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The Internet in real time


Click the animation to open the full version (via http://pennystocks.la/).

This animation keeps things in perspective!

Watch as the number of tweets, youtube posts and watches, Linkedin searches, Skype calls, Instagram photo uploads, Google searches, App downloads, Facebook likes, emails sent, Dropbox files saved, Amazon items purchased, Netflix views … and much more, changes in real time in front of your eyes.

And to think most of this did not exist 10 or 15 years ago, and none of it was around 20 years ago.

Back in 1995 the internet was new, a mess. No Google. And scientist Clifford Stoll wrote a piece in Newsweek called “The Internet? Bah!” pouring scorn on its future. What could we do without it now?

1

How I judge a pitch

Pitching aint easy

I’ve had to pitch in my time, and I’ve seen a few pitches (real and for competitions), and occasionally someone comes to pitch their startup business idea to me.

When judging the value of a pitch, here’s what I look for…

1. Solves an existing/large customer problem

The first thing I look for – is there a clear, sizeable customer ‘problem‘ this new idea is solving? So many pitches look like they are describing really cool ideas, but dig down a little deeper and there is no obvious problem being solved. I’ve fallen foul of this myself. Launching aussiehome.com, we had an idea we were solving the problem of property searching, but our paying customers were real estate agents. There was no problem of property searching for them, buyers came to them anyway (and had done so for years) through newspaper advertising. We may have been solving the problem of property seekers, but they weren’t our customer, they weren’t paying us any money. It was real estate agents who paid (through monthly subscriptions) for our service. Once we got to know the real estate agents’ problems, we launched services for them. That kept us a alive (just)… but it was a close run thing, and an important lesson learned.

* Please note – if you can’t answer #1, do not bother going any further! *

2. Scalable, protectable idea

OK, so you have identified a clear, sizeable problem you can solve for customers who are going to pay you to solve that problem for them. How easy it is going to be to protect that position? How scalable is it? Are you capable of taking the idea to scale and extracting the value? Will you be swamped with competitors and imitators who will take the market from you? When we did our startup we thought we had 3-6 months before someone would copy our map-based property search idea. It was actually much longer than that (18 months or so), but in fact the maps had nothing to do with our competitive advantage. It was the speed of client acquisition, keeping the clients on and keeping them happy that made our business protectable. By the time realestate.com.au and others came to town, we were 3 years old, had great client relationships and could protect ourselves. Before then, we were vulnerable. It took 5 years to really make any money from the business, such we could actually pay dividends to shareholders from the profit earned.

3. Rivals’ reactions factored in

Speaking of competitors, you must recognise that all markets are dynamic. As you enter the market with your services, your rivals (and potential ones, yet to launch or move into your market) have a vote too. They can react in various ways, moving on product, price and promotions. Have you thought through how their moves could affect your strategy? Have you innoculated your clients against the changes your competitors can make? What would you do if you were them? Think a few moves ahead. I meet people who seem to forget that markets can change. The current status quo is just a series of conversations making up a perpetual ebb and flow.

4. IP or secret somehow protectable

Allied to this last point, is there some legally protectable ‘secret sauce’ at the core that makes your idea a knock out? I presume you have the right trademark protection around your brand name, logo design (this easy to acquire, but also very important). Have you some patent on some important process or innovation that you are using? Is the patent secured, or on its way to being secured (“pending”)? Is it reasonable to suggest that what you have (as an edge) is giving you an unfair advantage over incumbents and any potential entrants?

5. A clear market opportunity

Without a clear market opportunity, with potential customers wanting to buy your products at a price you can make a living on, then you don’t have a business. What makes the opportunity an opportunity as of now? How long will that opportunity stay open for (what’s your ‘window of opportunity‘)? Remember, markets are dynamic. Do you have weeks, months or even years? How is it that you (and your team) are going to be the people to exploit this opportunity? You need clear answers here, and do not fall into the ‘China numbers’ trap. I hear so many people say “Oh, the market is huge, $5.6 billion in Asia-Pacific alone, and if we only got 1% of this market then our revenue would be $Xxx million”. Better tell me how you are going to get your first 10 paying customers on board, how you are going to service them, and then tell me how you are going to scale from this 10 to multiples of 10, and 100, and 1000.

6. A great team

Often the investors do not necessarily understand what you are doing, the opportunity you have and how you’re going to do it, but they do know people. They will want to know who your team members are, what they bring to the table, and why you and your team are going to be the winners in this particular case. In the end, this is what they are investing in. People. The sort of people who will do what it takes to bring in the plan, make the sale, stay up late, work long hours, tweak the pricing model, adjust the product from feedback, be patient and persistent.

7. Cost of production & client acquisition as compared to price

Once we are sure you have a market, then some pretty straightforward economics come into play. How much is it going to cost to make the widget, or provide the service, compared to what you are going to charge (and customers are willing to pay)? Average costs may come down with increased output, so how many paying clients do you need to ‘break even’ and make the profits you are hoping to reap? I’ve had potential investors triple my costs and half my projected revenues, and only then decide whether to invest, so make sure things are robust. There should be clear daylight between your running costs and the projected revenue, but also guard against the unrealistic “hockey stick” revenue projections so often seen in pitch decks. Reality is rarely a hockey stick, it’s usually a slow, hard climb up a very long shallow mountain.

How much does it cost to acquire a new paying client? Hopefully, this cost will fall over time as you gain scale and your reputation grows. Ultimately you will want your clients to do the selling for you (by referring your service to their contacts), but well before they do this, investors will want to know what assumptions you are making around promotional activities which lead to sales, and the cost per new client as distinct to what it costs to then provide the service. All this needs to be covered by revenue. I’ve seen SaaS (software as a service, or subscriptions) products launched where the cost to acquire a new client is well in excess of what that customer is paying per year. That’s a journey you don’t want to undertake.

8. Strong clear business model

Investors will want to look at your overall business model. My favourite for online business is subscriptions (SaaS) which includes a monthly or quarterly or annual payment, which renews automatically, and where the new client coming on just starts paying upfront and uses the service without much human interaction. No expensive sales force or marketing plans required, it’s a slow organic build, but once past the point of break even, every new client is almost pure profit. Believe me, it took us 5 years at aussiehome, but on the other side of that hill are beautiful green pastures, bubbling brooks and gamboling lambs. You can sit under the tree strumming your mandolin, the sun is shining and it’s heavenly. Well, maybe not quite, but you get the picture. I’m not saying advertising or etailing cannot work, they can, but subscriptions models are wonderful, and the ones I favour.

9. Disruptive to existing market

This is not a prerequisite, but often in the area of tech startups you are disturbing an existing market, and forcing it off in another direction. Uber, Netflix and AirBnB are classic examples, and have each become billion dollar businesses in a relatively short period of time. It’s the tech subscriptions model at scale which is wonderful, and in each of their cases, they did not have to invest in heavy capital things like cars, TV stations or hotels. They thought about an existing market in a different way and used the power of online connectiveness to create value. Each one started out in a niche market before scaling to national, regional and global size. How I would have loved to have heard their initial pitches. I wonder if they truly understood the massive new business they were creating. I’d like to think not. They have a problem they wanted to solve it, and went out there and explored.

10. Exit opportunity

Remember, investors are also thinking “how realistic is it that I am going to get my money back, how many times over, and when?” Investing in tech startups is about as risky as betting on a horse, but even with a horse race you have a realistic understanding how you might get some money back, and when. You presume it’s gone, but if it returns, it returns many times over, and it’ll be a few minutes time (or not at all). Angel investing in startups is often a patient activity. Besides a dividend at year 5, it was 6 years before our investors even got a sniff of an exit opportunity, and 10 years before the final trade sale. If you are taking money from investors (and there could be very good reasons NOT to do this at the very stage you’re at) then it’s a responsibility you should not undertake lightly. For them, it’s an investment opportunity, that’s all. They need to know what realistic avenues they have for crystallising the/any value in their ownership, and when – a trade sale, dividends, an IPO, a merger, management buy out… all of the above?

I hope this is a useful list. It adds up to 10, as it happens, which is a fluke. I have probably missed some important factors, or over played others. But to me, with 15 years experience on all sides of tech startup land, it’s what I deem to be the major factors I look for these days …

1

Why your LinkedIN profile needs a good photo

LinkedIN pix

I was lazily scrolling through LinkedIN the other day and got to that bit where people who you may know are served up to you as in some professional speed dating site (not that I know what that looks like). You know, the rows and rows of people who are linked to people you are linked to, hence LinkedIN’s clever little algorithm thinks they might make good connections for you.

As I scrolled down, I noticed that less than half had a proper photo – a neat, professional-looking head and shoulders shot taken with a neutral background that clearly shows the person concerned. About a quarter had no photo at all (what are they hiding?), just that grey shadow image that LinkedIN defaults to if someone hasn’t even bothered to upload a picture of themselves. About another quarter had photos from the beach, or the logo of their company, or a cartoon, kids pictures, bad selfie, a tiny photo, squished photo, blurry photo, a studio (I am not making this up), a picture of 5 people (this is not Facebook!)… you get the picture (or not, as they case may be).

So I was wondering what these people were playing at. I assume this was done through either laziness (they’ve not got around to getting a proper photo done), or they did not know how to take or upload a photo, or they genuinely thought the logo was the done thing, or the beach shot was ‘kewl’. Now, I’m not saying I’m some expert, but if I’m looking to make a new connection (or recognise an old one) I go straight to the face. I think we all do. Human nature.

To me, no clear photo means you are either trying to hide something or do not know how to network online or have nefarious intent (like spamming, or monotonous self promotion). Either way, I’m moving on.

In my frustration, I posted this to my LinkedIN status:

I don’t understand people on LinkedIN who do not have a photo of themselves in their profile… (or worse, a bad one).

It would appear I am not alone. Here are some of the comments I received …

  1. Sevgi Erogul Sevgi Erogul

    I’ve had nightmares about some of the display pictures I’ve seen on LinkedIn. I kid you not, I’ve seen an accountant with a picture of themselves pole dancing as their display image

  2. Matt Edwards Matt Edwards

    Some of us don’t have much to work with Charlie :-)

  3. Danny Grillo Danny Grillo

    Serious? – Pole Dancing?

  4. Lyn Hawkins Lyn Hawkins

    Matthew Wallis take note. It’s not just me who thinks this way…

  5. Matthew Wallis Matthew Wallis

    thanks Lyn Hawkins! Duly noted :-)

  6. Marisse de Wet Marisse de Wet

    Or that view your profile anonymously … Really..?!?

  7. Rob Haynes Rob Haynes

    Or have out of date contact details, or no contact details at all…….

  8. Cameron Gurr Cameron Gurr

    No contact details are better than out of date ones. You can always hit someone up through the messaging service. But bad photos…

  9. Peter Taliangis Peter Taliangis

    Yes Charlie Gunningham as you know it is the first tip in my Linkedin presentations – Good Photo – want to see you face – want it to match the person I meet when I see you in “Your Job” – Dont want to see a logo, ball photo, wedding photo, night club photo, photo with more than one person in it, selfie taken at the beach in your bikini etc etc Sevgi Erogul, Matt Edwards, Danny Grillo, Lyn Hawkins, Matthew Wallis, Marisse de Wet, Rod Haynes, Cameron Gurr :-)

  10. Warren Hinchliffe Warren Hinchliffe

    I agree completely re photos, no logos, cartoons or poor quality holiday or boozy party iPhone snaps. I have seen some shockers and have occasionally sent people a message that it is not in their best interest. Get someone to take it for you, well lit, well focused AND well dressed. If you can’t get a friend or rellie to take it, get a professional. Even one from a shopping centre booth.

Notice 9 out of the 10 have nice profile photos, except in one case, who was called out on it, and saw the error of their way!

So, dear LinkedIN wannabe connection, get a proper photo done. First impressions count you know, and usually last.

Pic Credit: examples taken from Andrew McCarthy.com

6

Why short term thinking is destructive

Short termism One of my favourite quotations from economist John Maynard Keynes was “in the long run, we are all dead.” He made this quip to pour scorn on those who thought the problems of the day were insurmountable and impossible to cure in the interim. He argued for the government to take the lead, and ‘prime the pump’, engaging the country in mass building programs to put people back to work and get those important multiplier effects working through the economy.

Although long term issues do require long term solutions, you should not feel defeated before you even begin, thinking everything is impossible. Where will that get you? However, an over reliance on short term results can distort decision-making such that the future is sacrificed for a result today.

We can see this from everything from daily (and hourly) share market fluctuations  through to the climate change debate. Last week the headlines and broadcasts screamed about a 110 point drop in the ASX due to a problem in China. Almost mass hysteria followed. The next day the markets rebounded 100 points. At the end of the week, they pretty much ended up where they had left off a week earlier. Hardly worth any fuss you would think. How can people get so overly concerned about a one day dip and then almost go ‘meh‘ when the losses are recouped on the morrow? Are we more wired to react to bad news? Is that what the news media know only too well? Of course they do. They are after ratings, after all. They are in the entertainment business, not the information business. Eyeballs are everything. Everywhere. They are being judged on short term results too. What were this week’s ratings again?

In business, it is fairly easy to get some short term results. Sack a few staff, slash costs dramatically, tell your suppliers you’re renegotiating everything and you’ll see your results rebound almost instantly. Many companies are doing this right now. Fair enough, for many it is a matter of survival. No doubt they can impress the markets with an improved quarter. But what have they done to the morale of the team, the future output of the company, the relationships with suppliers and the service standards to your customers?

Of course there is a balance. In the long run we are all dead, but overly concentrating on the minutiae of the short term makes you a reactive leader. Failure to “see the wood from the trees” means you make strategy the hostage of tactical decisions. No great business is built this way.

It takes time to build a business. It even takes time to understand what your business is, what it means to your customers (whose needs are constantly changing) and staff, and where the market you operate in is going. A deft hand on the tiller is required, not a lurching from side to side. Calmness, not craziness.

I went to a presentation a few years ago where a speaker argued the stock market should open one day a year simply to readjust prices, and then we could just get on with business in the meantime. Not a bad idea.

A friend of mine once put it this way. He likened a business strategy to a long walk through a mountainous region. In the foothills you look up at the mountains stretched before you, and have to plot your path through them. The decisions made there dictate which valley you will be heading down days from now. Get these decisions right and you will make it through. Having to change course half way through a pass means you have to either go back the way you came, or take the treacherous sideways climb up and over the valley to get to where you now want to go. Plan accordingly, pick your way and keep on the path. Many a traveller has come to grief without a well laid route map, provisions and knowledge of the road ahead. Short-termism is a pest of the modern day age. Don’t get sucked in.

For more on the threat of Short-Termism, read this excellent Forbes article from last year.

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#GObama

obama

Having just returned from his hometown of Chicago, I must declare that I have long admired Barack Obama. I was (frankly) amazed, and delighted, when he was elected President of the United States in November 2008, for it seemed to be a heralding of a new age, and a resolute about turn from the years of the 2nd President Bush.

The realities of being President must weight heavily on the Presidential shoulders; you could see it visibly tire and age Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama. They each started with houses of Congress in favour, only to find them both turn against them. They each found different ways to get things done, and yet Obama has probably had the hardest road of all. With little executive experience (he had been a national Senator for only a few years before launching his race to the White House), Obama has been faced with a vicious blocking campaign against his major plans.  Despite this, he succeeded in winning 97% of all his congressional votes in his first year, a record for any President. Johnson had 95%.

To me he seems like an intelligent, thoughtful and strong man. Probably naive in many respects, he was the first President to be born after 1950 (he was born in 1961), he came to the Presidency in his 40s, bright, alive and shiny. 6 years on, he seems weathered and worn, more grey haired, yet he still seems as determined as ever, and pretty cool to boot.

Looking at what he’s got done, against all odds, it has been quite an amazing record:

  • the US economy was on the brink of complete disaster as he took office; unemployment was spiralling, the GFC was in full swing and yet, since then the stock market has tripled, and there have now been 64 consecutive months of jobs growth
  • 223,000 jobs were created in June, unemployment is now down to 5.3% (or half the rate when he took office) – NY Times
  • he has ended two wars (Iraq, which, unlike many, he vehemently opposed from the beginning, and Afghanistan)
  • the budget deficit has been cut by two thirds
  • has introduced major health care reform, which has cut the uninsured rate by a half
  • repealed the insidious ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Act, and is the first President to champion marriage equality (now vindicated by last week’s Supreme Court ruling)
  • normalising relations with Cuba
  • Wall St reforms
  • developing a peace deal with Iran
  • and, famously, he got Bin Laden, which despite all his hawkishness, Bush Jnr completely failed to do
  • Ironically, he earned a Nobel peace prize within 6 months of taking office (in a major slap in the face to Bush Jnr), and then (probably) went onto earn it
  • Obama even has a Grammy (two, in fact)

No doubt there are still issues unresolved (immigration, gun control, environmental policy, Guantanamo Bay, welfare…), but by any stretch he has been (and still is) an impressive global leader, and on this 4th of July , I hope the American people realise what a special person they have in charge of their executive branch and what a good job he has done, and is still doing. Many other countries would wish to have him as their leader. I know I do.

#GObama

3

Behaviours are set early

Dickensian pick pocketers

The passing of Alan Bond this week has made many think back to the decade of the ’80s with its big hair and even bigger, brasher entrepreneurs. It was the decade that saw a new generation of leaders in Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson come into their own (their companies still hold sway to this day), and downunder it was Bondy, Skasey, Murdoch & Packer.

Reading Paul Barry’s book, The Rise and Fall of Alan Bond (pub. 1991), made you realise that Bondy had been up to his old tricks way back when he was a sign writer and wannabee businessman. Legend has it that having seen For Sale/Sold signs go and up and down on various developments around Perth, Alan realised he was in the wrong game. The serious money was being made in property development, not in sign boards. Allegedly, the various deals he started making back then were just as risky, as he flew close to the wind many, many times, and made enemies and riches in equal measure. He was the consummate salesman, a bit loud, full of himself and convincing, and every now and again struck gold.

In 1983 I visited Australia for the first time. The bright sun, land of opportunity and, yes, brashness, appealed to this 20 year old back packing uni student. I lobbed up in Brisbane where my brother had been working for a year (he’s still there, 30 years on). The Commonwealth Games had just happened, and of course it was the time of the famous America’s Cup win (which did wonders for WA, Fremantle and Bond Corporation in particular). The USA had won the Cup continuously since 1851. No more. Bondy bankrolled this fourth attempt at resting it from their hands, and won. He made sure he cashed in too, and all went well (Bond Towers, 6X Brewery, Channel 9 and van Gogh’s Irises among some notable deals) until the stock market crash of 1987 exposed the problems within his vast empire. To keep things going he had illegally taken $1.3 billion in cash from one business to prop up another, an action that would land him up in jail for 3-4 years.

4 years in jail is what another sometime Perth businessman ended up with this week. A Perth court found that Bill Ardrey had faked $394,000 of consultants’ fees paid by a company he was a non-executive director of. The money was going to him. He had put up an elaborate web of deceit to cover his tracks, even faking a stroke in an attempt to stay out of court. (As with Mubarak of Egypt, Milosevic of Serbia and Alan Bond, an imminent court appearance can often herald sudden illness). It was sad to hear of his misdeeds. I had met Bill at UWA when he was completing a PhD. He sometimes subbed for lecturers if they were away, and he was an odd looking but amusing presenter, with a mix of humour and what seemed a little like shyness. I remember once he rushed through a 3-hour lecture to have it all done in 75 minutes. He wanted to get off early, and I suppose so did we. I met him a few times years later, in Singapore, where he and I did some occasional lecturing for UWA. He was good company, but had those ‘shifty eyes’, which I put down to shyness, but perhaps hid something he was up to. On the night I won a 40under40 Award in 2003, so did he. Whatever the ins and outs of the case, it’s sad to see someone fall so badly, and make the mistakes he must have made that led him to the court last week.

I feel sorry for the families of those affected by these deeds, the companies and people defrauded. I never met Bond, but I bet he was charming company. Great salespeople (and great fraudsters, and Bondy was Australia’s biggest fraudster) always are. These behaviours are often set in stone early in life.

In a footnote, it seems odd though that Bill gets 4 years in jail for $400k, the same as Alan for $1.3billion. If jail time was linked to dollars, Bondy would have had 13,000 years. Or Bill would have had half a day. Maybe he’ll get out early with good behaviour.

1

The genius of David Letterman

Letterman Show on Broadway

I’ve been a David Letterman fan since I first saw his shows in the late 1980s. I loved the irreverent send-ups, self deprecating humour, the sharp quick wit. It was New Yorker wise cracking, stand up delivered with a huge smile. It was fresh. David was having as much fun as everyone else.

In January 2010, I had a week in New York at a tech conference, and one of the things I had on my list apart from the Empire State, State of Liberty and pastrami on rye was a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman, filmed at the iconic Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, just a few blocks up from Time Square. So a few hours after touching down and making it to my hotel, I went to walk off some of the jetlag and found my self outside the theatre, and noticed people walking inside (it was a dark wintry Sunday evening, so I was amazed to see the doors open). There were people with clipboards ushering people in, so I walked in and was quickly told that if I wanted to see a taping, there would be two shows tomorrow, one at 2pm and another at 4pm. They asked me a couple of easy questions about the show, and said they’d leave a message at my hotel if I was on the list. By the time I got back to the hotel, a message was there. ‘Turn up tomorrow at 1pm’, which I did. Again, they asked me some questions about the show, and seeing I was a bit keen, told me to go to queue A inside the theatre. There were about 30 others there, and once there were about 50, we were told we had been chosen as we “looked nice” and were “big fans” so were going to be in the front rows. About 30 minutes of what I can only describe as “whipping us up into a frenzy” ensued where we were told to laugh and applaud at everything David says, but no calling out or taking photos.

Ed Sullivan theatre

Into the theatre we went and down to the front seats, I was in the second row left by the aisle. The set was as you’d expect, with people milling about, and then a local warm up comedian came on to get us all in the spirit of things, then they played us the famous 1996 Taco Bell bit, and finally the band came on, and played 3 or 4 songs. By this stage the whole theatre was full and clapping along, and finally, about 2 minutes before filming, out walked Dave himself, took one quick question, and as the theme music was started (all music and effects were played live) he ran off and we were into it.

As it was, the show went for 60 minutes as if in real time. During the ad breaks Dave would wander off to the side to talk through something with the producer. It all flowed like clockwork, perfect every time, first time. Well, the gang had done the show over 5000 times up to that point (and over 6000 times in all after Dave retired the show this week). There was Paul Shaffer leading the band, which included Tom “Bones” Malone (of Blues Brother’s fame). At the time Letterman rival Jay Leno had left the Today Show about 6 months earlier and Conan O’Brien (who’d started his career as a writer on Letterman’s Late Show) had taken over, but Conan had been sacked that day, and Leno was set to return. Dave (who everyone had expected to get the Today Show from Johnny Carson back in 1993) nonchalantly walked out to begin his monologue with “Agh well, looks like I didn’t get the Today Show again!”, with a pretend annoyance that turned into his signature beaming tooth-gap smile. It was an incredible experience and an amazing start to my week in New York.

Letterman’s late night show ran for 32 years (he’d had a morning show before that for a few years before switching to late night) and after Leno was given the Today Show, he regularly beat Leno in the ratings for years. While Leno was all smarmy establishment and slick one liners, Letterman was the edgy risk-taker. You were either a Leno person or Letterman. I was Letterman. Leno finally retired (again) a few years later, and Letterman, having gone past his good mate Carson’s 31 year record a couple of years ago, and aged 68 decided this was the moment to go. Everyone else in late night was in their 30s and using hash tags. His first guest on Late Night Bill Murray was there on his last show, as were all living Presidents, Foo Fighters and a cavalcade of stars who had guested many times for one last Top Ten list. Dave had survived major heart surgery (his Dad died of a heart attack in his 50s), blackmail, a stalker and 4 decades in the industry. There was not much more to do, except spend time with his wife and Harry his son. In the end, as he said farewell, “family is the most important thing.”

Letterman mugI sit and look at my Late Show mug on my desk every day, and smile. Thanks Dave. You’re a legend. 12 Emmys (more than any other chat show host), 53 nominations (more than anyone), producer of prime time shows, a real entrepreneur and raconteur, paid $20 million a year to entertain us (his $14m starting salary at CBS was 3 times that of Leno).

I reckon Dave had the last laugh.

Happy retirement.

P.S. Last Weds, Conan O’Brien, in an act of selfless admiration, even implored his own audience to turn over and watch Dave’s last show “You have to watch Dave; we will never see his like again.”

1

Advice for entering business awards

Business Awards ceremonies

When I ran my own business I found that one of the best ways to get a free kick with media is to win business awards.

When our business was a fragile 6 month old we won the ‘Best E-Commerce Innovation‘ award. We were up against some big players, and we were amazed. It gave us a massive morale boost, and it got us through some tough months. It also led to a lot of free press, and from then on we could refer to ourselves as ‘award-winning’. After that first win, we would enter about 2 or 3 a year, and make sure we picked wisely (the entry process can take up quite a bit of time) so that we had a good chance of being a finalist, if not an outright winner. I am proud to say we won at least one major award every year from then on.

The proliferation of awards programs may have devalued some of them these days, but there are still valuable ones out there. You can choose from industry specific ones organised by your peak body (such as REIWA Sales Awards for real estate agents, or WAITTA Awards for techies) or overall business awards such as Telstra Small Business Awards or Business News’ Rising Stars, or individual awards such as the 40under40 Awards or EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year. All of these (and others) hold prestige.

I’ve entered many awards, but these days I tend to be on the judges’ side of the table, and have just finished a round of judging on a local business awards program. The advice I give below is not to be construed as specific for any such award, but when entering awards, please do bear in mind some of the following…

1. RTQ, ATQ!

When I was a school teacher, I used to drill this into my students

RTQ = Read the Question     ATQ = Answer the Question

It is soul destroying to read submissions that veer off the point, and do not stick to the judging criteria. A very good business may not do itself justice if it does not hit the points the judges are looking for (when they may have them in spades, but did not commit them to paper). I’m sure your product and people are lovely, but if the question concerned is all about your online marketing strategy, why are you wasting precious words talking about other stuff?

Read the questions and criteria very carefully, make sure you give the judges the ammunition they are looking for. Judges are looking for the good stuff, make it easy for them. Don’t leave questions out – you get zero points for a nothing answer. Answer every question as well as you can.

2. Easy to Read/Follow

Lay out your answer clearly. Use space. Photos are a good way to space things out, breaking up the words. Write in clear sentences. Make sure at least two other people proof read it, and be critical. What you leave out is as important as what you put in, but make sure what you put in matters, and is easy to follow. Some businesses get PR companies to write up the final copy – this is not a bad idea. It can look fantastic on the eye, and it does make it easier for judges. But you can do it yourself, just don’t make it look too home made. Make it look grown up, professionally laid out.

Increasingly, submissions are now done online, and you have to stick to the word limit on each question. Type out your answers in documents first, spell check, and proof BEFORE copying and pasting your submission.

3. Use evidence

Use examples to back up your points. There’s nothing like independent evidence, what others have said about you, testimonials, other awards you have won, perhaps even the number of Facebook fans or your Klout score.

4. Don’t use Jargon

You understand all the ins and outs of your industry, but the judges may not. Speak in plain English. Let your passion flood out. If you can use less words, use less words. As few as possible. Judges have lots to read, make sure your best points come out clearly, so they are not missed inside wads of text. Don’t waffle.

5. Take your time

Don’t leave it to the last minute. Be prepared, and plan out your answers early, weeks before the deadline. Don’t enter it at the last minute either, enter with days to spare. This will set you apart from the others as being well organised. Your reputation will travel.

6. Involve your staff

Invite relevant members of your staff to help you with the submission. Writing the piece actually makes you all look back collectively at what you’ve done, where you are going, and think about what you want to do. It’s a good process in itself. And take them along to the gala dinner where the winners are announced. Win or lose, it’s a team thing. Have fun on the night, and congratulate the winners if you are not among them.

7. Practice your pitch

If you get to the finalist stage and have to make a presentation to judges, then make sure this is extremely well rehearsed. Get other people to listen to your presentation. Make sure you have your slides on various versions so there are no nasty surprises with technology on the day (this can be a killer). Drink some water beforehand, take a deep breath and take it slow. You know your business, you’ve got the words, let it come out of you. Do not read a script, do not read bullet points, use your slides as a visual aid only. You (yourself) tell the story, you have to be believable. Look the judges in the eye. Believe.

8. Be Yourself

Be human. Include something humorous. Explain some of your mistakes, and what you learned from them. Talk about your biggest wins, where you took a risk, planned your action, and went for it. Explain why you’re in business. I doubt it’s “to make money”, there’s a deeper reason. There’s something you want to build, something you want to deliver, something you want to prove, something you want to fix or disrupt.

9. Enjoy it!

Awards should be fun. Make the submission sing, and enjoy the night. You never know, you might just walk away with a gong. And if not, no worries, come back next year, or choose another one. Get some feedback on your submission. Make it better next time.

And remember…

“One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.” ― Oscar Wilde

1

Knowing when to stop loss

Better to do something than nothing

The stop loss‘ decision is one of the hardest to make, whether it’s in management, sport, or in life generally. When something is not going well, your early inkling can be put any nerves down to ‘post purchase’ fear, but as things continue to pan out not quite as planned, you look increasingly bad if you persist down the same path. People look to you for an answer, for a change, for hope.

In some cases, things improve, and the leader is then revered for their deftness of touch, and resolute manner, winning through in the end. Sometimes things take time.

In other cases, you’ve just made the wrong decision. Maybe it was OK at the time given the information, but as things go from bad to worse, it’s obvious to most that things need to change. It is time to stop loss, to prevent further bloodshed. Often the stop loss decision is put off, in the (sometimes false) hope that things do ‘turn around’. Usually leaders cannot admit to themselves or others that they got it wrong, so they persist with arguments that the original decision was correct. We see this in politics as much as in business.

Escalating commitment to a bad decision can make leaders dig their heels, and try to ride it out. They can make it sound like firm decision-making (“We are in this for the long haul“) and strong leadership (“You turn if you want to”), but continuation down the incorrect path, when the results show the direction is wrong, is pure pigheadedness.

The best leaders know when to pull the plug. And do so.

Take the decisions in recently months of the British Labour Party and the English Cricket Board (ECB). I would argue both organisations put off taking the hard decisions (the ‘stop loss’ decision) and left things until they are too late. Both have enjoyed great success in recent years and decades, only to plunge to new lows. This is the most galling, as you don’t have to look far back into either’s history to see how and why they became all-beaters in the first place. How could they forget so quickly?

It was only 3 years ago that the English cricket team was number one in the world in all 3 formats of the game. But this success was underpinned with a 10 year stint prior where they amassed a solid team of talented performers, that they backed. Results steadily grew, and with it confidence. Before too long the team was beating even the all powerful Australians (three series in a row in fact 2009-2013). How could they have mucked it up so badly since?

It was in the late 1990s and up to 2005 that Labour won three successive general elections (giving its party a commanding overall majority 1997-2010). It seems they too have both forgotten how they got there, the hard work that was done from the late 1980s onwards, and how to stay there.

If Labour thinks it was not ‘Labour enough’ to win power then they have completely forgotten the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s when they were a political joke. Lurching to the left after the Thatcher landslide of 1979 only made them unelectable for a generation, and a split into the Social Democratic party (which then merged to form the Liberal Democrats, who then formed a coalition government in 2010 as Labour lost… perhaps the ultimate ignominy?)

Tony Blair knew instinctively what needed to be done, and put in the hard work in the background during 1994-1997. He’d started earlier, and the first time I saw him, he made a strong impression. This guy was intelligent, determined, competitive. He rebranded, tossed out the screaming leftist policies and nutters, and took Labour to the centre, where every government needs to rule from. In electing Ed (not David) Miliband in 2010, Labour lurched away from Blair (who’d become distrusted post Iraq War) and the party has never looked electable since. Ed did not look or talk the part. Unless Labour elects a centrist leader who is articulate, strong and knows how to move the party to the middle, Labour will be out of power for another generation. They’ve lost Scotland, now they have to win the home counties of England. Wales, for now, and major English cities, are still theirs.

Personally, I’d get brother David Miliband (he’s not yet 50) back from New York. But they won’t do it. Sometimes the screaming obvious (like removing brother Ed 2 years ago) is the stop loss no one would countenance. They would prefer to lose an election than deal with their ineptitude.

Which brings us to the ECB.

It was clear early on that Paul Downton (Director) was not the right person for the job, nor was Peter Moores (Coach), yet we had to suffer a year of these two mismanaging things (sacking KP for one) and some deeply embarrassing results. Captain Cook could not score a run in the one day game for two years (it’s not his format!) and yet they left him there, getting worse, losing games and totally squandering the time that could have been used to develop a team for the world cup, only to sack him a few weeks before it started.

If they can persuade Justin Langer to leave Perth, then he’s my choice for England coach. He’s the sort of no nonsense, hard working leader English cricket needs. I hear everyone feels sorry for “nice guy” Cook. Sorry, I don’t want my cricket captains to be nice. I want them to the nastiest, vicious b***ards, who are going to get under the skin of the opposition, take no prisoners, but speak well at the end of game interview (that last bit is a ‘nice to have’).

It’s easy to manage when things are going well. But if they’re not, be decisive. It’s where you earn your money. If need be, stop loss. Because things can only get worse if you let them.

0

San Francisco, not SF, San Fran or Frisco

PRICELESS: While at Dropbox HQ I see a guy dropping off boxes

PRICELESS: While at Dropbox HQ I see a guy dropping off boxes

Don’t call San Francisco ‘San Fran’, ‘SF’ or ‘Frisco’ – the locals never refer to their city that way, you only look like a tourist. Which I was last week, on my second trip to the world’s tech capital, taking in SugarCON (SugarCRM’s annual conference) and a few other things along the way.

San Francisco (or “the city”) is a unique place, mixing quaint Victorian townhouse architecture with the pulsing modernity of an all encompassing tech boom and amazing views from its many road peaks and bayside vantage points. Jazz and piano bars adorn the central Union Square tourist traps, cable cars (only 3 lines remain) trundle noisily up and down passing roadside diners, which frequent every street corner. There’s a restaurant that puts garlic in everything (I mean everything, including ice cream), the school where Joe DiMaggio grew up (and the church where he posed for wedding pictures with Marilyn) and the country’s first topless bar (which is still open, and no, I did not go inside).

ha-houses

Walk south of Market Street (‘SOMA’) and you pass by the offices for Yahoo! (ironically placed right next door to the San Francisco Chronicle), Eventbrite, Klout, Weebly, Wikipedia, Zendesk, Yelp, FitBit and DropBox. The flood of tech people head to the city, chasing limitless streams of VC money that has put upward pressure on rents and house prices, making it an expensive place to live. As in Perth, people are being forced further and further afield, and the commutes are getting longer.

gg

The place is cool, in more senses than one. The sweeping mists and fogs roll in across the Golden Gate bridge, bringing plunging temperatures to the city, while surrounding areas stay warmer. The winds that whip through the up and down streets are chilling, but walking around you feel the place is cool (in the trendy sense) and you don’t get badly hassled by street panhandlers as you always are in New York. Yes, around Union Square there’s someone on every street corner asking for money, but they do it in such a charming, friendly manner. They wish you well, no matter if you drop a dollar in their tin or not. Some openly tell you they need it “for weed”, with a cheeky grin.

ha

Speaking of cannabis, I was there (coincidentally I hasten to add) in the Haight-Ashbury (hippy) district on the 19th April, which is the eve of ‘420‘ – the day synonymous with everything and everyone that worships marijuana. They had come in droves from far and wide, and were already camping out in Golden Gate park. All drab colours, ear piercings, distant faces, glazed smiles and large black dogs.

crabDown at Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll taste the finest clam chowder on the planet, along with the sweetest crabs. As one nearby sign simply read (how I loved it’s simple ‘call to action’ message): EAT CRAB. The views out to Alcatraz straight ahead and the Golden Gate bridge to the left have to be some of the finest anywhere. The seagulls are also the largest I’ve ever seen, at least twice the size – I gave them a wide berth.

Overall, you feel this place can do anything. It screams innovation, while also tipping a nod to its own history. You understand why people beat a path to its door, and why innovators in cities across the US and the globe are seemingly envious of the attraction San Francisco has for the next Facebook, Instagram or Google. It’s well worth a visit.