You’re Either the Magician or the Audience

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When opportunities are clouded by confusion, morale disappears. When suggestions are censured by incompetence, staff disappears. When the realization hits your bottom line, leadership disappears. You’re either the magician or the audience. Control the disappearing act or be a casualty of it.

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Corp to Startup in 13 Hacks

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Transitioning from the corporate world to a startup isn’t for everyone.  In fact, very few people are properly prepared for this and even fewer of those people have what it takes to succeed.  Whether you’ve already joined a startup or are contemplating taking the plunge, prepare yourself to stand out.

“In the startup world, you’re either a genius or an idiot.  You’re never just an ordinary guy trying to get through the day.” ~ Marc Andreesen

The desire to be entrepreneurial is very popular, especially these days where startups are all over the press, in movies and soon to be reality shows.  The hype surrounding the lifestyle, cool offices and potential payouts don’t even come close to representing what it’s really like to help build a company.

Hard work is an understatement and transforming your mind from a CYA (cover your ass) attitude to a COA (cover our ass) attitude is pivotal.  Be prepared to forget what you know, reset your expectations, reprogram your drive and change your attitude completely.

Assuming a functional startup, here are some eye-opening mind hacks:

1) Meetings – Forget the mindless meetings for the sake of meetings protocol.  You don’t need to be seen or heard by your superior(s) anymore.  You just need to produce and your actions will tell your story.  You will meet briefly, as needed, when needed because no one has time for that shit.

2) Politics – Office politics are non-existent.  There’s theoretically no one to impress, avoid, outdo, coddle, align with or kiss up to.  No need for a personal campaign here because your advancement and potential success are directly related to your hustle.  No one’s stopping you.

3) Selling – Forget the dedicated sales team(s) and department(s) that you’re accustomed to because your job, regardless of the specific discipline, will require you to sell.  Even if you’re not directly selling the product or service, you are selling the company and your faith in the endeavor to every single person around you.

4) Hours – If you’re used to virtually or physically punching in at 9 and doing the three-point stance at 5, you can forget that immediately.  You do the work until it gets done and if that means “flex time”, as the corps call it, then have a schedule that’s conducive  to your productivity.

5) Problems – As I mentioned above, you are no longer in CYA mode.  The startup’s problems are your problems so embrace it.  Transform your mental auto-responder from “S’not my problem” to “I’ll figure it out”.  This is quintessential teamwork.

6) Motivation – Perhaps your previous role allowed for a more comfortable paycheck and that’s what motivated you.  With startups, it’s all about the risk and the end game.  Your motivation needs to transcend the immediate decrease in pay to something bigger like an awesome product or incredible experience or maybe even changing the world.  Whatever gets your head in the game.

7) Structure – Fancy org charts only matter when you don’t know who the fuck does what in the company.  Get used to operating in a flat structure where everyone’s opinion matters and directly impacts the bottom line.  Paper-pushers have no place in startups.  Doers matter and they can always powwow with the boss.

8) Support – Boy is it convenient to have an IT department that requisitions that new mouse for you in a few hours (if you’re lucky) or that HR department that has time to listen to your woes.  Unfortunately, startups aren’t about convenience.  Learn to troubleshoot your own issues and keep your problems at home.  Most issues just require you to grow up and take action yourself.  The occasional “real” concern will always be dealt with properly.

9) Pond – You’re finally a big fish in a small pond so you will be heard.  However, that can be a double-edged sword.  Layers are gone so there’s no one there to protect your stupidity but everyone’s there to appreciate your genius.  Be the ball that you always wanted to be and shine.

10) Job – Forget your carefully structured and sequential chores of A, B, C and D.  Your TPS reports don’t matter and the gold stars don’t mean shit.  Prepare yourself for what I like to call organized chaos.  You will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done regardless of what you think you’re there for.  You’ll want to.

11) Perks – They’re different from what you’re used to so learn to appreciate them.  You’ll probably have “benefits” like health, vacation, PTO days (if you’re lucky) but the real perks are a bit more refreshing.  Notice your surroundings, the vibe, the team, the attitude, the lack of melancholy, the distaste for mediocrity and the sense of pride.  It’s infectious.

12) Trust – You’re likely coming from an environment where you trusted a few teammates or maybe even your superior(s) if you were lucky.  However, at the end of the day, it was all about feudalism and the Lord of the Flies mentality to get ahead.  Welcome to an environment where you trust the whole get’er done roster, from top to bottom, because you all have a vested interest in the success of the company.

13) Talent – I mentioned that mediocrity has absolutely no place in well-run startups and that all stems from the first hire.  Big corps sometimes lose sight of this because, well, they’re big and have long since made hiring decisions that are far removed from the A players.  Smart people tend to hang out with smart people so if you’ve been chosen for this game, consider it an honor and don’t disappoint.

You’re finally going to go from a deckhand to a rower and you’ll experience the concept of teamwork like you never have before.  You’ll also have your share of highs and lows during this ride.

If you’re mentally, physically and emotionally prepared, reinvent yourself to embrace the startup culture, especially if you have skin in the game because then it’s your checkbook too.  You can’t half-ass it!

Entrepreneurship Fantasy Land

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What exactly is an entrepreneurship major?

When I was in college, I recall no such curriculum but I see and hear about it all of the time now. Admittedly, I would have chosen that had it been available and offered but I’m glad that it wasn’t an option. I’m sure that some of the lessons are valuable and likely could be of benefit to up and coming visionaries but how do you teach someone to have figurative balls? Better yet, how do you properly prepare a graduate in entrepreneurship to begin to understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into in our current climate? …not by taking accredited entrepreneurship finals, I assure you.

Building a business or joining a startup is a decision that many like myself have made based on the sheer dissatisfaction of working in an overly corporate and bureaucratic environment. Further, the inability to get things done efficiently and expeditiously is what drives most entrepreneurs towards the inevitable startup risk. Of course there can be reward but choosing to live on the razor’s edge is not for everyone. That’s a realization that comes from experience, not academics.

Even if you think you have the next big idea, you need to understand exactly what you’re not before you choose to be an entrepreneur. Making decisions the other way around without actually experiencing the corporate world is foolish. As an entrepreneur, you often need to sell to the corporate world, borrow money from the corporate world, interact with the corporate world and play by the corporate world’s rules if you seek the holy grail of potential acquisition or IPO. Learn how they operate.

Major in something tangible that interests you and then go to work in that field. Learn something about law, something about accounting, something technical and definitely something about sales and marketing. Get the proper experience, make connections, build your personal brand and become an expert in something that isn’t an adjective. Eventually become entrepreneurial in your chosen field. Endure the cubicle jungle, march past the cadaver grey walls, attend the unnecessary meetings for the sake of meetings but make mental notes of everything that you are not. In the process, build a network of like-minded individuals. Take that experience and only then apply it to your entrepreneurial endeavors.

This is what I consider a true entrepreneurship major. Your final exam is the actual plunge into the startup world. Good luck…you’ll need it.

5 Realities of the Startup Interview

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Everything that I learned in college about interviewing is essentially worthless. After speaking to those that are close to me who will soon be graduating, I decided to jot some pointers down.

Most pertinent to a start-up or early stage environment, the following points stem from hundreds of hours of actual experience.  Tech interviews will be more tech-centric and sales interviews will be more dollar-centric but all interviews with an entrepreneur will require an entrepreneurial approach.

1) The person interviewing you would rather be doing something else.  Don’t kid yourself.  Very few entrepreneurial hiring managers look forward to spending hours of their day interviewing candidates.  There is always a critical problem to solve, email to be answered or money to be made buried in their hectic schedule.  Interviewing candidates is a need and not a want.  Make the experience as memorable as possible for them and capitalize on their limited attention span.  Use the first fifteen critical minutes of pitch time to communicate your personal executive summary.  Succinctly highlight how you make a difference, how you help the bottom line, how you deal with problems, why you can be player and coach, what motivates you and why you’re there for that opportunity.

2) The person interviewing you will speak to dozens more like you.  You likely have been “chosen” to interview less than you think.  With stacks of resumes piling up and a never ending to-do list, the entrepreneurial hiring manager has made a quick, educated guess to speak to you based on the need to solve an immediate problem.  Something in your resume, LinkedIn profile or referral has gotten you in front of them.  Make it worthwhile.  Be the first appointment on their schedule or the last appointment that day.  Give them a reason to remember you throughout the day or during their evening commute.  Connect on a personal level and appeal to their emotions.  Work days will be stressful, highly charged, energetic and sometimes painful.  Give the hiring manager a sense of comfort that when difficult situations and long hours arise, you can be the professional family member that they can count on.

3) The person interviewing you knows the textbook garbage.  Just like you already know how to respond to textbook interview questions, assume that the entrepreneurial hiring manager knows when they are asked by a candidate.  Further, if you get the textbook interview questions, run away…run far, far away.  It’s a sure sign of things to come but that’s a different topic.  Instead, craft questions that are intelligent, pertinent, thought-provoking and challenge the hiring manager.  Likely, you will come up with something that’s already been thought of.  The key is to find the sweet spot where the question/thought was previously their own or introduced by someone that they respect.  This is impressive and says a lot about your ability with creative problem solving.  Understand the business and craft questions related to expanding the business rather than defining it.  Repeating facts from a Google search or simply perusing the website is classic, textbook mediocrity.

4) The person interviewing you is not mediocre.  Start-ups and early stage companies have little time, money, patience and tolerance for layers of mediocrity.  You are likely interviewing with someone who is either the direct decision maker or a trusted previous hire.  This means that they have either developed their own tests or have already passed the tests so never assume that a half-assed approach will fool anyone.  No organization needs mediocrity.  Start-ups and early stage companies especially, are not looking for the typical 9-to-5’er looking for defined vacation schedules.  Set yourself apart by highlighting flexibility, adaptability, comfort with uncertainty and a general can-do attitude.  There’s nothing wrong with living for work in the entrepreneurial hiring manager’s eyes.

5) The person interviewing you is a salesperson.  They have no choice in the matter.  Every day they are either selling a product, a service, a solution, an idea or themselves to someone internally or externally.  You need to have the same exact mentality in the “everyone sells” model.  With limited experience, highlight entrepreneurial endeavors that you started in school.  For pro’s, highlight bottom-line milestones from previous engagements.  Talk facts and figures and make it all relative.  Focus on your personal brand and use your reputation as your strongest asset.  This reputation can come from your studies, collegiate organizations, co-ops, internships, professional organizations, or employer experiences.  No matter what the examples are, show that you identified an opportunity and capitalized on it.  Be prepared to sell yourself or don’t bother at all.

There’s more, of course, but these five points should get you started.  There’s no substitute for practice, practice, practice so if you are fortunate enough to have a trusted mock-interview resource, use them.  The worst interviews in the world are the ones where both parties walk away feeling like the hours were completely wasted.  No one has the spare time for that.

Those That Get It and Those That Don’t

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Anyone that knows me is well aware that I am a startup guy.  I am also unable to intentionally “half-ass” anything as I am not wired for that.  Since before my career started, I never envisioned a day where I wouldn’t be adding value or putting in 110%.  This is both a curse and a blessing but I don’t know how to function in any other way.  Being a startup guy doesn’t always mean that the same sort of entrepreneurialism couldn’t be applied to an established company.  It’s all about the mentality.  Nothing motivates me more than the thrill, challenge, turmoil, defeat and potential success that a brilliant new idea brings to the table.  Sitting on the proverbial crate, wearing multiple hats, putting in exhaustive effort and hours is what gets my blood flowing.  Acting as a player/coach is exciting and rewarding.  It develops skills and a tough skin like no other test in the business world.  It builds character and separates the men from the boys.  I consider these experiences to be the quintessential life lessons that could easily be applied to all parts of my world.  The natural emotions coupled with applicable logic that come out of such tests are what drive most, if not all, of my decisions day to day…especially when it comes to recruiting.  Having hired over a hundred positions in my career, I know that I may not be a writer or a philosopher, but I am good at what I do and would like to take this opportunity to share what qualifies a real player for me.

Let me start by saying that I have read countless articles lately from all sides of the game.  From those that think like me to those that don’t.  From those that believe in work/life balance to those that work to live.  I am sensitive to all sides of the argument and respect the various decisions that people make.  Sometimes out of choice and sometimes out of necessity.  I’d also like to give credit where credit is due so if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it sticks in my mind as excellent points that others have made.  Different things motivate different people.  Everyone deserves family time, vacations, holidays, etc. and I am not punishing those that have reached this point in their career.  To say that this is a tough market would be the understatement of the century.  Rather than dwelling on what you need to succeed, I’d instead like to highlight the visible differences between those that get it and those that don’t.  I won’t use the standard cliches or terminology and won’t bother mentioning much of the obvious except where applicable.  Aside from having the required skill set, this applies to all disciplines, experience levels, positions and generally all candidates with an entrepreneurial mindset.  To some, this could be mildly offensive.  To others, this could be an eye-opener.  Hopefully this insight is helpful and if nothing else, could allow readers to step inside my busy head.

Those that get it are:

– Human.  They are not presenting a false front or a polished and over-rehearsed pitch.  They are not robotic or canned in their responses.  Their natural personality is what sells their credibility.  Their discussions are not forced or otherwise awkward and they are allowed to convey emotion.  They make for a comfortable conversation and a trusted team dialogue.  They appear likeable and honest.  They are not the product of textbook hints or career-counseled fluff.  They are attentive, their eyes show interest and their demeanor is inviting.  They are able to show you that they get it through their tone, gestures and general comprehension of the need.  They know whether or not they’ve made a connection in the first five minutes.

– Driven.  Their entire existence is fueled by ideas.  Every life issue has a potential undiscovered solution and they believe that there’s an idea around the corner to solve for it.  They are relentlessly connected to their interests, industry, news, communication channels, etc.  Their communication device of choice is constantly on them and they feel lost without it.  They need to feel organized.  Every day, social event, person they meet is a potential opportunity.  They qualify everything constantly and tend to gravitate towards excitement and progress.  They are not motivated by mediocrity and despise the 9 to 5’er concept and mentality.  They work constantly, tirelessly and intelligently fully believing that there is potential gain and upside in everything.  They know that they are unhappy or otherwise unfulfilled if they are not moving at lightspeed.

– Closers.  Their entire contact list is a two-sided rolodex consisting of those that matter and those that could matter.  At any given moment they are selling either themselves or an idea.  Similar to the driven characteristic, they believe that opportunities are endless and the larger the network, the larger the potential.  They are intentionally and consciously ADD.  They are stone cold killers and always translate the word “no” into “maybe”.  They are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions like “why?” and even less afraid of answering uncomfortable questions.  They know everyone or want to meet them immediately.  They are pure offense and know how and when to stimulate their team’s defense.  Their primary motivation is financial gain through numbers/volume and they know when they no longer need you to be able to eat.

The common element among all of these “get it” types is that they get it done nomatter where, when or how.  They are not slackers, they don’t settle for excuses and despise the “it’s not my responsibility” mentality.  They never piss in your ear and tell you it’s raining.  They are consummate cheerleaders and diligent executioners.  They celebrate group victories and push onward through group failures.  They live, learn, translate and re-execute as often as possible.  They are rare but they are out there and I strive to meet more of them every single day.

Let Them Own It

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One of the hardest things to do is to let go of the seemingly important stuff.  Startup leaders sometimes assume that no one else can navigate their day-to-day duties because after all, they are the ones who established them.  Assumptions are made that details will be over-looked or that accountability will be sacrificed.  “How could anyone possibly care as much as I do?” is a phrase that I often hear.

I’ve got news for you.  If you give your employees the ability to make a difference, you could be pleasantly surprised.  Hire correctly from the start or transform your average player in to your MVP by following these rules:

Do…

  • List your daily action items and separate them by tasks that “need you”, “may need you” and “don’t need you”.
  • Calculate how much your time is worth in dollars based on completing each item.  Assign a total value to each task.
  • Delegate in phases starting with “don’t need you”, then “may need you”, etc.
  • Ask for volunteers who would like to take on more responsibility in an effort to learn more about the business.
  • Give them the access, tools, resources, time, etc. and allow them to ask questions as frequently as needed.
  • Allow them to make mistakes and use it as a learning exercise to make themselves accountable.
  • Reward them unexpectedly with a small bonus equal to the value of the task.

Don’t…

  • Micromanage or visibly question their actions.  Earned trust is a two-way street.  Process can always be discussed and refined later.
  • Assume that your way of completing the task is the best way.  Different people have different approaches.
  • Assume that the amount of effort or time it took you to complete the task to your standards is applicable to everyone.
  • Over-complicate or over-think things.  What you deem complicated today will likely be a breeze for someone who learns and eventually masters it.
  • Take things personally.  Frustration is expressed in many ways by different people…usually while they are learning.

The return that you get far outweighs any perceived risk.  You win even by allowing your employees to make mistakes.  They learn, you reward them accordingly, they become accountable, you let go, and they end up feeling motivated because they actually own something.

Building the Everybody Sells Model

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Budgets are tight and money is scarce. You need to build an incredibly driven workforce and an incredibly effective sales team. Start-ups and established organizations deal with this reality every day so how do you build the right sales culture?

The answer is to create a viral environment of good tippers.

Let’s assume that the members of your sales force make the majority of their compensation plan through some sort of commission structure. Let’s also assume that the members of your support staff have no bonus plan and rely on salary as their sole compensation. Good organizations understand the value of proper bonus structures for non-sales staff but my experience tells me that these plans are difficult to develop, enforce, quantify, budget, justify and implement fairly. Worse yet, if your organization is small and doesn’t actually have the budget for it, then it becomes an impossible endeavor that inevitably leads to a major morale problem.

Building a culture of “everybody wins” is synonymous with building a culture of “everybody sells”. True that not every single employee has the ability or experience to sell your product or service but they can sell their respective expertise to both internal and external clients. They should be encouraged and rewarded for that. As a salesperson, you reward them by tipping them. If you win, they win.

Regardless of whether or not your organization formally recognizes a peripheral commission/bonus plan for support staff, your sales force absolutely should. They should proactively create an internal plan and you should help administer it so that you can observe and encourage from a distance. They are the ones that either know who has been effectively involved or they should make strides to find out. They should take care of those that help them close the deal and be consistent in their tipping out of their own pockets. Everything is relative in this model and inconsistencies are quickly realized. A natural and viral buzz is created that eventually leads to an infectious drive for reward. Those that are “taken care of” continue to stand out and those that choose not to be involved quickly establish themselves otherwise.

You start to notice complimentary skills and opportunities in employees that may not have previously stood out. You also enhance your pipeline as an added benefit which could eventually help to fund a more formal “tipping” model. Everybody wins because everybody is vested.

Having implemented this type of plan in the past more than once, I can report that aside from a few administrative snags and personality realizations, it works amazingly well and has a ton of side benefits. You are guaranteed to learn a lot more about your staff to make intelligent strategic decisions and ultimately grow your bottom line. I won’t pretend that this always goes smoothly but it will give you a very good sense of how you’ve been hiring both in sales and support roles. The concept of creative commissions and good tipping is the basis for building an effective company culture where everybody sells.

The “ish” Principles

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Love him or hate him, some say that French entrepreneur Loic Le Meur is an accomplished startup strategist. A few years ago, I remember reading about his “Ten Rules for Startup Success” and thinking that these principles were generally on target.

More recently, I was invited to speak to an entrepreneurial MBA class about my own thoughts on the subject. What resulted was a terrific general discussion about startup tactics, strategy and misconceptions. The students showed genuine enthusiasm for the subject. Interestingly and unintentionally, some of Loic’s points surfaced (sort of) even though he wasn’t mentioned specifically. Credit where credit is due.

The product of the group’s collaboration is what I’ll refer to as the “ish” principles. Just like Loic himself, love them or hate them, the points below are similar and should foster some commentary.

In short, don’t get bogged down with administrative perfection. Instead, just get it done with the best’ish approach to each pressing need:

1. Your business needs to be something that you are passionate and almost obsessed about. Nothing necessarily revolutionary or complicated…this is rare. Find an exciting empty space and execute as fast as possible. This will rarely be your last venture.

2. If you have a defined exit strategy, then it is not a true passion and therefore questionable if the right amount of energy will be applied. Exit strategy will come in time and potentially change by the minute.

3. Don’t focus on getting rich. Focus on the client-base and the best possible experience for them. The rest will come.

4. Carefully share your idea taking in as much feedback as possible without giving away the keys to the kingdom. Stay informed and keep on top of the industry. Startup/VC/tech blogs are great sources of info.

5. Build a community inexpensively. Social software & blogging gets you known and solicits useful feedback. Be responsive and be open to new connections.

6. Network obsessively. It potentially leads to financing, client prospects, partnerships and recruiting. Conferences, social networking tools, blogging, peripheral meetings, etc.

7. Use technology that you know to drive your business. Don’t over-complicate it. No need for latest & greatest in both platform & infrastructure. Stability, uptime, etc. comes later. Buy used equipment if possible and upgrade when/if you need to.

8. Be proactive about recognizing problems and publicly addressing them. Everyone makes mistakes, learn from them and gain respect by being visible.

9. Spend very little time/money on market research initially. Use your immediate network. Launch test versions quickly and improve openly and frequently.

10. Spend very little time/money on marketing/pr. Contribute to blogs, attend conferences and get you/your product known in a “stealthy” manner generating natural and viral interest. Your close community/immediate network needs to love and endorse the product.

11. Don’t over-complicate process, project metrics, reporting, etc. Nothing will ever get done. Meetings for the sake of meetings are useless.

12. Don’t obsess over textbook/formal business plans. Know how your company will make money but formal business plans themselves will always change. Recurring revenue is king. A superb PPT/overview is key to highlighting the problem, the opportunity, the solution, the management team, the technology and the projected revenue.

13. Keep good books. Eventual due diligence (good problem to have) will teach you that.

14. Create a sales machine. It’s a numbers game. Everyone sells.

15. Limit costs. Fancy computers, offices, swag, etc. are useless and only important to non-team players. There’s nothing private about a startup and everyone gets a crate to sit on in the beginning. There’s no crying in startups.

16. Bootstrap if you can, angel money, loans, then maybe VC. OPM when needed.

17. Stellar team is key…no mediocrity! People with an entrepreneurial mindset. Hire people that love to work and are driven and have thick skins…no drama. Different skills that compliment each other and are better than you in various disciplines. The right team does not need to be classically managed. They just get it done.

18. Use creative recruiting. Try not to use headhunters as they will never (really) understand your true needs and expectations at the start. You need people who will wear all hats and the “formal job description” could be 10 pages long.

19. Be real during the interview process. Textbook interviews foster mediocrity. Clearly convey expectations, stress level and expected work ethic. The wrong candidate will run away scared, the right one will embrace this.

20. Understand your core competency needs and pay up for those folks. Pay down for everything else. Try to use internships.

21. Keep the organization flat. True startup people don’t care about org structures and really get the team concept. Formal organizational dynamics have no place here. Everyone is hands-on and there is no concept of “that’s not my job”.

22. Keep everyone accountable to deliverables but let them establish their schedules. Effective self management is key. Make milestones visible to everyone so that the group members hold each other accountable.

23. Try to use consultants at a minimum and only if absolutely necessary. They are expensive. Determine if true expertise is what you really need for that role.

24. Make the environment energetic and fun. Make rewards visible and always encourage healthy competition.

25. Share the love and rewards properly. You’ll have your dream team for the next big thing and that type of trust and endorsement is priceless.

Maximize Productivity/Minimize Attrition

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I have a bit of a reputation for building great teams and I’m proud of it. A recent conversation with a friend struggling to excel at their current employer got me thinking about writing some of my formula down.

First thing’s first. You need the right people. Those that have the right personality, positivity, flexibility and drive. These are all reflections of the employee’s character and ultimately determine whether or not they will understand and contribute to the bigger picture. Most pertinent to the startup phase but certainly applicable to any/every business.

As for the employer, here’s what you can do to maximize productivity and minimize attrition:

1. Provide employees with a proper vested interest in the company. Aside from the customary equity, options, ownership models, etc., give them the ability to share in the success and remain accountable for the failures. Reward them in any way that you can. The effort will be remembered and appreciated.

2. Provide employees with the proper flexibility. Allow them to earn trust and complete tasks by working remotely and/or “off-hours” as needed. As long as deadline-driven work is completed thoroughly, there is no need to chain employees to their desks. Productivity stems from an employee’s comfort level so they should be able to “shine” wherever they feel most at ease.

3. Provide employees with the proper tools. Similar to the point above, use technology in an efficient way. Laptops, smart phones, etc. combined with effective SaaS solutions foster team collaboration and communication anywhere, any time. This is also perceived as an investment in their credibility and future. Most of them get that.

4. Provide employees with an entrepreneurial and driven environment. Do your best to hire exceptionally so that a natural dynamic is created within the organization. Excitement and motivation is contagious and slackers need to be eliminated immediately before they develop into a cancer.

5. Provide employees with a home away from home. Not literally, but figuratively. Give them a reason to trust your business, trust your communications and trust your judgment. Ensure that they feel like you are always looking out for their best interests and that they can aid in that endeavor. Their loyalty will only be as good as their comfort level in you and your vision.

Ultimately, I am a firm believer that recruiting and hiring the right types of individuals makes the difference. When your business is small, this is imperative. As your business grows, you have less control over this but by creating the appropriate environment ahead of time (by hiring the right people early on), you inherently create a chain effect. Smart, driven, motivated people tend to flock together. Those same people tend to be annoyed by the slackers and don’t want them “in”. The motivation and reward is then not only tangible for them, but also comfortable and profitable for everyone.

The Rise of the Social Branding Agency

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With every passing day it becomes crystal clear to me that social networks and services are pivotal to one’s own personal branding. As corporations and local businesses dive deeper into integrating their brands on-line, those same social networks, services and even up and coming on-line communities can and are being leveraged in a similar way.

Countless articles discuss the benefits of including Facebook fan pages and Twitter brand profiles in your brand strategy. Everything from organizing group events around product promotions to offering exclusive coupons to followers. The trend is definitely growing and won’t be going away any time soon. All of these strategies aimed at increasing brand adoption, recognition and generating a viral buzz. In fact, hedging your brand bet within the social arena isn’t really an option anymore…it’s a requirement. This leads me to wonder how this need is currently being addressed.

The assumption is that a business either employs in-house social marketing talent or outsources the work through their agency of choice. The problem with that is whether or not the agency has specific expertise in the social marketing space. Of course brand-centric agencies have evolved with the times to include these services but are they experts? More specifically, even if they serve a specific vertical, do they bundle these services as part of the bigger picture or can there truly be a standalone agency business model here?

I would imagine that if a suitable monitoring, analytics, management, response and mitigation system were to be implemented coupled with the drive and sleepless nights that most good SEO masters possess, this could become a compelling proposition. Rather than becoming an additional service that’s either included or not, suddenly you have the makings of a boutique agency in the social marketing space. I’m not implying that these types of agency services don’t currently exist but you don’t really hear much about them as a standalone service. The pitch would be the promise of owning a brand’s reputation in real time across both existing and new social networks without the need for self-monitoring tools.

Brands understand this today and may even be willing to pay a premium for such a niche service. The implied expertise alone warrants some ad budget dollars so why not spend it the same way that you spend it on credible SEO services. The concept of the social branding agency is just as focused as rich media service providers like PointRoll and Eyeblaster once were. Agencies always sort of did rich media, but were more than happy to outsource the work to the “rich media experts” for their advertiser clients. In this real time, reputation-hungry market, the social branding agency could be just the expert that brands are looking for.

Personal Branding

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Are you just a name or are you a brand?  Ask yourself this question and then apply it to your perceived value to a prospective opportunity.  Does an employer, investor, client, colleague or any other constituent see you as a memorable piece of the puzzle?  Do they want to see someone who is connected and relevant in this market rather than your standard pawn?  The answer is yes, of course.

Marketers have understood the value of the brand for ages.  Product marketers have successfully trained your mind to ask for a “BAND-AID” rather than an “adhesive bandage” when you scrape your knee.  Corporate marketers have successfully trained your mind to “Google” an answer rather than to “search the Internet”.  So why shouldn’t this same philosophy be applied to the personal marketer, otherwise known as the opportunity seeker?

Celebrities, moguls and icons have always benefited from their inherent personal branding but we live in a day and age where virtually anyone can.  In a market where competition is fierce and experience alone does not catapult you into success, it’s imperative for the opportunity seeker in the digital age to perform a bit of personal PR.  Of course you have to be smart, make good decisions and have the right reputation but you can help your credibility, increase your exposure and generally make yourself more competitive by taking some free and/or cheap proactive steps.

Back in the day, your digital personal identity was limited to a nebulous and crude identifier in the form of an email alias, user name, or whatever.  Some took it upon themselves to be a bit more descriptive while others chose to remain vague.  Some had creepy or shady intentions but this isn’t about them.  For the real opportunity seeker, it was difficult to take “clipster714” very seriously and even more difficult to figure out what he/she was about.  These days, we have the ability to acquire personal domain names, make our email addresses intuitive, create professional, social or personal web profiles and make ourselves significantly more visible.

Social web tools like LinkedIn, Twitter and most recently, Facebook have allowed users to associate their direct name link with their page.  More specifically, a direct URL to “facebook.com/yourname” is now possible.  Even Google (who hasn’t been focused on profiles until recently) has climbed on board with their version of profile pages along with many others that I don’t mention here.  This ability directly helps your personal brand recognition.  Add to that some useful content, some thoughtful insight and perhaps some great recommendations from others, and you have the beginnings of a personal brand.  Don’t kid yourself.  When someone wants to know something about you, they’re checking every social/professional web destination that you appear on so ALWAYS be mindful of the content that you post.  Trust me.  Protect your brand because eventually it will be indexed and made public.

At the end of the day, your reputation is one of your greatest assets.  Be smart about it.  While monitoring and protecting it is imperative, making your name memorable is what sticks in peoples’ minds.  Keep your profile positive, current, relevant and clean and you will naturally develop a strong personal brand.