January 20, 2009

A Lack Of Imagination

2008 Scion tC Release Series 4.0

Trivia question for you.  Is the car on the left a Honda, Toyota, Subaru, Suzuki, Chevy, Ford or VW?  Answer, it’s none of those, it’s a Scion.  Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get the right answer either, like you, almost every new car looks the same to me too.

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the 2009 Utah International Auto Expo and boy was I disappointed.  With the exception of the hood ornament, just about every car looked like the other. Seriously, how many shades of silver can an industry turn out?

When the Detroit automakers went to congress with their hat in hand, I for one was not surprised.  Did you know that the Big 3 average less than $2,000 profit per vehicle?  That represents less than a 5% margin and I don’t know a lot of companies that can operate long-term on those kinds of margins.  Bloated overhead, a history of producing inferior products and (for me) a lack of imagination are obvious warning signs that the Big 3 have been running over and over for the last 25 years.  Is all lost for Detroit?  I don’t think so, but a return to earlier roots would certainly be appropriate.

The best part of this years car show was the “classic car corral.”  Mustangs, Corvettes, GTO’s and other trophies from Detroit’s glory years were on display.  Looking at these “classics” I found myself wondering what happened to those innovative car designers and what their thoughts would be on the this years Ford Fiesta? How these brilliant minds became replaced by todays cookie cutter designers is a mystery to me that I doubt I will ever understand.

The problem with Detroit and other established businesses is that you can’t fool the public for long.  New Flash: When you belong to a company that prides itself on mediocrity, it shows!  It shows in the design, the packaging and the imagination (or lack thereof.)  We “know” when you don’t care. Don’t believe me?  Take a seat at your local DMV for a heaping bowl of stale mediocrity. Yeah, the DMV really has your best intentions at heart…Now serving number two-four-nine at station twelve…”

The best of the best are always looking for ways to define and then re-design themselves.  Nike, Apple, Coke and McDonalds spend millions of dollars each year refining, designing and expanding their brand.  If you don’t have millions of dollars to spend, try spending just a few minutes of time imagining the possibilities and then make it happen.  At Funding Universe we challenge you to dream, to scheme and to use your imagination to grow and innovate.  For those of you who find that task too daunting, may I suggest taking a test ride in a 2009 Chevy Cobalt. For guys like you, it comes in 17 shades of silver.

Joel Nielsen is a Venture Consultant at Funding Universe.  He can be reached at jnielsen@fundinguniverse.com

January 13, 2009

Are You Sharing Your Misery?

woman_frustratedTo be successful you MUST share the misery!  Yes, you heard it here folks we strongly believe in handing your problems off to everyone else.  Isn’t this the kind of advice that you have been waiting to hear?  Well it’s kinda true actually.

If you have ever worked as a small business owner you are very familiar with the fact that work never starts at 8 and ends at 5.  Owning a small business is a 24 hour comittment which means that we NEVER stop thinking about it.  Over time, this constant focus on profitability and success can take an ugly toll.

The other trait that many small business owners have is a reluctance to lean on outside help.  Afterall, your business becomes like a member of your family and who in their right mind would leave their own baby with a complete stranger?!?  Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is flawed and can lead to burnout, frustration and office rage (for example, it’s a really bad idea to whack your computer monitor. See here for more on that!)

teamwork_puzzlew300h199As a Type A personality myself, I often had a “go it alone” mentality that served me well, until graduate school.  It was in my MBA program that I finally had to come to grips with the fact that there weren’t enough hours in the day to micromanage every one and every thing.  It was a hard habit to break but in the end I learned that there are a lot of  talented people who can produce phenominal results if you trust them and more importantly empower them to do it “their” way.

Brock Blake, the CEO of Funding Universe learned this lesson at a much earlier age than I did.  Early this month he sat everyone down and challenged us to elimate costs and improve profitability.  In a matter of hours thousands of dollars were eliminated from our overhead.  New ideas and strategies were put into place and a feeling of ownership was felt up and down the hallways of our office.  Funding Universe is “my” company. No good idea is ever turned down and often, good ideas are tweaked into GREAT ideas.

Again, this leadership style comes with a severe warning.  If you give power to your employees to solve problems, you must do it with the full faith and confidence that they will come through for you.  If you give power and then pull it out from underneath them you will damage credibility forever.  Trust but verify, guide but empower.  If you view each of your employees as problem solvers versus problem causers you will find small business ownership a constant delight!

Joel Nielsen is the Director of Debt Services for Funding Universe.  He can be reached at jnielsen@fundinguniverse.com

January 7, 2009

But I’m Different

Every year, millions of people buy a lottery ticket in California. Millions believe that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the winning ticket. In other words, millions of chumps spend about $10 for a <1% chance of winning money that most winners squander within a few years of winning.

Sometimes, one very lucky guy or gal is right. Millions are dead wrong. But every one of those lotto players are convinced to at least the amount of about $10 that they’re the exception. Likewise in business, some people say, “I don’t need a business plan.” Others, “I’m not the sales type.” Baloney!

There’s a dangerous habit of thinking that gets people in trouble. I call it “exceptional thinking”.

Exceptional thinking is when you think you are the exception to the rule. When you think that you’re different than every other person who has walked on the face of this earth. Sometimes it comes out as a pessimistic thought (e.g., “I could never do what they do.”), and sometimes as an overly optimistic thought (e.g., “I don’t need to eat lots of fruits and vegetables to stay healthy.”). Either way, it’s bad.

Have you seen those posters with a breath-taking photo of a mountain or a great sports feat bordered in black and inscribed with an inspirational quote? There’s a company called Despair, Inc. that makes posters after those style of motivational posters minus the motivational part. My co-worker dedicated a poster to me that sums up what I’m saying perfectly. Click here to view it.

Yes, we are all born with unique talents and strengths. And, yes, we should focus on our strengths, but that doesn’t mean that we can dictate which side of a statistic we’ll fall on or that common human foibles don’t exist in us. The good news is that also means there’s rare occasion when someone succeeds beyond any level we could reach. Basically what I’m saying is we all play by the exact same rules.

Tiger Woods Isn’t Deity

If I’m writing an article relating to success, I have to include the obligatory Tiger Woods reference. Tiger Woods wasn’t born with a golf club in his hand. He may have started at a young age or have natural talent or be the ideal height or wear special underwear, but whatever the advantage, it wasn’t gifted to just Tiger Woods.

We may not all have equal opportunities, but anyone able to read this blog post has opportunities, and I would aver, enough opportunities to be a really successful entrepreneur.

No one is so special they can’t copy what worked for someone else and get the same result. You can be salesy enough to sell your product. You can take your company public. Just do what other successful people did.

The hopeful truth in that last paragraph leads me to my next, more discouraging point.

The Corollary: You’re Really Not That Unique

People often tell me how they work better by procrastinating and then scrambling right before a deadline. I also hear how some people forget things they write down so they don’t write them down to remember them or how the less they read, the wiser they are. Sure, you have unique strengths, but come on . . .

In our business, the most common is the guy who won’t listen to our business advice but wants us to connect him with our investors anyway, no matter how unprepared he might be. He has the next “multi-zillion dollar idea”, but his business plan consists of a hand-written diagram on a stained piece of paper. We have a business plan review process in place and we provide consulting services to entrepreneurs in his position, but he insists he knows better than we do. It’s tempting to believe him and give him a chance, but every time we have, it’s led to embarrassment on our side and theirs.

It seems that the one thing everybody who’s “different” has in common is an unwillingness to accept the need for change. Instead of acknowledging their deficiency, they insist it’s a special, unalterable endowment. I guess that’s a more comfortable perspective. You can recognize people with this attitude by their mantra: “But I’m different!” If you notice yourself saying that, slap yourself on the spot.

There’s Hope

Luckily, because we’re all uniquely similar, there’s a common principle to success. It’s called humility. It’s so refreshing to talk to an entrepreneur who’s not discouraged by the daunting journey to fundability and yet not over-confident in their ability to shortcut it. If you are humble enough to accept that you might need some help and willing to give it all you’ve got, we can help you. If not, here’s my guess at the lottery. I’m sure it’s as good as any: 4 8 2 9 2 3