Bored? Unfulfilled? Then why not just re-invent yourself?
Back in the eighties, Christine Comaford and I were both upstarts in the computer industry; I was opening up an office in Boston for my first start-up, The Instruction Set, while she was working as a contractor at Lotus. Who would have thought, all those years ago, that one day we'd both be best-selling authors?
But we are. Christine's Rules for Renegades is full of expert advice and motivation for entrepreneurs, illustrated by episodes from her own life, including interacting with Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Hillary Clinton. One of her key messages is that, as an entrepreneur, you can and should re-invent yourself.
This isn't very British, is it?
Our attitude to failure seems amazingly negative to me. Americans respect you if you try something but fail, while over here, fail once and you're banished, laughed at in the street, or worse.
I met recently with a friend whose last company was wound up, owing money. He picked himself up, dusted himself down and used his skills and contacts to develop another business. As soon as he put his head above the parapet, the hate e-mails started, anonymous of course, implying “impeding investigations” and asking why anyone would want to do business with this “crook”.
A few months on, the negative e-mails are drying up and he seems to be doing quite well. Of course he feels for his former creditors, but he set out originally with the best intentions, worked his socks off and never did anything illegal. The bank, in its infinite wisdom, decided suddenly to pull the plug...
He's had to re-invent himself the best he can, and so long as he remains on the right side of the law and does his best, he has my moral support.
Christine admits to making many mistakes — she got mixed up with a false guru, and some ventures failed; she lost several million dollars at one point. But she has also got many things spectacularly right, investing in over 200 start-up businesses, including a small outfit called Google.
Over the years she has founded and sold five of her own companies for an average 700% return on investment. Her group and private mentoring programs at Mighty Ventures enable her clients to regularly triple their value in a year or less. She has now re-invented herself as an author and business mentor, and her book has topped the business best-seller lists in the USA.
I can thoroughly recommend re-inventing yourself; it's tremendous fun. I've variously been a chemical engineer, a computer-training salesman, a spoof rock star, a salesman-for-hire, an author, a professional speaker and now a columnist. I tend to gloss over the adventures that went terribly wrong, of course, but all the gurus that I meet remind me it's all about the journey, not the destination.
I'm sure many people reading this are thinking about re-inventing themselves as an entrepreneur. The benefits are clear and real, not just dreams: doing something more interesting, being your own boss, generating some serious wealth and making a difference.
Turn your idea into a simple, logical model. Then test this model, getting a small group of people together and looking at the three aspects of the idea: can we deliver the product or service; will it make money if we do; and most crucially, will anyone buy from us in the first place?
The difference between a good idea and a bad idea is that in the former people actually want to buy your stuff' I worked on three start-ups that went broke, essentially because I was unable to sell the stuff, however hard I tried. I never really found out if it was my lack of sales skills or the shortcomings of the company; I quickly moved on.
Wise re-invention is usually about taking qualified risks. Can you start quitting your day job or mortgaging your house? If you never even try, you may regret it all of your life. When speaking to groups of entrepreneurs I often quote one of the saddest movie lines of all, from On The Waterfront: "I could have been a contender!"
And if it goes wrong, there's bound to be a useful lesson (or three) from the experience. One of Christine Comaford's less successful ideas was for an American geisha service. It failed. "But I did learn how to make a great cup of tea," she says.
Copyright ©Mike Southon 2012. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker. This article is a chapter from This Is How Yoodoo It — a collection of Mike’s Financial Times columns.
Why I started the Donut
I’ve always found small businesses compelling – what makes them work and the challenge of going it alone are to me the most interesting questions in business. And after 19 years of running my company, BHP, I admire SMEs more than ever.
Running your own show is tremendous fun, especially if you know what you’re doing and can manage the 101 challenges that come your way every month. Which is where BHP content comes in.
We’ve been producing our expert how-to guides, sponsored by blue chips and government organisations, for nearly two decades. But, of course, as an entrepreneur, I wanted something new to do. In a (rare) idle moment online, I scouted about for a really good marketing website for small businesses. There wasn’t one.
So we decided to do it, launching on 20 April 2009. We built small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) their own site with everything they needed to make their marketing thrive. Founding partners Google and Royal Mail backed us all the way, as have our ever-growing list of sponsors such as Vodafone and Yell.
What we’ve achieved in a year
As well as Marketing Donut, we launched two more Donut websites to cover starting up and law. We’ve just announced that the fourth site to launch will be IT Donut, scheduled for the week commencing 23 August.
We use 300 top people to provide the expert advice on the Donuts, but, for me, the real experts are also the users. Before we started work, we asked people running small businesses what they wanted from a site. They told us they needed fast, practical and accurate answers to their questions. The Donuts give SME managers that, free. Tools, templates, checklists, the lot: plus the news their business needs to know.
All the Donuts report live on major small-business happenings - we were the first business advice site to break news of the rise in minimum wage on Budget Day. MyDonut, the e-newsletter, now goes out to tens of thousands of people a month – next year numbers should top 100,000. (This is in addition to the 300,000 subscribers to the SME newsletters that we publish for our clients. Life at BHP is one big deadline.)
Since the launch a year ago, the Donut sites have fast become a key player in the UK small-business scene. Our Twitter accounts have over 40,000 followers and our Twitter team picked up two national awards last year.
Local versions of marketingdonut.co.uk, startupdonut.co.uk and lawdonut.co.uk are syndicated to our partners, both nationally and in the regions. Thirty-five organisations already have their own Donut websites and more are coming on stream every month.
The Donut is a strong business model, because it is a win-win for everyone involved. Crucially, BHP had already invested several years building up the strategic relationships and the content before launching the first website. As with most successful SMEs, we always knew that the Donut project would not be a sprint to success, it would be a marathon.
2010-2011: what’s in it for you?
As we expand the core "answers to your questions" pages of the Donuts, we will continue to cover news and key topical issues for you. For instance, this month the Law Donut explains how to cope with recruitment and redundancy as the economy remains fragile, as well as what to do when all your staff want time off for June’s World Cup.
We’re currently building the IT Donut, which will be a comprehensive resource for demystifying IT, troubleshooting and trading online. It will become the first place any small business turns to when they have a tech problem that needs sorting fast. We're currently recruiting experts who will rid us all of pesky IT stress forever, I hope.
We’ll also be providing a local service for users, thanks to our partners. Law firms, chambers of commerce and enterprise agencies are all getting involved. This is really exciting, as it gives users the best of all worlds - a huge library of constantly updated advice from experts throughout the UK, combined with local content.
An SME owner's work is never done, so I'm signing off to tackle the above. Before I go - thanks to you, our users, and all our partners and experts, for a great year.
I've recently started twittering, for no reason other than, well, to partake in something that has grabbed millions of people around the globe. As an alleged marketing entrepreneur, I was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable whenever the subject of Twitter came up, and I knew that I wasn't part of the crowd! That said, I didn't go into it with any strategic plan or any great expectations and my initial thoughts were to use it as an online diary. As a business author, I reckoned it would be a useful discipline to see if I could write mini stories within the 140 characters limit, with no txt talk! So, having used Twitter religiously for six weeks, documenting my daily antics and providing a blow by blow account of my latest Amazon book rank, what are my thoughts so far? Firstly, I'm fascinated by the sheer randomness of Twitter. I’m not doing anything to gain followers, other than attempting to write interesting tweets. Well, they seem interesting to me, because after all, I am the subject matter! But boy have I attracted some unusual followers. I've had three women of obvious shady character (a euphemism for porno queens) that I suspect follow anybody with a pulse and a heartbeat in the hope they’ll get one or two people interested in following them. Then I've had the people that are obviously doing keyword searches on Twitter, and you tweet on their chosen subject and they either follow you for your next two tweets before summarily despatching you or they stick around because you start following them. I've ‘met’ some fascinating people and I've also got a handful of clients, following me, which means that I have to think about what I write. And obviously, there are the followers that I don't know. At the moment I've got a very good magazine and a television company following me. My strategy? To play it cool. I've not set the world alight with a huge following, but then I'm not doing anything to generate one and I'm not Stephen Fry! So how much enjoyment do I get from twittering? If you look at my postings, you’ll see that I like the sound of my online voice. I’ve gone back to my teenage years when I kept a diary, except now my diary is there for the world to see, (minus the drunken antics!). I've definitely increased my book sales on Amazon through Twitter and I've had direct messages from some interesting people. I suspect that if I really made the effort I could crank up my followers. But, I've made a conscious decision not to do this. I'm going for the slow scenic route. Let's see where it takes me.