Startup Shack :: grow your businness

Manage risks in your own startup

Hedging risks in startup

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Andre Gide, French writer, humanist and moralist, 1947 Nobel prize for literature

I’m led by comment of my dear MBA colleague Enda Moran to write a little bit more about hedging against financial risks in startups.  I decided to go a little bit further, so I will also mention other startup risks and ways an entrepreneur can avoid or at least diminish the effect of these risks.

Market risks
As you enter and try to conquer part of the market, you will realize by the time that volatility and change of market and industry conditions affect your business. We have witnessed the recent global economic crisis; but it’s not the first one – almost every 5-15 years there is some kind of recession in economy – sometimes it’s on a smaller scale (country or industry level), but sometimes it has worldwide effect and it takes a long time to get out of it.
- keep pace with the industry you’re in – those who are ready to adopt new knowledge and new ways of competing on the market are more resistant to market changes. Not only that new knowledge and techniques are giving you competitive advantage, but if you are ready to accept something new, you will probably be more ready to accept new market conditions as well, so read more about your industry, visit thematic fairs and learn from people who know more. Be ready to learn!
- keep contacts within industry and wider – even though books and magazines can be full of needed knowledge, hands-on experience is priceless. respect those who are in the industry longer than you are and try to connect with them – by connecting with them I don’t mean social networking with them, what I mean is a beer or a coffee with these industry insiders will give you helpful ideas. The main idea about being entrepreneur is – if you don’t know something, find someone who does!
- track legislature that influences the market – I’ve seen many startups struggling in the beginning by not meeting basic legal obligations from their industries (technical requirements, tax regulations, safety regulations, etc.). Every industry is legally regulated in a specific way, so before you start with your business, learn more and find an expert on legal field to help you understand if you can meet these requirements. Later on you will realize that these regulations are not something you once fulfilled and you’re done – they change and develop constantly, so find a way to track these changes. Not keeping an eye on regulation changes, you may end up paying penalties for something you even didn’t know it exists
- keep an eye on competitors -  I know these might sound like common sense, but don’t be ignorant on competitors’ moves – it could be nothing too important, but it could signal you a big change on the market, or even give you a better idea – after all, Japan built their economy on improving competitors’ solutions.

Internal risks
Risk of hurting your startup by not setting up the stage in your company correctly might hurt your business. Wrong company culture, too complex processes, unclear and non-transparent definition of team obligations and wrong incentive systems are healthy business killers.
- avoid process complexity – this is not an easy one but I find it should be one of the most important issues in your business. A process is a way you handle some recurring task in your company and it should be based on common sense – try not to copy some other company, you should be able to find the way that works for you. If you have a small company with few employees, instead of having paper reports on who should do what and what is a plan of each of you for coming days, you might decide to have a casual meeting each morning and make morning action plans, divide the work and get started …as long it works for you efficiently, you’ll be fine :)
- exact information flow and customer relationship – it is an imperative for your startup to keep and use valuable information about your products, sales, customers and market, so they could be smartly used to improve your business strategy, products and services. The use of technologies like CRM and ERP can help you on that. Just be careful that technology and the way you keep track of information suits your company.
- quality supply chain – in my opinion, this is something you build through the time. It will probably take years to find quality partners on all fields you need, but keep in mind that your goal should be to work with reliable partners that complement your business. That way it will be much easier to plan and to achieve plans and promises.
- surround yourself with quality people – you might opt for cheap solutions by not employing skilled workers, but instead employing someone who knows something but not much. This may work on some positions, but on key positions in your company, you should employ quality people that know how to do the job and how to improve your business. I know that many startups struggle with financial resources for such people, but there are other ways to compensate for work, so be innovative and find a way to offer them something good other than direct cash.
- fulfill your promises – you and your business will be judged by how good you fulfill your promises. Building a good relationship with your customers and your partners is essential for growing your startup. It’s much better to honestly say on time that your capacity is 100% full and that you don’t have enough resources to meet some customer request than to miss the deadline. Even if you lose your customer to your competitor, you won’t get a bad feedback for being honest, but you will get it if you miss the deadline.

Financial risks
Using your savings, borrowing from your parents or friends or getting a loan are the most frequent ways entrepreneurs start their own business. I know it sucks …some of you think – this is all I’ve got, it’s make it or brake it …so what if it doesn’t go well??? …but hey, don’t lose your faith – if you want to start your own business and you are persistent, you will make it. It’s true that there is bigger statistical chance of your first time being unsuccessful than successful, second time as well …but the beauty of mathematical thinking is – the more times you try the bigger chance is you will make it :) But how can you reduce the risks of losing the invested money or let’s say it this way – how can you minimize the cost of those failed attempts?
- start a limited liability company – it’s much easier because financially there is separation between owner and a company and in case something goes wrong with a company you can be sure that your personal belongings are safe …but be sure you do that emotionally as well – passion to make a good product or service you believe in is one thing, while being emotional and identifying yourself with that product or service is another
- do not promise something that you can’t achieve or fulfill – by promise I mostly mean by servicing loans and servicing customers. If you get a loan, in a way you promised you will have enough money to service your debt, so before you take that loan be aware that it’s a responsibility that shouldn’t be a burden you can’t take, so try to borrow money only if you intend to use it for purpose of investment
- be humble – personal life should be in accordance with the situation in the company. Starting up your company demands changing personal financial habits – becoming a CEO of a company doesn’t mean you should live like a king …try to reduce your financial appetites and realize that starting your company should be your financial focus …if you get to the point where your business generates enough cash, feel free to live like a king :)
- importance of quality accountant – lot of entrepreneurs think that accounting and bookkeeping services are necessary evil. Wrong! …they are really important as they give you an insight of your companies’ financial situation – your accountant should be your right hand in leading your business. If someone wakes you up in the middle of the night, you should be able to know how much cash you have on your account, how big are your loans, how big are your receivables and what are your obligations. Knowing these data, you will be at ease to decide on some financially demanding issues for your company. To be bale to communicate with your accountant and to understand the benefits of some accounting practices, you should learn how to read financial statements – trust me it’s not that hard as you might think it is!
- track your liquidity and solvency – to be liquid you have to take care that you always have enough cash on your account. Keeping liquidity in your company demands planning. Plan your expenses and revenues and be sure that when some obligation is due that you are able to pay it. While solvency is important as it shows ability of your company to service it’s debt. As I said previously, for the beginning, avoid loans that don’t have a purpose to help your generate cash in near future.
- try to have some private emergency fund – even though in business schools they learn us to make the most out of our money, I’m not full in line with that. My opinion is that you should always have some emergency fund that is safe. When your company starts to grow try to put on a side some amount of earned cash (get it out of the company and put it in the bank). It will help you in cases you need to overcome some demanding financial period (you can always loan it back to your company in case the company needs it), and in case something goes wrong with your business, these reserves will help you start again.
- cut your costs – very important to use capital in direction where it’s most needed, so this one is quite logical but important – track your expenditures and be aware where the money goes the most and try to find better, efficient and less costly ways to do the same job
- be aware of needed cash to break-even – before you start, you should understand how demanding is your business in terms of needed capital. Sometimes it make take time to break even, so be realistic when you plan.
- be aware of fixed costs – it’s easy to handle costs that are incurred only in case you sell your product or service as I assume you will have some profit margin and that revenues will overcome that costs, but be aware of your fixed costs (office, utilities, etc.) – they are out there even if you sell nothing, so cutting costs in the beginning is mostly focused on cutting fixed costs.
- focus on revenues – many ideas come to our business angel network and many entrepreneurs contact me directly, and I see a lot of great ideas, but quite a lot of these ideas don’t have a clear cash generating source. It’s great to have a cool idea, but in case you are not sure how to generate cash out of it, what’s the point? …I’m fine if you intend to run your idea on altruistic basis, but if you want to live from your business, I recommend you to clearly define who will pay for your product or service – meaning you should be sure you are solving someones problem and that they are ready to pay for that solution.
- recognize on time if your business is not doing good – do not get to emotionally attached to your idea as you could become “blind” to see that something is wrong with it. It might be a tiny reason your business is not doing good, but it might also be hard to spot it. The more you separate yourself from your company emotionally (but leave the passion to work), the more objective you become and more capable you become to realize your own mistakes. In case you realize that your business is not going good and that it can’t be improved do not be ashamed to shut it down. After all, as said – with each time you try, you increase your chances to succeed!

Trust in yourself – if something goes wrong, and if you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean you are incapable of running your own business. The legend says that Thomas Alva Edison invented a light bulb after failing 1000 times. And when he was asked by a reporter on how was it to fail 1000 times, he said: “I never failed, I just invented 1000 ways how to not make a light bulb”.
So I encourage you to “cross that START line” as my friend Enda Moran said in his comment on one of my recent posts.

Apr 2012


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Startup – race against all odds

Startup race

I’m listening a lot lately on how an entrepreneur should start with his own business. There are many books written on this topic – some of them hit the point really good. It’s funny how everyone tells you how to get organized, how to be more efficient, how you should prepare for changes, how to focus on important stuff and not loose your vision out of your site. I mostly agree with stuff like that as they bring some experience from different point of view, but mostly that is how in general it works and what are the main concepts on running your own startup.

But I’ll try to put it from a different (reality) angle.

You must be crazy!
If you decided to start your own business, you have to be a little bit nuts. Let’s say that risking significant amount of money and time, and along with that getting a loan from you parents (risking their life savings too) and making other people to trust you and follow you in your “perfect” business idea …is kind of nuts!

It won’t be as you planned it. No way!
You will make a lot of predictions and be convinced you covered it all. Well you probably haven’t covered more than 10%. You can’t imagine what is waiting for you behind the curtains. Everything looks great, but just wait until you get struck buy doing 10 things at the same time and realizing that none of those 10 things is what you planned you will be doing in your brand new company.

It will hurt!
I’m not saying someone will kick your ass (even though you never know), but it will hurt when you have to spend 80% of what you have on marketing, it will hurt when each day you realize there is some expense you haven’t planned for, it will hurt in those first months watching your company creating only expenses and getting a crumbs of revenues and it will also hurt when you hope another coffee will get you back to life after few sleepless nights.

Finding the right employee is a nightmare!
I’m not saying there are no good people to work with, but the thing is you can’t pay them in the beginning. You have to take care about your expenses, but also you need someone to do the job – true, not easy at all! After some time spent trying to do everything on your own, you will realize there is no way you can continue like that. You decide to get a person to do a part of your job …but you don’t know anyone good and affordable to it. Well that’s what I call survival and that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about – trying to find almost impossible solutions. When you find the right person, many of you will be tempted to give company shares instead regular salary (since your cash resources are already so miserable you can cry when you see the account balance), but be careful to not give too much shares (it doesn’t feel good to have an ex-employee owning 20% of your company) and try to agree that shares you give are transferable only if that employee remains in company 2-3 years or so.

I have such a good product and no one wants to buy it! Grrr!
That will be your regular sentance in the beginning. Prepare for that. That’s what literature calls – brand …or in your case “no brand”. In the beginning you will not sell the product because it’s good, you will sell it only if you sell good. I see this as a regular problem for many “one-man show” startups. You are a technical person that can create a technical miracle, but no one understands why do they need it or why should they buy it. Most of entrepreneurs are bewiched by how good their idea is and they are focused on creating that “miracle”, and not thinking enough on how to increase the revenues now …and after all do I really need to completely create that “miracle” to start earning or maybe I just need some part of it that costs me a lot less for now?

At the end, I don’t want to demotivate you. I’m just trying to point out that there are many forces that will work against you when you start with your business and there is a good chance you will not succeed with that idea. But if you don’t try you won’t succeed! So those who run against all odds are those who make it at the end – some of you will succeed with the first idea you start, but some of you will make it after trying 10 times. Both ways a good!

Mar 2012


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What venture capitalists look for?

Business Angels

Do you have a business idea and don’t have enough money to start it? Well, you are not the only one! …but don’t despair! Maybe after all you have what is needed to start this idea.

After “flying” as a business angel for two years now and after going through many conferences and reading many materials about venture capital and business angels, I’ll try to share with you the criteria that venture capitalists or business angels look for when deciding about whether to invest in some business idea. So before deciding whether to contact some VC or BA look at these criteria before doing further steps:

  1. It’s all about entrepreneur – it is very important that you are the person with a drive, looking forward and that you are being realistic about your ideas. Also, the most important thing is – you have to believe in yourself and in your idea, because if you don’t, no one will. Venture capitalists definitely won’t!
  2. Do you have a vision – it’s not about the vision that you have to write in your business plan vision, it’s about do you really have a vision! You will come to a situation where you have a minute or two to get the venture capitalist interested. So you have to be prepared to say something short that will take his attention to you! Venture capitalists like to call it – a glare in entrepreneurs eyes. They like to see your energy!
  3. Write your own business plan – writing a business plan is not something you should do by downloading a template from the Internet and filling it’s columns, although that’s better than not writing a business plan at all, but instead try to write about all the aspects of your business idea and about your future company the way you see it. It doesn’t have to consist of every single column from traditional business plan. Write what you think is important and make it interesting and sound. That way you will be able to show your original ideas in details to venture capitalist and also you will have your ideas on the paper and it will be great to revise them through the time as your business develops.
  4. Focus on growing market – when looking for an idea to invest in, venture capitalists look for an idea that has fast return of investment. It is mostly possible only if your idea is focusing on a growing market, so if you want to start a business in agriculture industry, don’t expect venture capitalist to invest in your business idea or at least the investment is less possible to happen. You should probably turn your attention to bank loans and such funding. But if your idea is focused on markets like media, software, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, VoIP, e-commerce, video games, etc., you have a possibility to get some capital from VCs.
  5. Scalable business – most VCs like business ideas that can scale during the time. It means that if your idea becomes successful, your expenses will remain the same, while your revenues accrue. For example, if you intend to run a hotel business, you will have to employ more work force if you intend to open another hotel. So your expenses will accrue as you try to raise your revenues by opening another hotel. So that’s not scalable. But if your business is focused on developing some kind of software platform, you could sell that platform to more and more clients by not raising your expenses. So that’s scalable and VCs love that kind of investments!
  6. FFF – the final point, but not the least important is connected to the first point …you should be able to at least start your idea. For example, a prototype of a product or basic functionality of some IT service should be created to have something to show to those you need money from. FFF stands for family, friends and fools …and if you don’t have enough of your money, you should be able to get some from FFF – if you are not able to collect some cash fro them and to make them trust in you, don’t expect someone who doesn’t know you in person to give you capital.

After reading this short post, and you still think you have a chance of getting some money from VCs, I recommend you to read a book The Masters of Private Equity and Venture Capital written by Robert A. Finkel. It will help you to get into idea of venture capital more before deciding to create that special “business family” with VC.

Time is free, but it’s priceless!

Time Management

You’re late to your business partners? You sleep over important stuff? You’re always behind schedule? Getting anxious because you loose control over your time?
Well – wake up, shake your booty and get a grip of your life! Your time will pass and you will realize you haven’t achieved your dreams, so get MOVING!

Are you awake now!? Well let’s start.

  1. Wake up early! – to get up early doesn’t mean that you should sleep 4 hours/day – it’s better to get up at 9am after 7 hours of sleep, that to wake up at 7am after 5 hours of sleep. But still to get up early like 6-7 am is important, because you get time to prepare for your day and when the rush-hour starts the dullness is gone! But to be able to get up early and have at least 7 hours of sleep, “time-to-bed” is 11pm.
    Some will argue that they can’t go to bed before midnight, but practice creates habits. In addition to sleeping habits, forget “power sleep” – 30 minutes of sleep during the day. They make your body relax to the point that it takes time to get to action-ready state, and it makes it even harder to go to bed early.
    This point is really important – you’re time-managing success will be limited if you don’t achieve this sleep issue.
  2. Plan! – don’t talk about your plans, make them. Start filling your schedule and try to equip yourself with important tools that help you on that – it could be MS Outlook, Thunderbird, Google Calendar or any similar calendar tool. Also, use your mobile phone – most of mobile phones are equipped with calendar tools as well, so set-up synchronization between your desktop calendar and mobile phones, it will be much easier to have up-to-date calendar in any moment.
  3. Take notes! – notes are important because they are not connected with any specific date, but they memorize important facts for your tasks and missions. What is important about notes is you should take them instantly – at the moment you become aware of important issue that you should memorize – put it down to notes. Keep track of few different notes:
    • your job notes – everyday notes help you on remembering important data for your job, for example – take a note of an address that you will need to deliver some package to.
    • your private life notes – for example – name of cartoon that your kid wants for his birthday
    • your ideas – keep track of any idea that comes to your mind and that could be useful later on. This list is quite subject to erasing things, because many ideas drop from the list soon after you think twice about them, but sometimes you won’t have chance to think twice about them if you don’t write them down.
  4. Control your time wasters! – it’s not fair to point out your finger on anything specific as a time waster, because anything can be a time waster if you spend on it more time than you should. It is true that in average – internet, playing video games, television and mobile phones are one of the biggest time wasting threats, but reading books, doing sports or having meetings can be a big time wasters as well if you do it to much.
  5. 80/20/80 rule – since time is a limited resource, try to focus on your important things – spend 80% of your time on 20% of your most important things that bring you 80% of benefits. It’s not easy to always stay in these measures, but keeping them in your mind helps a lot.
  6. Care about your family! – there should be nothing more important than your family, so put your family in that 20% of most important things in 80/20/80 rule. It will make you feel better if you care about them and this kind of satisfaction makes you motivated for other stuff.
  7. Find a life partner! – if you don’t have a partner, look for one – it sounds funny to some of you, but it is in human nature to have someone to share your intimacy with. This is the opportunity to have someone honest by your side who will tell you of your mistakes and flaws. And when you find a partner, don’t try to change him/her, change yourself instead – it’s more fun!
  8. Get moving! - nothing above won’t help you if you don’t start with action, so go to bed early, get up early, make your plans and notes and start to work on important tasks by controlling time wasters.

It is estimated that

it takes 16 to 21 times of repeating a task to make it a habit

so it won’t come natural after a first day, but after some period of time you will plan your time without thinking about it. Good luck!

If you want to read more on this topic, I recommend a very affordable book Getting things done written by time organizing guru David Allen.

How to adapt your business to changing market?


In recent decade the business environment has changed dramatically. Marketing has become more than just putting a poster in front of the store, sales move mostly online, number of products and services has multiplied numerous times, so customers become more selective. Global economic changes become more frequent, so it becomes vital to be able to adopt to today’s market. If you feel that you are loosing your market share or that the market size is shrinking, so you feel it in the loss of the customers and in decrease of revenues, you should consider some of the possible following steps:

  • change your niche - when the size of the market that you are in is decreasing, it’s best to change the market. But changing the market doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go in the opposite way of the current market. Most of the times it’s good to stay in the same industry but just slightly focus on a different customers. For example, I am working in real estate and construction business, but I focus on residential buildings, so possible changes of my business could take my company in few directions. It’s possible to invest in a small family hotels, it’s possible to invest a luxury tourism villas, it’s possible to invest in business premises, or to invest in some sport facility for renting. So it wouldn’t be complete change of my niche, as I would still be able to use my knowledge gained in real estate business, but I would focus on different market and different customers. Certainly, if you feel that the niche you are in is completely diminishing, it’s best to change the niche completely. So it’s very important to be able to transfer your business to another market.
  • change your way of selling - working in sales today is definitely ungrateful job. If it took ten potential buyers to sell one product, today it takes hundred of potential buyers to sell one product. Sometimes you become frustrated for working more and more and selling less then you used to. There is no strict formula that will help you enforce your sales, but there are few possibilities that will help you make changes in sales:
    1. change the place you advertise - if you advertise on one site too long, customers that visit that site have probably seen your advert many times (actually, too many times), so try to consider another site, because probably you will reach the customers that never saw your advert.
    2. use some other media – if you use TV, try using radio, if you you use Facebook, try using Twitter or YouTube. But one the most important changes that you can make in advertising online is to change from images to video or interactive content. Customers are becoming more and more demanding, so they like the feeling that they can find out all the information from the comfort of their chair. So it was great thing to present your product by showing it on pictures. But customers want more! Presenting your product on video, you can show your customer how to use the product and the customer can have much better insight to the product before buying it.
    3. change your design – this is something that should be planed carefully. Changing design of your product or design of your presentations and advertises could affect people to have a feeling that there is something new about your company and product. But be careful! If you change your design, especially web design, try not to completely change the functionality of your site. People like the feeling that they understand something, so if your customers got used to some functionality of your web site and they like that functionality, don’t change it!

find ways to cut your costs – I know, this is hard one. Many entrepreneurs have gone through times when the profit margin was good enough, but many have later on experienced a decrease in profit margin. It’s a natural path of business development – if a profit margin is good, then many will try to take a piece of cake in that industry. So with a competition growth there is a decrease in prices and profit margin. Soon after a decrease of profit, unorganized companies close their doors, leaving others to compete. How to survive in that environment? The best way is to try to structure your processes and to cut your costs. To cut the costs the entrepreneur should revise every single cost that affects the cost of the product and should try to find other solutions that will cost less without loosing a quality of the product and service. Best way is to introduce some technology solutions that will enhance and quicken your operations, and that will free more time for dedicating to customers.

Sure, there are other ways to keep the pace with the changing market, but the important thing is that we and our company have to change with the external changes – we have to adapt.

Please feel free to comment or add any other ways that would help to keep the pace with current market changes.

Jan 2012

Current market

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