Some people see problem as obstacle, some see it as challenge and few visionary see it as opportunity.

Shesh Nath Vernwal

How to Diagnose and Cure an Ailing Business

Posted by martin.parnell |

When we’re not feeling too well, it’s easy to go online, look up your symptoms and try to self-diagnose, but, as we all know, what might look life-threatening could just as easily turn out to be something far less serious, or vice versa.

The Internet may be useful for many things, but generally speaking, if you’re not well, the best thing to do is go and see an expert who, in most cases will be your family doctor.

They will be able to ask the right questions and usually be able to treat the problem or refer you to someone even more experienced in a particular field.

Fortunately, when it comes to business, the opposite is sometimes true. When you sense there is something wrong, you may not know an expert to go and consult. You may not be able to afford the expense of recruiting an expert to assess your situation and offer advice. In this case, with some careful research, it is possible to go online to diagnose the symptoms, discover why your business may be failing and get help and advice.

Being an entrepreneur has many challenges. The Small Business Association (SBA), states that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years and 66% during the first 10. But, even if your business has been up and running for several years, it doesn’t mean that, at some stage, it could face a degree of failure. You may not have had a new customer in a while, you may be experiencing a high turnover of employees or you can’t pay the bills on time.

These are all important issues that need to be addressed.

In part of his contribution published in Forbes magazine, June 2014, under the heading “7 Reasons Your Business Is Failing -- And What To Do About It”, Jayson DeMers suggests other factors that may be having a negative effect on your business and offers some solutions:

“While every business is different, there are some typical reasons for small business failure. See if any of these resonate with you, then check out the “What to Do About It” section to turn things around.

1.    You Don’t Know How to Market Your Business

Not every business owner is born knowing how to get the word out about their business, and that’s fine. But when a business owner’s shortcomings put their business in jeopardy, that’s when somebody must take responsibility and take action.

If you think marketing is too hard to figure out yourself, or you assume it costs more than you’ve got to hire someone, you’re essentially shutting down the possibility of finding new customers. Yes, marketing is an investment in time, money, or both, but an essential one.

What to Do About It: Start marketing. If you lack money, then invest an hour or two a week to read a few marketing books, blogs, or articles and teach yourself how to use social media, blogging, and PR to draw more people to your website and/or your store. If you’ve got more money than time, get a quote from a few marketing consultants or freelancers.

2.    Your Prices are Too Low

If you’ve got more work than you can handle but are still having trouble making ends meet, it’s time to assess your pricing.  Pricing products tends to be a bit easier than pricing services because you know what it cost you to buy or make those products, so price can be determined easily based on desired profit margin. But even with business services, you’ve got to factor in things like overhead (Internet service, heating/cooling), salary, and office expenses. Your profit shouldn’t be so scant you have difficulty paying your own bills.

What to Do About It: Don’t double your prices overnight. Instead, raise prices for new clients only and see what the market will bear. If you’re getting pushback, you might have raised them too much. If you’re closing sales too easily, you might have room to raise those rates even more.

3.    You Don’t Really Know Your Customers

You know who you think they are, but unless you’re really clued in to your demographic, know what makes them tick, and understand their problems, you’ll do a terrible job of trying to present an appropriate solution.

What to Do About It: A little market research can go a long way. Talk to actual customers. Use surveys. Ask questions on social media. Build out buyer personas that will turn numbers into humans, and solve the riddle of how to connect with each type of customer you’ve got.

4.    You Think Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Social Media Don’t Apply to You

Regardless of whether you’re a global accounting firm or the bakery down the street, you should engage in an SEO campaign to help you get more customers. After all, it’s the keywords you use on your website that help the right people find you, and the links you’ve got online that help solidify your brand reputation. Social media is becoming more intertwined with SEO, but has also established an extremely strong niche of its own in the online marketing sphere.

What to Do About It: Again, it comes down to time or money. Teach yourself SEO tactics that work and stay on top of Google’s latest algorithm updates to make sure you don’t get shot down those results. Or, hire a professional SEO company that’s well-versed on the subject and can help you focus on other areas of your business while remaining competitive online.

5.    You’ve Got the Answer for Everything

There’s a bit of ego that comes with running a business. After all, if you were smart enough to figure out how to launch this company in the first place, surely you’re smart enough to figure out how to design a logo. Or manage your finances. Or tell everyone else what to do. Unfortunately, the more micromanaging you’re doing, the more harm you’re probably doing. Entrepreneurs know the things they excel at, and outsource the things they don’t. The most successful entrepreneurs do only the things that only they can do. Anything else can almost always be outsourced more efficiently.

What to Do About It: Get out of your own way. Think about those tasks that take you far too long to do, or result in shoddy work (that logo that took you 18 hours to design still doesn’t look as good as what a professional could have done in an hour), and outsource it. If you’ve got staff, trust them to do what you hired them to do. If they aren’t doing it correctly, fire and re-hire. Focus on what you do best: running your company.

6.    You Can’t Handle Growth

You started small and didn’t expect to burgeon overnight. Just ask any business that’s ever been the recipient of the “Oprah Effect” or even the “Groupon Effect”and then had a flood of sales the next day: rapid growth isn’t always a blessing. If you’re not prepared for the strain your servers will experience, the number of sales to process, or the flood of customer service calls, you risk seriously harming your brand’s reputation.

What to Do About It: Overall, rapid scaling should be a good thing, but you need a plan to quickly hire more staff and train them, as well as how you’ll manage more website traffic, phone calls, and customer service requests.

7.    You Don’t Have Business Savvy

While it’s not imperative that you have an MBA to start a business (or even a college degree) a solid understanding of finances, management, marketing, leadership, and sales will take you far. If you’ve mixed your personal and business finances, have trouble managing staff, or are just throwing your hands up at running your business in general, your risk of failure is multiplying by the minute.

What to Do About It: Consider whether you truly want to be an entrepreneur. Many business owners start a business because they want to “do what they love.” That’s respectable, but without a CEO that knows how to run a successful business, any business is doomed. And to be honest, many business owners get far away from the actual thing they love doing once the business takes flight; focus shifts from fulfillment work, and toward running the business. If you’re committed to sticking it out, invest time in classes, workshops, and resources to beef up the skills you’re weak in.”

Also, on the Entrepreneur website, I found a piece from March 29, 2017 7 by Guest Writer, Chidike Samuelson entitled “6 Lifelines That Could Save Your Failing Business”. In it, Samuelson tells us that before giving up on your business, you owe it to yourself and your employees to take certain steps. Two of these Lifelines are:

Invest in your team.

Your team has played a significant role to get your business to this critical point. Now, more than ever, you need to transform your staff into an asset. It's possible your employees don't understand your business model or the business itself. Some might be barely there for the pay check. This isn't good for any business.

Nothing grows a business like having a dedicated team whose members commit themselves to its success. Your employees must believe they are committed stakeholders and an active part of the business. By extension, your executives must become master salespeople.”

Go back to the drawing board.

Return to the root of the problem. There must be reasons why you are where you now find yourself. If you've started collecting data and monitoring negative feedback, you should have more than idea of the true causes. Now, what can you do about it? Go back to the proverbial drawing board and ask yourself some hard questions. Are you paying out more in salaries than your incomes can carry? Do you need to lay off some staff, make adjustments to compensation packages or consider other cost-cutting measures? 

Redefine your value Proposition, you deem it necessary. It could be that the very thing setting you apart from other businesses in your marketplace is a reason for your failure. Consider following the working trend, if only as a marketing test. Being different isn't best in every circumstance or space.”

He also offers this tip to help you find resources you may need to keep your company going or look at changes that need to be made:

“It's also worth researching whether you might qualify for a grant. Federal, state, county and even local development programs exist because these agencies and organizations have a deep interest in fostering small businesses.”

Whilst there are many websites offering advice and online services to help you deal with business problems, it is always good to remember that, for the same reason you make that trip to the doctor, you need to seek out contributors who have expertise in their field. Check their credentials to ensure the advice and solutions they offer are relevant to you and your company.  Also, seek out experts based in your own community as they will have local insight. 

Whatever happens, don’t despair and don’t give up until you know you have pursued every avenue in an effort to get your company back on its feet and on the road to success. 

If your problems are tackled properly, advice taken and solutions implemented, you will, hopefully, be able to look back on the whole experience as a huge learning opportunity.

Remember to involve your colleagues and employees. If they understand the reasons for any changes you might need to make they will see the possible advantages and appreciate your efforts. After all, they are in this with you.

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I hope I have helped to raise the profile of science and to show that physics is not a mystery but can be understood by ordinary people.

Stephen Hawking

How to Communicate in a Way that is Accessible to All.

Posted by martin.parnell |

On Wednesday March 14th. News headlines reported the death Stephen Hawking, at the age of 76. 

Hawking was known not only as a renowned physicist, but also one of the world’s most celebrated science communicators. This was despite his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Stephen Hawking has presented many theories, to the scientific community, covering such subjects as Black Hole Mechanics or TheUncertainty Principle that would have been incomprehensible to someone of my scientific background. But, in his book “A Brief History of Time”, Hawking ventured to make these concepts accessible to all. He wanted to share his knowledge and theories with the world, in a way that a layman could understand.

As Derek Hawkins explained in The Washington Post (Wed., March 14, 2018):

“In 1982, Stephen Hawking decided to put his years of ground-breaking research in theoretical physics into book form. His goal, he said, was to “explain how far we had come in our understanding of the universe and how humankind might be close to finding a unified theory of the cosmos.”

Several years and many rewrites later, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time defied all those expectations. The first run sold out in the United States in a matter of days, and soon the 200-some-page account of the origin and fate of the universe was flying off the shelves worldwide. It spent 147 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and a record-breaking 237 weeks on the Times of London bestseller list. To date, more than 10 million copies have been sold and the book has been translated into dozens of languages.”

Even Hawking himself struggled with the reason as to why his book had become so popular “It’s difficult for me to be objective,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

But, it is clear that he had an ability to explain complex concepts in theoretical physics, using a sense of humour and analogy, enabling us to understand his reasoning by relating his theories and observations to those more familiar to our own experiences.

Indeed, upon publication, the New York Times called Hawking’s work “a jaunty and absolutely clear little book” that shared his ideas about the universe “with everyone who can read.”

There is a message here for all of us who are required to present our ideas and opinions, whether in written or oral form.

It is not only important, but necessary that we convey them in a way that our audience can understand. That is not to say that we talk down to our listeners and readers, but are aware of  the fact that many people may not have had experienced things in the same way that we may have. This is particularly relevant when introducing people to a way of seeing, approaching and thinking about new ideas.

If your subject matter is of a technical nature,  I found some valuable tips included in an article for the British Council in May 2015 entitled  “How to present complex ideas clearly” by Dr. Emily Grossman, an expert in molecular biology, broadcaster and educator. Grossman states:

“When trying to explain complex information to an audience, the first task is to get the content of what you're saying right. You can’t hide poor or boring content behind a charismatic delivery technique, and expect your audience to let you get away with it. But how we communicate is also crucial. When someone is speaking, most of the information we receive comes through their body language, enthusiasm and tone of voice. It's our overall experience of the speaker that counts.”

She explains that the reason for this is that:

“Our brains contain ‘mirror neurons’ which automatically make us copy the emotions of the person we are engaging with. Have you ever noticed that if you see someone in the street smiling, you will start to smile too? If a speaker appears happy and relaxed, the audience will feel that way too, and will be more likely to absorb the information the speaker is trying to get across.

The more complex the information, the more important this is. Imagine trying to explain your latest scientific discovery in a flat, monotone voice. If you don't sound excited, the listener won't feel excited either. They will find it harder to engage with the information, and therefore, crucially, it will be more of a challenge for them to understand it.”

Grossman also addresses the issue of how much technical detail to include:

 “Generally, as little as possible! Try not to use technical language. If you do, make sure it is absolutely necessary in order to help the audience understand or appreciate your point – and ensure that you explain the word or term immediately afterwards.

Remember that there is a difference between using language that is simple (easy to understand), and simplistic (treating the problem as if it is not actually very complex at all). Keep your words as simple and clear as possible, and use real-life examples and illustrations where possible. But don’t patronise your audience by pretending that something is not as complicated as it really is.”

Much of what Grossman is saying can be applied whether you are covering something that is highly technical or not. Like Hawking, she recommends the use of analogy. It is also essential to clarify make everything you say, or write, without patronising your audience.

Like Stephen Hawking, we must find a way to share our passion for a subject in a way that we can communicate to the widest of audiences.

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Deep rivers run quiet.

Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

How to Support an Employee who is Shy or an Introvert

Posted by martin.parnell |

I was recently listening to a podcast of one of my favourite CBC Radio programmes, “Under The Influence”, presented by Terry O’Reilly. His documentaries focus on the changing world of marketing and are always interesting and entertaining. 

In this particular programme, O’Reilly explored the topic of using celebrities in commercials under the title “Celebrities: Living To Tell The Tales”.

He spoke about, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Kiefer Sutherland, Spike Lee and others. 

But the story I found most enlightening was about the day he was casting for a comedic actress, for a particular commercial. Amongst the forty well-known, experienced actresses who auditioned, there was one very young, inexperienced girl who sat very quietly, didn’t know anyone and was very shy. 

However, when she stepped up to the microphone and delivered her lines, she had everyone in stitches. Her presentation was absolutely brilliant and, when she’d finished, she just tiptoed back and sat quietly in the corner. 

As it turns out, the young actress would go on to stardom and had the ability to overcome her shyness when it mattered in order to demonstrate her talent. 

For some people this may not be something they feel they can do. 

You may be one of those people, which may make the working environment very frustrating. You may have great ideas that you wish to share, but are too shy to do so.

Perhaps you are asked to give a presentation, but find the prospect extremely daunting. In some cases, you may see your shyness as a barrier to getting the recognition you deserve. 

If you are a manager, you may have employees who experience these hurdles and it is worthwhile considering this, as you think about your team. Do you have someone who is always reluctant to offer an opinion or be forthcoming when it comes to volunteering for certain tasks? 

Although their work may be up to standard, it would be easy to see them as less engaged in the goals of the company. 

I found an article on the Business 2 Community website entitled How To Manage Quiet Employees by Jacob Shriar (August 16, 2016) in which he states: 

“Quiet employees often are more successful and are considered better leaders.”

He then goes on to say why he considers this to be true:

  1. Introverts Are Better Listeners

Introverts are naturally better listeners, which is great when you’re leading a team. Extroverted leaders on the other hand, tend to do most of the talking without taking into account much of their employees’ opinions. They’re generally better with the command-and-control type of management, whereas introverts are more inclusive.

  1. Introverts Are More Humble

The best leaders practice what’s known as “servant leadership”, which is essentially when you put your employees first and are acting to serve them. According to research about servant leadership, the traits associated with servant leadership, like humility, are found more in introverts.

  1. Introverts Are More Creative

Quieter employees tend to be more reflective and take their time to analyze what’s going on. That reflection makes you more creative and helps you make smarter decisions. Extroverts on the other hand, tend to be a bit more aggressive when it comes to decision making.

  1. Introverts Form Deeper Connections

Introverts prefer to build those deeper, one-on-one connections, which is important for employee engagement. They’re much more likely to get to know their team members on a more personal level, making employees feel more connected to the leader. Extroverts are more likely to have more connections, but less meaningful.

  1. Introverts Are More Self-Aware

Self-awareness is one of the most important things you can have to be an emotionally intelligent leader. That self-awareness lets them listen attentively, pick up on social cues, process information, and see the bigger picture. They love that time alone to process the information. 

Shriar then proceeds to give advice to managers about how to manage quiet employees:

  1. Don’t Assume

The best tip I can give you by far is not to assume anything. Like I mentioned earlier, they might be quiet in meetings or at their desk, but don’t assume that they’re in a bad mood or disengaged. They might be processing some information that was just given to them or thinking about something, but they could be one of the more engaged members of your team.

  1. Don’t Just Show Up At Their Desk

Chances are, they’ll prefer to communicate by email or chat, so respect that. If you just show up at their desk or catch them by surprise, they likely won’t give you a good answer. They need time to process and think about what they want to say. Respect that, and give them the space/time they need.

  1. Use One-On-Ones

Trust me when I say one-on-ones is where you’re going to get the best feedback out of your quieter employees. They’ll be comfortable in that calm, quiet environment. If you can, it would be great to send them an agenda 24 hours in advance to make sure they have some time to gather their thoughts.

  1. Ask For Their Opinion The Next Day

If there’s a meeting, discussion, or anything you want their opinion on, it might be a good idea to wait a while before asking them for their thoughts. Again, they need time to process, digest, and formulate a smart response.It doesn’t necessarily need to be the next day, but give them time to think and come back to you with their thoughts collected. It also might be a good idea to ask for their opinion using their favorite form of communication. For example, you can wait an hour or two and send them an email or chat message and ask for their opinion. 

  1. Give Them A Quiet Environment

It makes sense that quiet people would like to work in quiet environments. Try your best to create a quiet environment so that they can work their best. If the workplace is so noisy and there’s no real way for them to get the quiet they need, you might want to consider letting them work from home one or two days a week.

  1. Don’t Ignore Them

It’s easy for introverts or quiet employees to go unnoticed, but you need to make a conscious effort to notice them. Or what about when companies are recruiting employees and there are words like “outgoing” in the job description. You don’t want to miss out on these people. Just remember, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Warren Buffett, Steve Wozniak, and Michael Jordan are all introverts.

Finally, Shriar  reminds us that “A huge reason why I keep stressing the importance of building up your emotional intelligence is that it helps you deal better with all different types of employees.” 

These are all very good ideas. However, there is something I wish to point out.

Being shy or quiet and being introverted aren't the same thing, although they may look the same. An introvert enjoys time alone and gets emotionally drained after spending a lot of time with others. A shy person doesn't necessarily want to be alone but is afraid to interact with others.

Consider two children in the same classroom, one introverted and one shy. The teacher is organizing an activity for all the children in the room. The introverted child wants to remain at her desk and read a book because she finds being with all the other children stressful. The shy child wants to join the other children but remains at her desk because she is afraid to join them.

It’s the same with adults. Someone can appear to be outgoing, sociable and engaged, not in the least bit shy, but may, in fact be an introvert and will soon want to find a place to be on their own and recharge their batteries in order to cope.

So. There is a difference between being shy and being quiet because you are an introvert. Of course, some of the ideas for supporting an introvert may also be applied to working with someone who is shy.

As a manager, you may yourself be outgoing and sociable but inside, be an introvert as may be the case with any of your employees, or you just may have someone on your team who is naturally shy. It’s worth thinking about. Be aware of how employees respond to different situations and try to be sensitive to their reactions.

One last thing, the actress who sat shyly in the corner? It was Ellen DeGeneres.

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