Networking – Your Personal Mafia Family

In my recent post The Right Time to Network I emphasized the importance of networking well in advance of you actually needing something from your network. I was mentioning the post to my photographer during a photo shoot (new images will be put up within a few days), and he described it in a way that I hadn’t really thought about before.

Your network is basically a big family, like the mafia families of the stories, in which some things are expected of you from time to time, and in exchange, the family will stand by you when you need their help. That is, a well-cultivated network can be an extension of your family, with people you’ve helped over the years who are glad to help you when you need it, much as you helped them when they needed it.

Cultivating your network means slowly growing your network by always looking to bring people closer to the center of your circles, and increasing the number of people in the outer circles. In the book Make Your Contacts Count which I reviewed following a networking event last year (Getting Started with Networking), the author describes 5 levels of your network, from an acquaintance you barely know to an ally who will stand by your side. Your network will grow by moving people through those circles as effectively as possible.

Growing your network, which I describe in the afore mentioned article, involves more than merely increasing size, but doing so in a manageable way. That is, you can meet many people and make them acquaintances in a relatively short period of time, but also slowly cultivating relationships with a few people from each group, such that the groups grow slowly but surely.

Additionally, maintaining your network will involve work, to constantly connect with the people you already know, to not disappear for long periods of time. In this, websites such as LinkedIn and Facebook provide an excellent service, facilitating regular contact. That is, of course, provided you still maintain the in person contact that you would have used prior to the development and growth of these sites.

Lessons from Controlling Teenagers

I’ve taught in a high school that was fairly restrictive on its students, both within the school and when they are at home. The school was trying to promote a particular set of values, but the lesson they imparted was one of restriction – you can’t do this, that’s not allowed, and so on.

Another school took a very different approach toward imparting the same values. While some things were explicitly banned, activities were arranged to create alternatives to activities that were allowed, but did not promote the values the school was trying to promote.

Which is more effective? For some students, certainly the first system would work, in that they are inclined to follow the rules, and the creation of many rules will drive them along a particular path. Personally, however, I find the second approach to be more tasteful, and more likely to succeed. People do not want to be told what they can and cannot do. While the school can provide encouragement to participate in certain activities, students are more likely to do so with a smile when they are given a choice, rather than forced.

What does this mean to you?

When running your business, there will be times when you are trying to convince someone to take a particular path. You are more likely to see success if you promote something along the path you want them to take, rather than placing barriers along the road you do not want taken. Besides – it’s nearly impossible to block all the roads but one.

The Right Time to Network

Over the past few years, I’ve participated in a variety of networking groups, both online and in real life. I’ve also read several books on networking, and have been coached by a professional networking facilitator on etiquette. Out of interest, I started asking people around me about their networking experiences, what pushed them to start, and what approaches they’ve made to expand their network.

What I discovered was that many people start networking when they lose a job, or start a new business.

From my experiences, that’s much too late.

The best time to start networking is when you don’t need anything from the people you connect with, and ideally, when you have something to offer. Networking is not about telling everyone how great you are, or how desperately you’re looking for work. It’s not about telling the world about your latest product and how much better it is than the alternatives.

It’s about making connections that are mutually beneficial. While you can certainly do this when you need something, it’s so much easier to focus on giving when you don’t need anything. When you attend a networking event, you should be looking for people that you have something in common with, or people that you can help out. You should try to be the connector in the room, linking up people who might otherwise not find each other to their mutual benefit.

What you will discover is that by helping other people, you establish a strong network of people who have come to respect you for focusing on their best interests. True networking is reciprocal, but not necessarily within a single connection. If you set out to an event with the plan to help make 10 connections between other people, maybe only one connection will be of value to your own needs. However, in the long run, that one connection can often prove to be of equal value to the other 10 connections you made that have no direct benefit to yourself.

Pitching Software to Investors

With a company that spends significant amounts of time working on websites and applications for small businesses, and an association with a few other companies doing similar work, I’ve seen a large number of projects which have lent themselves to be proposed to investors for some capital. Some were being backed by someone other than the founder, others were self-funded, some were bootstrapped.

The question I’m often posed with, though, when starting work on a project, is whether or not I would be interested in trading my time and effort for equity in their project. While my answer is almost always a form of “no”, I do think about it. The reason for my refusal, though, has little to do with my belief in the potential of the project – quite the contrary, if I’m working on the project, it’s because I already believe the project has some level of potential be successful.

My time, when unpaid for, is an investment in the work I’m doing. If you want me to invest, you’ll have to convince me of the value of your business.

The reason I refuse is partially because I don’t really want to be involved in the running of these projects, whether because it’s in an area that doesn’t interest me, a lack of time, or because I don’t want to run a business like that at all. The other reason, though, is because I listened to the pitch, and it failed to motivate me to invest.

Yes, I’m an investor – because if I donate my time, then I’ve invested the value of my time in your business. If you want me to invest, then you’ll have to convince me that it’s worth investing in.

Having prepared a few pitches over time, here’s what I would want to hear in a pitch, what has the potential to convince me of the value of your idea:

  1. Why – I want to know why you’re building this business. While money is a motivator, I want to hear a personal story of a need your business solves, something motivational.
  2. What – Now that you’ve explained why, tell me what it is you’re building, and how it solves that need you described in the preceding minutes.
  3. Who – Who else is in the market with a product that also solves the need? Show me some of the other players, how they’ve approached the problem, and why you feel there is still a need for another product.
  4. How – If you want me to put work into building the product, what are you doing? Are you figuring out marketing angles, lining up customers, working with other vendors? What’s your plan to get your product built, on the market, presented? What are you personally going to be doing on the project?

That’s not to say, of course, that I wouldn’t consider a business that lacks answers to these questions. However, if the founder is already making phone calls to vendors and can’t give at least the basics of the answers, then I have a hard time taking the founder seriously.

What does this mean to you?

If you’re thinking of an idea for a business and want someone else to help you with it, you need to motivate that person to join you in your venture. You need to pitch your idea to them as a business venture that is on the road to success. You need to realize that most people will not be as excited about your idea as you are. Once you realize this, and start working toward figuring out how to motivate someone else to join you, you will find that the quality of the ideas will generally rise as you start to really understand the implications of what it is you are proposing.

Lessons Learned from the Corporate World

Part of my business involves advising other business owners how to avoid certain pitfalls they may encounter as they grow. I teach them how to manage quality, people, expectations. I teach them how to balance the need for an immediate solution against the long-term needs of the business for a stable solution.

The question I get asked most often, though, is how I know what I know, why anyone should listen to me. The answer – I learned, and continue to learn from my experiences, and I’ve been exposed to the issues they’re facing.

Much of what I learned came from working in a mid-sized (1000 employees) corporation, and seeing what works, what doesn’t, and why they do things certain ways.

Change Control

Large corporations have process for doing pretty much everything, making rapid change difficult, if not impossible. The reasoning is that by having a proper process, it can help mitigate the risk of a change being bad for the company by ensuring that the proper people are aware, and that quality control can be enforced via the process.

The catch, of course, is that process for the sake of process doesn’t accomplish this, and a long, drawn-out change control process will only work to mitigate risk if there are similar processes for quality control and communication management.

Communication

Little happens in larger companies that doesn’t involve copious amounts of communication, with meetings and emails flooding in-boxes and calendars. The benefit of this is that communication by volume reduces the risk that someone with key relevant knowledge will miss something from a project or change. Since everyone is invited, or notified, about everything, little slips through.

The catch, again, is that with all this time and effort being devoted to communication, it’s easy to become side-tracked from the real work that needs to be done. Too much communication slows things down to the point of inefficiency.

Documentation

If it happened, it’s been written down somewhere, using a standard format. The creation, and enforcement of usage, of documentation can help a business learn from its experiences and avoid repeating mistakes. Having standard documentation processes means that people don’t struggle to figure out what to write, where to write it, or whom to notify.

The catch is that a poorly designed documentation process can create useless paperwork that is never read once it’s been filed. If the document doesn’t make sense for the purpose it exists for, then people will resent filling it out, as they will know that the document is doomed to be lost in the filing records, never to be referred to again.

What do you think? What are some lessons you would take from a large corporation? How would you describe them, both in terms of the need the lesson fills, and the risk of doing it wrong?

2 Paths to Product Development Success

When HP was first founded, it was done on the basis of a product which had been built out of curiosity and then sold, followed by requests for more. The engineers then built another product, and then another, each of which sold to more and more customers. The company grew on the basis of many individual products with little to no vision for where the company was going. Products were built with no vision for market and yet the company grew to become a massive success.

Other companies have taken a different route – they identify a need, a consumer, and then build a product or service to fill a void. The vision is clear, the goals well-defined.

Which is correct? Both, and neither.

Building a product with no vision for market means that the product is likely to be built well, since there is little pressure to get it to market sooner rather than later. However, since there is no market, it’s a distinct possibility that the product has no market, and therefore will never see revenue. As well, since it is not fulfilling a real need, it’s possible that the product will be found to be lacking in key areas that customers are concerned with.

On the other hand, selling the product first means that there is external pressure to complete the product as soon as possible, which can have negative impacts on quality control. Additionally, there is the risk of unachievable promises, with features being sold without an ability to build those features.

Like many things in life, the best route is that of a compromise. No vision isn’t good, but too much vision can blind you to other options and alternatives. Waiting to find a customer means time is wasted that could be spent developing the product, but ignoring customer acquisition means that you can be headed into a dead end long after you could have realized that there’s no future in the product.

Do you ascribe to one of these two concepts over the other? Why?

Convincing Republicans and Democrats to Vote Against the Party

I was reading a Tom Clancy novel in which he discusses the voting system in the US. While I don’t recall the number precisely, the explanation went as follows:

40% of the population will vote Democrat, because that’s what their parents and grandparents did, it’s how they’ve always voted, and always will.

40% of the population will vote Republican for the exact same reason.

10% of the population will vote based on platforms and issues.

10% of the population will vote for the man.

Okay, maybe my numbers are off, but essentially, 80% of the population is already decided (though they may profess otherwise, or give alternate explanations for their voting). Of the remainder, half are also already decided because of the stances the candidates have already made. Only 10% of the population is truly undecided throughout the election campaign, and will ultimately vote based on the person and personality of the candidates.

The focus of an election campaign is not about convincing the 90% of the population who have already decided how to vote (though they will not be forgotten). It’s about the 10% that can be convinced to vote, and presenting the image that it is believed they want to see. It’s about convincing those who are still undecided.

What does this mean to you?

Whenever you set out to promote your opinions, don’t focus on convincing those who have always opposed you, and are unlikely (though certainly possible) to change their opinions. Instead, you are more likely to see success if you focus on those who are open to seeing your point of view, who are ready to be convinced.

If you are promoting a product or service, don’t try to convince those who are already using a competing product or service about how much better your product is. Instead, focus on getting those clients who are not committed to anyone yet. Only once you have built your own following should you turn your attention to the customers of your competition, when you already have the successes of your existing clients to reinforce any presentation you now make.

Massage Therapist Keeps it Simple

I went for massage therapy for some back pain. At the end of the session, the therapist asked if I would commit to doing some exercises to strengthen and stretch my back. I agreed, and she promptly demonstrated three exercises. All of them could be done while standing, none of them required any special equipment.

She explained her choice of exercises very simply. With only three exercises, it’s more likely that I will do them on a regular basis, as it won’t take me much time, and they’re easy to remember. By selecting exercises that could be done standing without any equipment, she gave me the ability to do the exercises anywhere.

Her reasoning is completely sound. I can do all the exercises in 5 minutes. While they are perhaps not as effective as others done while lying down, the freedom to do them anywhere means that I’m more likely to do the exercises, making them much more effective than other stretches that I’m not likely to do.

What does this mean to you?

If you want to get someone to perform a task, keep it simple. Make the task as easy to remember and perform as possible. The simpler it is, the more likely it is that the task will get done.