‘n’ Andy”, which at its peak in the 1930’s was the most popular radio show in America.

To get a sense of how famous Rich’s dad was, in the early 1930’s Amos ‘n’ Andy had over 40 million listeners, at a time when the U.S. population was only 122 million!

So Rich grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s surrounded by the movie stars of the day. His neighbor was Judy Garland, and a great friend of the family and hero to young Rich was Harold Lloyd, one of the most famous stars of the silent film era. As Rich tells it, Harold Lloyd’s Beverly Hills home was so large that “The Playboy Mansion could fit in its garage.”

Visiting with Rich at his home is memorable to say the least. And not just because he is an incredibly gracious host and wonderful teller of Hollywood stories old and new. You see, Rich also happens to own one of the largest and best collections of science fiction, fantasy, and horror memorabilia in the world.

And what a collection it is. From old school Draculas and Frankensteins, through Freddy Krueger and Saw, to Health Ledger’s famous Joker, Rich has it all, knows it all, and shares with great passion the history and importance of every piece.

Rich’s collection is so renowned that when he sometimes opens it for display on Halloween, more than seven thousand trick or treaters parade across his lawn. It is so amazing that he helps his good friend Hugh Hefner decorate his famous Halloween party with it.

Even better, Rich has an idea for a new business. And as a guy that hears a lot of ideas for new businesses every day, I can credibly say that Rich’s is a truly GREAT one.

And no, I am not going to share what it is, but suffice to say that because of who Rich Correll is and how he has lived his remarkable life, that he is the perfect person to pull it off. And I hope and believe that he will.

Now meeting with Rich got me to thinking about the big “why” questions of entrepreneurship.  Why take the risks?  Why put up with the hassles, the heartaches? 

Well, to make a lot of money is more than a good enough reason for sure. And praise the United States of America and our way of life for the incredible blessing and opportunity this is.

But inspiration takes many forms, and I know that this nation and this planet depends upon the best among us, the most fortunate among us, to make this world more technologically fluid, more materially rich, more interesting, more beautiful.

And starting and making a business grow and prosper – whether it is a nice, little new restaurant, or a small IT business, or a really big and inspirational idea like Rich Correll’s, is the best way to make all of this good stuff happen.

And so I’ll say it – beyond making money, I believe that those with entrepreneurial gifts and ambitions should and must – risks be damned – be “all in” and use them.

Not an obligation from guilt, but one from possibility. Because if you, Mr. / Ms. Entrepreneur, have the chance to touch the stars and lift all of our gazes while so doing, then why wouldn’t you?


A Pat on the Back


Whatever one's politics, those interested in seeing entrepreneurs prosper in America have to be heartened by the sea of change in “regulatory attitude” emanating from Washington.

Across the ideological spectrum, I hear near universal agreement that “cutting the red tape” is the fastest way to re-ignite the nation’s economy and best position the country for 21st century global competitiveness.

Let’s have an amen for that!

As both the CEO of a fast growing middle market company, and as an advisor to emerging companies across the industry spectrum, I have first hand experience of the debilitating cost of regulation.

And let me tell you, it aint pretty.

What I want to do - what my company's clients, employees, investors, and partners need me to do - is to stay laser-focused on leading Growthink to its next plateau of growth.

And as it is for all leaders of companies of promise and ambition, this is a huge job.

It requires one - among other challenges - to be constantly vigilant and prescient as to evolving competitive conditions, consumer preferences, and the dizzying speed of technological change.

But that is not all.

Leading a growing company in the 21st century also requires the discipline, the artistry, and the relationship - focus of a master sales person.

It requires the emotional intelligence and fortitude to mentor and develop leaders from within an organization, more often than not these days comprised of somewhat high maintenance "millennials."

And it requires the toughness, the consistency, and the exactitude to connect the strategic and operational dots with the bottom line to grow both fast and profitably.

And oh yes, while doing all of this - which for the significant majority of entrepreneurs is a 75 hour+ per week undertaking - extreme care must also be taken to maintain one's physical and emotional health.

And most importantly of all, while doing all this for many of us it also requires “being there” everyday in every way for one's spouse and family.

A huge undertaking, to say the least.

And one that I - like most entrepreneurs - feel incredibly blessed and grateful to live in a country and a world where such an opportunity, a possibility, a sacred trusteeship, is there for the doing.

But the one thing that the entrepreneur has in very short supply is time.

To be more exact about it, what all entrepreneurs need to vigilantly protect and nurture above all else is their positive and forward-focused energy.

And the one thing that distracts, dampens, and just outright kills good positive energy is confronting and trying to unravel unnecessarily complex, obtuse, and anachronistic rules and regulations.

Now, the exciting thing is that for the first time in my 25 years in business I sense that politicians – across the ideological spectrum and at the federal, state, county, and city level – fully agree with me on this!

This change in “regulatory tone” can be best summed up as the truism that the private sector is the only real driver of the nation’s prosperity and way of life.

And furthermore, given the realities of government budget shortfalls for as far as the eye can see, that the only way for government to make a meaningful economic difference these days is by cutting red tape.

Now for those of you that worry that cutting too much red tape too fast will lead to the kind of excesses that precipitated the 2008 recession, I wouldn’t.

Because the real protection for the consumer these days is our always-on, “you are only as good and trustworthy as that last Tweet about you” modern world.

So government - as opposed to sending yet another notice in the mail regarding yet another distracting and purposeless regulation - how about giving that entrepreneur a pat on the back?

A word of praise?

A thank you?

You can even tweet it.


From the Ukraine with Love


One of the great joys and blessings of modern business is the opportunity to connect and transact with dynamic, emerging growth companies all over the world.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Vladimir Lempert CEO and founder of Spetztekhosnastka, or “STO”, a plastics design and manufacturing company headquartered in Dniprodzerzhins'k (about 200 miles Southeast of Kiev), in the Ukraine.

Vladimir is a great example of the both "tough as nailsand visionary global entrepreneur that make this by far the most exciting time in human history to start and build a business.

While the media focuses on various distractions - debt crises, currency swings, the price of gold, deficit super-committees - that passes as business news these days, Vladimir is just laser focused on profiting from the new world of opportunity exploding all around him.

Like the unique combination of high-quality engineering talent, low labor costs, and a surprisingly stable tax and regulatory environment that is the modern Ukraine.

Like the increasing consumer purchasing power throughout Eastern Europe that is exploding demand for STO's innovative packaging technology, creating for Vladimir the very "high class problem" of managing and financing hyper - growth.

And like his opportunity - even though STO is a relatively small 300 person company - to credibly compete for and win business all over this 7 billion person world of ours.

Does Vladimir have his challenges? Of course.

But the eye-opening thing is that even though his business is located in a place that, for a lot of us, our first reaction to it is some combination of "too business unfriendly," "too out of the way," and "you have to be kidding me," if you got under the hood of Vladimir’s business as we have these last few weeks those challenges would seem very familiar to a business near you.

Or one in Shanghai. Or Rio. Or Seoul.

Or Lagos or Monterrey.

Or Prague or Peoria.

Like entrepreneurs everywhere, Vladimir needs to manage his cash flow, motivate and develop his employees, balance his focus between new and existing customers, and incorporate Internet and cloud technologies into his business practices.

And while doing all of that, he also has to constantly adjust his strategy and tactics in response to the ever-swirling, always storming competitive seas that is modern, global business.

Now, I won't get into the macroeconomics or the geopolitics as to the effect of new entrants like Vladimir into an old-line industry like plastics, other than to say to Vladimir’s "first-world” competitors simply that it is high time to either get better or get left behind.

And heck, isn’t this true for the competitors of the literally tens of thousands of companies like STO that are flowering in emerging economies around the world?

As for the rest of us, we all win.

My firm has a new client 7,000 miles away, a lucky financier will be connected with STO and make a very pretty return on capital, jobs and prosperity will be created in a locale where until recently there has been mostly heartache, and consumers the world over will benefit from innovation on products and services that improve their quality of life.

As for Vladimir, well this new, blessed world of ours – with new customers and technologies and management and competitive best practices always just a click away - is just one massive life-changing boon.

As it is, if we just let it be so, for the rest of us too.

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