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Thursday, 01 November 2012 01:39
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The standard to-do list might not be as innocuous as it seems. Here's how to fix yours--and actually get the important stuff done.

What could be wrong with the humble to-do list?

It seems like nothing more than an elegant if low-tech solution to dumping the swirl of tasks in your brain onto paper, keeping track of progress and giving yourself a series of little post-check pats on the back. But according to Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban, your to-do list may actually be stressing you out.

If your list contains more work than you can get done in a relatively short time horizon, Benson explained in a recent interview, you tend to get crazy, flail, and attend only to what's most obviously urgent at the moment rather than larger underlying issues that might actually be more meaningful. In other words, things unfold much like the famous clip from I Love Lucy where she takes a shift on the production line of an overly speedy chocolate factory.

Instead of overburdening your mind with too many tasks, Benson suggests a technique adopted from Toyota's manufacturing process, which is also the title of his book. He explains this "personal kanban" to Fast Company:

What we do is take a whiteboard and create three simple columns: Ready, Doing, and Done. In the Ready column, you populate that with Post-it notes of things you're supposed to do. In the Doing column, you set a limit--we recommend three things, though it can be higher or lower. So now instead of having a theoretically unlimited capacity for work, you now have a very visible limited capacity for work.

When you complete something, you look at the Ready list, and you say, "Okay, I've got one slot out of three. What is it I can put here that’s of highest value?"… Each of those columns are vital, because the Ready column is showing you options--previously your to-do list was a death sentence, but now it’s turned into options. The Doing column says "Here's the list of things I'm working on; I can't start anything else until I complete one; finish it!" Then the Done column allows a growing real-time retrospective of your work.

Benson, of course, isn't the only person peddling alternatives and improvements to the traditional to-do list. If his personal kanban approach doesn't suit you, maybe advice on improving your list's verbs, a suggestion to employ a NOT to-do list, a switch to a zen-like focus on your 'One Thing,' or a detailed explanation of how to move from working off a to-do list to working off a calendar will suit you better.

What approach to task-management works best for you? Are you ready to ditch the old-fashioned to-do list?

Thursday, 01 November 2012 00:00
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Clean Fun: Eric Ryan and his team celebrated Method

Method co-founder Eric Ryan and his team celebrated the sale of the company in their own unique way.

For 12 years, Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, the co-founders of Method, have nurtured their soap company's quirky culture. So when Ecover, a Belgium-based maker of green cleaning products, acquired Method in September, Ryan and Lowry celebrated in their own way.

At Method's San Francisco headquarters, Ecover execs got a pep-rally-style welcome, complete with music and a high-five tunnel. That was followed by a Belgian-beer tasting party and Belgium trivia.

"The first goal was to find Belgium on a map," Ryan jokes. "I've at least got that covered."

The combined company will have 300 employees and more than $200 million in annual sales. Ryan insists Method won't change much: He will keep managing product design, Lowry will focus on environmental sustainability, and Drew Fraser will continue to be Method's CEO. The major difference is that Method will now help distribute Ecover products in the United States and vice versa.

"Now we know how to start a company and how to sell a company," Ryan says. "We're just learning how to merge a company. Hopefully, we'll get it right and become a case study for the right way to do it someday."

Wednesday, 31 October 2012 23:29
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The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Job creation will always be secondary to profit and the overall health of a business.

I've held my tongue as the debate has raged over the impact government policies have on entrepreneurs and job creation.

But that debate has reached a point at which I feel compelled to weigh in. Let's begin by noting something that has largely gone unnoted: No one operates a company with the goal of creating jobs. OK, maybe a few people do. So let me put it another way: No one operates a company with the goal of maximizing labor costs. When you ask an entrepreneur how business is going, the response is never, "Oh, man, I've got 100 employees this year. Last year, I had only 60." If someone wants to brag, he or she is more likely to say, "We increased sales 25 percent--without adding a single employee!" I'm not saying entrepreneurs aren't proud of their role as job creators. Of course they are. It's just that job creation is a byproduct of what they do, not the goal.

At the moment, for example, I am involved with three start-ups. I can rattle off the key numbers--gross margins, average sale, etc.--for each. But I know that they've collectively created 50 jobs over the past 18 months only because I added them up for this column. I got involved with these start-ups because I enjoy helping people launch companies and because, for me, business is fun. To be sure, the potential to earn a return plays a role as well (although at my current stage of life, it's more about keeping score than adding to my income or net worth). Still, this is business, and I want to make as much money as possible.

But I never think about how many jobs the business will create. I care about whether the business can be viable. I care about its growth prospects and profitability. I care about the amount of debt it has and how well it manages its receivables and payables. I care whether customers are happy with its service. Of course, I care about the morale and well-being of its employees. But the absolute number of them concerns me only as it relates to staffing needs. Indeed, I constantly search for ways to maximize the productivity of the people we have, rather than adding to head count.

That's the paradox of job creation that nobody is talking about. It's as if we're afraid to admit that the creation of jobs is intimately linked to the profit motive. The simple fact is, if we want to create more jobs, we need an environment in which entrepreneurs can make money. The more, the better--because reducing the opportunity for profit is a sure-fire recipe for reducing the number of new jobs we'll have to keep our fellow citizens employed.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012 19:09
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As I’ve said before, marketing is greatly misunderstood by many in business, especially those new to business, who confuse marketing with advertising. Advertising is just one type of marketing, whereas marketing is the process by which businesses create client or customer interest in products or services and encompasses a huge range of activities – anything from making sure your business continues to focus on delivering its core products or services in the way the customers want, to networking, referral strategies, Blogs or giving away things for free.

Before I cover the many practical steps you can take to market your business effectively, let’s look at some important principles in marketing to take on board:

  • Gain effective marketing skills. Most difficult of all, especially for new business owners, is to get to grips with effective marketing and really understand the true nature of marketing. I find it very frustrating when I see people’s eye’s glazing over when I’m trying to explain the three or four most effective yet low-cost marketing techniques as a start to better marketing.
  • Spend at least one-third of available time on marketing. You just can’t delegate marketing to others, especially advertising or PR consultants who focus on advertising or press releases.
  • Understand that marketing is an investment and not a cost. Your typical accountant considers marketing is a cost, not an investment but if you know the lifetime value of a customer and your typical customer acquisition cost you can spend as much as you like.
  • Test and measure the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. There is no point in doing the same old thing time after time if it’s not bringing home the bacon. For example, are you still paying for that ever-more expensive Yellow Pages entry just because your competitors do?
  • Be imaginative and innovative and don’t do the same old things that others in your industry do. Try adopting successful techniques that have worked in industries other than your own.
  • Adopt a marketing mindset and base your whole business and business ethos around your point of difference, even your business name. Everything you do in your business should be done with marketing in mind – after all, servicing your existing customers or clients effectively will enable you to sell more to them and in addition, encourage them to refer you to others.
  • Don’t get too carried away by new fashions. As in all walks of life, whilst some new ideas are great, let others waste their time and money on unproven techniques e.g. I’ve seen it suggested that small business owners should spend 2 hours a day on Social Networking sites. Come on now – 2 hours a week maybe, whilst still focusing on traditional, basic proven methods!
  • Focus on existing customers not new ones. It’s 5 times easier to sell to existing customers than new ones where it takes time to build trust and who will be more price sensitive. In addition, don’t forget the 80/20 rule whereby 80% of your profits will be generated by 20% of your customers.
  • Learn from others already successful to avoid costly mistakes and save time. Study successful business owners in your own industry or other lines of business. This is the basis of success for franchising, for example. Can you form a networking group with other like-minded non-competing business owners?
  • Always give more. To get, you have to give. Always aim to give a little extra, perhaps something of high perceived value to your customers but of low cost to you. If you take every cent on every occasion you’ll be found out pretty soon so adopt a Baker’s Dozen approach.
  • Build relationships. Business is all about relationships, which protect you from the competition and when things go wrong. Build relationships in depth throughout your customer’s organisations, from the tea-lady to the owner’s spouse.

Over future articles I shall cover these points in more depth and probably add others as they come up or occur to me. Can you think of any things I’ve missed so far?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012 19:02
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