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Forget the Killer App: What’s Your Killer Question? The Secret to Winning Business and Fans.

Author and negotiation coach Jim Camp says the most powerful way to paint a picture in a negotiation is to ask a great question. Imagine walking into a car lot and a sales associate saying “I have the perfect car for you”. What if instead they asked a question that helped you see and discover how your ideal car fits into your life? A question that brings such vivid images to mind that you will make a decision and take action.­

This reminded me of an entrepreneur who had negotiated the sale of his company, but right before the deal closed, saw his potential fortune begin to unravel. An employee had made misleading statements, the buyer sensed tension and said the deal was off. Eventually the entrepreneur was given one chance to redeem himself, scoring a meeting with the CEO of the public company that had wanted to buy him.

The initial inclination of many might be to dive into why the employee was wrong, then beg and plead, and then try to make the case again for the acquisition. But if you do that, you don’t know what is going through the mind of the person sitting across the table from you. So take a more powerful approach:

The entrepreneur decided to ask one question. “What do I have to do to prove that my words and actions are true?” That one question led the CEO to lay out in excruciating detail what had to occur, what hoops the entrepreneur had to jump through to now close the deal. And jump he did, eventually closing the sale.

Do you have this tool in your arsenal? What’s your killer question, the question that paints a vision in the mind of your customer, investor, partner or employee? Figure out your killer question – it could make your career.

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Why Your Kid Can’t Get an Internship

College students are preparing to make the trek back home as the school year wraps up, pushing some parents into a panic as their months of newfound freedom comes to a temporary halt. Discussions of “get a job” or “find an internship” are bound to occur. Yes, we want our kids to succeed, but keeping them busy instead of playing video games on the couch is also a motivating factor.

I get calls from parents asking if I can help. Sometimes my introductions lead to success, and sometimes parents report back that nothing came of it. What went wrong? Here are five big failure points:

1. No custom approach. From email to salutation to cover letter to resume…it’s all generic. When every single letter reads the same, how do you expect to stand out? “I am a multi-tasker who has a lot of skills.” Great. But where’s your research on the target company? Tell me how you plan to use your skills in my company? And please throw in a little personality! Lemme hear your voice.

2. You forgot the most important word in the English language. A name is powerful. When you know the name of the recipient, use it. Is that so hard? Having reviewed hundreds of applicants for jobs, I can report that the majority of college kids do not personalize email or cover letters. When you learn that the recipient is Allison, address her: Dear Allison (every time). Remember Stephen Covey’s best line from Seven Habits: the deepest desire of the human spirit is to be acknowledged.

3. Not asking questions. Walking in clueless as to what the company does, how you would fit in, or why the person seeing your cover letter was energized to work for this particular company is not a recipe for success. Think up 3 – 5 questions before the interview. These are your best tools to help the company get a good impression of you. I don’t mean “what hours are you open?” Ask good questions like, “How would someone like me, a history major, best fit into your company? Try this one: “How would a successful person in this position perform?

4. Lame follow-up. So the interview went well – and that’s great! What next? Probably not much more than a quick email. Here’s the thing: everyone sends a silly little follow-up email. After the interview, no matter how it went, send a handwritten note to everyone who interviewed you. This will be remembered.

5. What’s the word? Ah yes: Thank You. Finally and most important: if someone referred you in, go back to the person who made the intro and thank them. Send them flowers or chocolate. This will pay dividends down the road.

Parents, do not despair. Your child does not have to camp out in your house unemployed this summer. With a little creativity, personality, some research and follow-up, your son or daughter will be miles ahead of everyone else. And don’t forget I like extra-dark chocolate.

 

 

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Who Will Buy Twinkies and Ding Dongs? 3 Ways Company Owners Use an Acquisition Strategy to Succeed

$2 billion Hostess Brands filed for bankruptcy and liquidation. Twinkies were never a staple in my diet, so I won’t notice when they no longer show up on shelves, but there could be opportunity for someone to snatch up the assets Hostess leaves behind. The question for entrepreneurs: when does it make sense to use an acquisition strategy versus inventing or creating from scratch?

Look at entrepreneurial phenom Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani yogurt. He stumbled on a classified ad for a yogurt plant shut down by Kraft and decided to buy that same day. From a single spark of an idea, one of America’s most popular yogurts was born.

Like Ulukaya, many entrepreneurs have had success using an acquisition strategy to either get started or expand. Here are three ways champion company founders buy up existing brands and businesses.

1. Buy for a Better Brand. When Gian Fulgoni, founder of ComScore, acquired Media Metrix, it was the best known brand in the audience measurement industry. Gian had better technology under the hood, but Media Metrix was the flashier brand on the outside. So he acquired and scaled up customers much faster than on ComScore’s brand alone.

2. Buy For Speed to Market. Glen Tullman, CEO of Allscripts, makes no apologies for deriving 40% of his revenue from acquisitions. When I interviewed Glen as part of the recent Entrepreneurial Bash founders panel, Glen told me that because health care technology is a rapidly changing space, acquisitions were vital to staying competitive and ahead of the curve.

3. Buy for New Markets and Technologies. Joe Mansueto, founder, chairman and CEO of Morningstar, is well known for growing his financial products company from scratch to $600 million+ revenue and thousands of employees. But it wasn’t all organic. Along the way Joe quietly made more than a dozen strategic acquisitions, including Ibbotson and Realpoint, which increased Morningstar’s firepower overnight.

Putting Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Hos aside, what about your industry? What’s the adjacent product, company, or technology that could fit into an acquisition strategy to help you grow faster? Are you sure you have to launch from scratch?

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

 

 

 

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A Desk is a Dangerous Place from Which to View the World

The sign that sits outside Caterpillar CEO, Doug Oberhelman's office reads: "A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world"

Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar, has a sign at the entrance to top management’s offices that reads, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

Leading a Fortune 500 company could be an easy excuse for neglecting the little people in favor of big clients, big strategies, and public engagements. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, can’t neglect anyone or anything when they start out. It’s all important, it’s not all comfortable, but you do everything possible to succeed. And when you do succeed, things become more comfortable. Good people join you, systems become organized, and customers show appreciation. The danger is entrenchment. Stasis. Lack of forward movement. Doug’s warning is that no matter how large your company, your leadership has to be from the front. So how to be a better leader?

Tear Down the Walls

A few years ago I pitched Mayor Bloomberg. This was when he was only Mike Bloomberg, CEO of Bloomberg Company, a billion dollar provider of financial products on Wall Street. I couldn’t help but notice the completely open office space – no private offices, dividing walls or doors in sight. Mike’s desk was on the same floor among hundreds of other employees. Joe Mansueto, founder and CEO of Morningstar, is the same way. He has a cubicle just like the rest (maybe a little bigger), but no door keeping people out.

If you value people, show it by making yourself available and laying out the welcome mat for your staff, clients, and stakeholders.

Get Out Among Your People

Even before the show Undercover Boss, there was John Edwardson, the CEO of United Airlines before he moved on to CDW. John was known to pop up at the baggage conveyor belt at United’s terminal in O’Hare airport, to help unload luggage along with the crew. I think John did this with a genuine desire to learn and understand what his employees were experiencing, and to show them a good measure of respect with his presence and attention.

Go See for Yourself

You want real boots on the ground? Check out Renee Haugerud, founder of a $600 million New York hedge fund, Galtere Ltd. Renee trades futures on commodities and currencies, but instead of staring at charts on a PC to make all her decisions she flies to her research farm in southern Minnesota to check the crops and soil for herself. Renee’s money making ability isn’t tied to being at a desk – she’s in a corn field.

We entrepreneurs assume we’ll never fall into the big company trap of losing our flexibility, our touch with customers, and our ability to out-innovate the big guys. But that means continually learning how to be a better leader. Doug Oberhelman’s promise to himself is that as long as he gets to remain CEO of Caterpillar, he will visit with clients and employees every single week. Make the same ambitious promise for yourself.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

 

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Company Decision Making Doesn’t Need to Start at the Top

Dane Miller, founder of Biomet, had a hard time keeping up with the IT world. Trained as a biomechanical engineer, he was a brilliant CEO and inventor, but never pretended that he knew it all. When the company was buying a half million dollars worth of computer hardware he said that he would sign a generic name on the requisition to show that someone lower in the company could know as much about the decision as he did.

Dane forced down company decision making at Biomet to take advantage of the knowledge base around him. Not an easy thing to do when everyone defers to you. His mindset to make decisions at the right level helped build Biomet from startup to $12 billion valuation.

Empowering Employees. We entrepreneurs can be kind of controlling, but there is a point when it no longer pays to have your hand in everything. Rock Mackie, founder of TomoTherapy, inventor and manufacturer of advanced MRI machines for treating tumors, is a big fan of employees making decisions and sometimes mistakes. It’s hard to sit on your hands but Rock argues that “The dangerous thing is that you will micromanage employees to death. You have to know what are important and not-so-important decisions. Let your employees make smaller decisions even when you disagree. It’s too easy to continuously correct and give your opinion.”

SurePayroll has a great technique. They hand out a reward for the biggest mistake made each year. It’s their way of showing the team that it’s good to take risks.

Decision Democracy Increases Innovation. Participating in company decision making gets employees more vested in the organization and can have huge payoffs. Raj Soin started MTC Technologies with $1,700. Just as he had entrepreneurial desires, he wanted his employees to have the chance to launch companies. So he set up an incubator. “I challenge my engineers and other employees who come up with an idea to present it, and then we fund them to take it to the next level,” Raj said when I interviewed him for How They Did It. He knew that the best innovation would not always come from the top, so empowering everyone within the company to think about problems and solutions outside of their immediate projects led MTC to spin out 20 additional companies before being acquired by BAE for $425 million.

A Built-in Culture of Company Decision Making. I visited Zappos headquarters and took note of CEO Tony Hsieh’s desk mixed in with everyone else. Not a hint of hierarchy. Every new hire goes through customer service training, no matter what their role. Employees are encouraged to make decisions and take ownership of the company’s reputation through every interaction with a customer. They were proud to tell us the longest customer call was 8 hours. The result is a culture of outstanding customer service that even extends to handwritten thank you notes from someone like Isabella.

Imagine your company full of Isabellas – people who put their heart into their work. Holding some decisions too close? Now is the time to entrust and empower your employees.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

 

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Want to Start a Business? You Don’t Need to Know it All

Want to Start a Business? You Don’t Need to Know it All

It’s easy to put ultra successful entrepreneurs on a pedestal. Let’s face it: after they reach the peak, they usually sound brilliant, and as Ben Franklin said after he became rich and famous, “now I sing well too.”

But when you peel back their lofty status and record of home runs you usually see a series of hits, misses, whiffs and foul balls along the way. And that’s not a bad thing. Great entrepreneurs are not afraid to acknowledge they don’t know it all. More powerfully, the ability to act without full information can be a strength when you want to start a business.

Vince Pettinelli, a psychotherapist by training said “If I had to hire me I never would have because I didn’t have the prerequisite business skills.” Yet, he went on to build a $200 million company called PeopleServe. Many of us want to start a business but are in the same boat – we don’t have experience behind us. Here are a few ways you can capitalize on your abilities no matter what level you are at right now:

Ask Questions: Find a really successful company owner and ask them how they did it. Think your question is an imposition? It is not. The truth is, in most cases that successful person is wondering how they can give back without appearing to be boastful. Stephen Covey said “the deepest desire of the human spirit is to be acknowledged.” You are honoring them with your attention, respect and passionate desire to learn.

Hire People Better Than Yourself: This is a truism – every successful founder I’ve ever interviewed said this at some point in our discussion. No one ever said “it was all me, just me.” Here’s a practical example of good hiring in action: Vince Pettinelli had no financial background. As soon as he could afford it, he hired his accountant to come on board the company full time. Eventually the accountant became company president. From the beginning Vince said “Your job is to teach someone who can’t read financials–how to. And that includes me.” That one hire helped him stay within budget and grow the business massively.

Make Mistakes: Even Dick Costolo, founder of Feedburner and now CEO of Twitter didn’t always get it right. He said “I keep starting companies because of the regrets I have about the 50 things I did wrong on the previous one.” And fear of making mistakes should not hold you back. Al Berning, founder of Pemstar puts it perfectly: “People think if you study long enough, you’ll get a clear direction to go ahead. That’s never going to happen. You just have to have enough confidence in yourself to move forward.”

It’s easy to sound naïve, especially when you want to start a business but are a newbie. Instead of trying to act like you know it all, embrace what you don’t know. It’s not a weakness. Treat it as a precious asset and the world will open up for you.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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How to Make One Better Decision Each Day

How to Make One Better Decision Each Day

Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring, spoke on campus at Stanford University in 2009. He said that whether you run a dry cleaner or a tech company, if you could just make one better decision each day, you would end up dominating your industry.

That sounds right, but how do you do that? Three pointers from great entrepreneurs:

1) Don’t go for Perfect. You’ll Just Stall. Dan Sullivan, founder of the Strategic Coach Program, says perfection and procrastination are two sides of the same coin. His solution? Go for 80%. Other than brain surgery and nuclear weapons, 80% is great for your first effort, and when your second effort takes on the remaining 20% of the challenge using the same 80% idea, you are now at 96% of your ultimate goal.

2) No Decision is Final. Jim Camp, author of Start With No, points out that every decision you make will lead to another decision, and another. When you realize this, it is easier to make the first decision today.

3) See Your Decisions as Experiments, Not Personal Indictments. What I love about interviewing incredible entrepreneurs like Dick Costolo, now CEO of Twitter, is their ability to view decisions dispassionately. Dick tells entrepreneurs in How They Did It that when he built Feedburner (since sold to Google), their business model was like going to the doctor. “Better like this or like this? A or B? B or C? Oh, C’s doing better than B. Let’s do more C.” Dick tinkers with decisions, constantly working to improve rather than judging himself by occasional setbacks.

Back to you – you have a decision to make today, don’t you? What’s it gonna be?

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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How to Avoid the Big 5 Social Media Mistakes Corporations Make

My biggest challenge right now is mastering the vastness of social media and I suspect I am not alone. No matter what size company you work for, facing customers, partners, vendors, investors or the public means you better get good at LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, or Pinterest. Yet for many of us it can be intimidating. Earlier this year McDonalds promoted the hashtag #McDStories and didn’t get quite the response it was looking for. So how do you avoid social media mistakes and get good at this?

Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of Big Spaceship, came to my rescue. I interviewed Michael in this podcast where he explains why most corporations get it wrong, and how we should change our way of thinking about social (listen here). Here are five mistakes corporations make:

1. Corporations have no sense of humor. They aren’t good at funny. But a little attitude can be good. Recently someone tweeted that they saw a bird poop on a SmartCar, totaling it. What did the folks at SmartCar do in response? They created an infographic showing how many pigeon craps it would take to destroy the car. Nicely done.

 

2. Companies are too slow to respond. We are bombarded with email, meetings, and corporate hierarchy, and speedy response can easily go out the window. But social media wants immediacy – that’s the oxygen. We have to communicate in real time. I can’t believe I am actually going to cite Tamagotchi in a Forbes post, but those silly virtual alien pets that you had to feed and water, or they’d die? That’s like social media.

3. Companies have no voice. Corporations do their best to be politically correct and inoffensive. That’s boring. To be successful with social media you must have voice. Skittles posted a fan’s “Skittles Covered Roller Skates” and that single photo got 35,000 likes. They aren’t afraid to have fun. Have a voice.

 

4. Corporations that are nameless and faceless fail to connect. People seek connection and acknowledgement. When people speak out to a company they often feel like their comment is thrown into a deep, dark hole. Who is behind the curtain? Ford does a great job using social media to engage customers and learn more about its fans. Be human.

 

5. Companies treat social like a process, when it’s really an organism. Michael nailed it on this point. Corporations want to reduce everything to a process, but that is not the way social media works. There is no set of inputs and outputs like a machine. Rather, think about social media as a living, breathing organism that you must nurture and form a relationship with.

Check out the banter between AMC Theatres and Oreo. When Oreo asked its followers if they brought cookies into the movie theater, AMC wasn’t afraid to instantly come back with a fun response of its own.

You want to avoid social media mistakes and be the life of the party? No problem. Engage, be authentic, and don’t take it too seriously.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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Tweet from the Jury? How Successful Startups Ask the Crazy Questions

Tweet from the Jury? How Successful Startups Ask the Crazy Questions

With the buzz around the Apple-Samsung trial I wonder what the jury was thinking as both sides took the stand.

We could get a glimpse into the jury’s mind soon. The Citibank trial jury a couple weeks ago came close: they acquitted the defendant and sent a note to the judge who read in court: “This verdict should not deter the SEC from continuing to investigate the financial industry, review current regulations and modify existing regulations as necessary.” (See Article)

What happens when social media and transparency hit the jury room? Sounds impossible but so was Facebook by traditional standards of privacy. Steven Brill launched Court TV (now TruTV) when the idea of broadcasting live trials was shocking. Now it’s standard fare.

What’s it mean for entrepreneurs? Get out of your thinking box. What did Brill and many other entrepreneurs do to reach success? They turn the problem on its head, asking, “why is this the way it is?”

If you think the idea of jury empowerment sounds crazy, consider the Citibank trial aftermath. First jury foreman Beau Brendler wrote the statement. Then SEC lawyers called Brendler to ask him: “how can we be more effective?” That’s power, because Brendler had essentially tweeted a message – and if you include the NYT article he reached about 2 million people.

Maybe you won’t be the entrepreneur to start a tweet service from the jury room, but I’ll bet in your field there’s still an assumption or two that needs re-thinking. Steve Shank thought online education had a future, but for seven years everyone in the field laughed at him. Finally Capella University received its accreditation, and it now stands as an education industry leader with 34,000 students from 50 states and 53 countries. And Steve went from being a guy with a crazy idea to a pure genius.

Back to Beau Brendler. Beau, you listening? Just one small problem. Your tweet was 164 characters. Next time you send instructions and encouragement to the SEC, could you keep it to 140?

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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Olympic Takeaways for Entrepreneurs

Olympic Takeaways for Entrepreneurs

In business a lot of people can be touchy about criticism. In sports, athletes depend on it: if you want to improve your swing, your throw, or your attitude, you better be open to coaching.

The Olympics is the ultimate example, with the top athletes closely advised, cajoled and encouraged. Entrepreneurs also can learn from some good coaching, and in fact there are great lessons from recent Olympic champions, also-rans and even the DNFs (Did Not Finish).

Perfect your performance like Usain Bolt. To perfect can mean to take something to a flawless state, but I think there is a far better way to use this word for company founders: the continual process of expanding and developing skills and bettering results. Try this sentence: “She worked to perfect her startup over the course of five years and achieved $10 million revenue.” Is she done at $10 million? Of course not. Any entrepreneur worth her salt will now set a new goal. Sharpening our act – that’s something we can all do. Usain Bolt ran faster in his second Olympics, and I suspect he’s already setting even more ambitious goals for the future.

Make a comeback like Gabby Douglas. It was doubtful that Gabby Douglas would even make the US Olympic team, let alone win an individual Gold medal. Forbes contributor David DiSalvo wrote in The 10 Reasons Why We Fail that one of the reasons for failure is accepting one’s (low) station in life. But how does that explain Oscar Pistorius? How could you watch his 400 meter race and not be inspired? Comebacks are what make legends, so if you’re behind the curve right now in your business, just imagine how much more glorious it will be when you succeed.

Be remembered by your grace under pressure, just like Liu Xiang. He failed to clear the first hurdle in his race, crashed to the ground and was disqualified. He limped off, but then returned to kiss the hurdle. Competitors then helped him exit, because they knew a champion was in their midst. For Liu, the hurdle, the event, the training and the crowd were all sacred. Contrast this with an American runner, who was tripped up, fell, and immediately began to pound the track with her hands. She was not hurt, but she didn’t finish the race.

Especially with startups, none of us hits a home run every time, so the question is what to do when you crash. Anyone can look good when they win. It was fun to watch the pole vaulters – thrilling to see someone leap up to an impossible height and clear the bar. But when they failed to clear the bar, you saw them get up off the mat and applaud the crowd. It was their way to say: thank you for the opportunity to be here, and just so you know, I’m coming back, even better than before.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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