Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Put your Network to Work

I have had a fun experience just in the past five days on a new business idea that a partner and I have been kicking around. I can't tell you about it, because this business is (naturally) going to change the world! One really cool observation during that short period of time, however, is the extent to which both of us have been able to put our network to work.

This business idea has technical, operations, marketing, and risk considerations which are not unlike many new ideas. For every area in which we have had a question, we have had someone in our network to leverage. We have also been able to ask a specific set of questions for an area that avoids having to pull back the curtain on the entire idea (given that one potential challenge is low barriers to entry). One positive of being able to focus the questions and align them with the person's area of expertise is that you can really just let them roll and share their experience with you. In each case, this has provided a deeper level of understanding that my partner and I can then roll into our larger strategy. For example, a discussion around the financial risks of the idea lead to strategies for mitigating those risks--all from listening intently to people who know that area really well. We can then put that into the mix and have changed our thinking on the marketing based on that input. Again, all within 5 days.

Some of my other posts address building your network and fostering it. Effective network-ers are able to "tag" people in their network with areas of expertise. (They are also able to use "tags" other than "has money" and "no money.") This allows you to come back to them with opportunities and requests. The more you can make those visits about them, the more you will see that investment in your network pay off.

Understand your network and how you can leverage it. In the end, you will see that it is not a one way street. Your ongoing conversations and fostering of relationships will lead to unforeseen mutual opportunities.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Re-Defining a Successful Career

This week, the Wall Street Journal had an article titled "You Might as Well Face It: You're Addicted to Success." The article, while somewhat disjointed with a couple of bizarre examples, points out the extent to which many in Corporate America define themselves by a job. In a time when lifetime employment was much closer to the norm, this might have been a safer bet. But for the current generations in the workforce, you will find yourself tied to a tenuous line. As a friend of mine once commented, "Be careful about loving your company, because it can't love you back."

This is a nuanced problem, to say the least. Why are we addicted to the success? On a practical level, people at all levels of the pay scale find themselves addicted to their paycheck. At the one end of the scale, it is understandable out of necessity. Above a certain point, however, it is simply shocking the extent to which a life (not just a lifestyle) is wholly dependent on the ongoing presence of the next paycheck.

On a psychological level, which I will avoid trying to explain, the addiction to success can fill a need for individuals to prove their worth to themselves or others. On a simple level, using your career as a benchmark provides handy, quantifiable metrics--pay, bonus, rating, title, etc. These black-and-white solutions are much easier to spout than the nuanced and challenging aspects of life outside of work. This may also be why the time spent on work often so easily consumes the time previously spent on those other areas. From here, I will leave the rest to Freud or others.

I will bring this back, though, to the need for your own definition of success. For those itching to leap into an entrepreneurial venture, you had better not covet the titles, pay, or other perks associated with a cushy corporate role. You have to be in it for the long haul, the longer-term rewards, and deeper motivations. Can you live with the new identity that comes with an entrepreneurial venture? Can you embrace it and be proud? You should.

If you truly can, the results will be evident. In fact, this month's INC Magazine has an article on angel investing in which one investor commented that money is still there for managers who clearly are passionate about and committed to their business. Get-rich-quick me-too's need not apply. If you can define (or re-define, if necessary) yourself and your measurement of success, then you have the beginnings of a can't-miss career.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Seek Dis-confirming Data

I am currently working with two partners (I know, I know ... "partnerships are hard") on a new business here in Richmond and find myself being challenged with balancing the desire to get the business going versus paying attention to potential obstacles or pitfalls. To some degree my partners and I know from our own experience the primary issues to anticipate and address up front, but additional conversations lead to questions about how to make the business sustainable and successful.

Entrepreneurs can suffer from tunnel vision on achieving an objective without taking some time to put a strong foundation in place. In contrast, many suffer from being so scared by obstacles that it leads to inaction or reverting to a comfort zone. The right balance is found in acknowledging, filtering, and incorporating the challenges into your plan and actions. This can be done either by addressing them now (which is often difficult or impossible) or creating real options which allow you to make the decision in increments and/or later with additional information. (Real options plug: This may be the single most useful concept I got from business school. It's an incredibly simple, but applicable concept for small business.)

This objectivity can be difficult to maintain, however, in the rush and excitement to launch something new. There is so much that needs to be done. Additionally, you become emotionally invested in making the new venture a success. Challenges from others can be brushed aside or avoided. Resist the urge!

Keep your head and learn how to filter the comments and incorporate them appropriately. What would you do differently now in anticipation of a given challenge? Can you structure your new company or offering in such a way that you create flexibility to keep options open? Some questions may even push you to answers that increase confidence and clarity in your approach.

Hopefully this isn't too esoteric or obscure. I would think that you could quickly identify from your own experience and conversations the people and topics that challenge you and your path. What do you with them? If you dismiss them out of hand, you run a great risk. If you become obsessed and paralyzed by them, you run a great risk. And if you have a hard time maintaining this objectivity, leverage an adviser or friend who can keep you honest. There will come a day for your business, when you will be glad that you addressed the issue ahead of time.