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Why Your Employees Are the Single Biggest Threat to Your Company's Data

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 9:11am

Find out the steps you must take to prevent your employees from unwittingly exposing confidential information.

When the Heartbleed security bug was revealed last week, IT departments across almost every industry scurried to secure their infrastructure. Frighteningly, the bug, which potentially exposed customer data for more than two years, is undetectable.

Heartbleed and cyberattacks like Target have made businesses more aware of the necessity of having sufficient defenses in place to protect trade secrets, customer information, and financial data. Still, says Heather Bearfield, a cybersecurity and risk management consultant at professional services firm Marcum, companies still have a long way to go.

"When we speak with CEOs, CFOs, and CIOs, we see a huge investment, tens of thousands of dollars, to make sure their financial statements are in place. But with IT, they think they aren't a target, their infrastructure is sufficient, and they don't need to invest in security," Bearfield says. "Those are the organizations that will get hit hard. As we've seen, a breach can bring an company to its knees. You're going to see a huge shift as companies realize how important it is to support their IT department."

Below, read Bearfield's tips to prevent a data breach and save your company a lot of money in the long term.

Educate your employees.

Believe it or not, your employees are the weakest link in your digital defenses. "Human error is the highest risk to your company. Clicking bad links, stolen laptops, lost thumb drives and company phones--there are so many ways company data can be breached," Bearfield says. "Just raising employee awareness can do a lot to better protect your company."

During company consultations, Bearfield will simulate phishing attacks to show how easily your network can be compromised. A recent Verizon report finds there's a 100 percent chance that at least one out of 10 people who are sent a malicious email will click a link in it (a phenomenon it calls the "inevitable click"). She also warns that hackers are leveraging current events to entice clicks--everything from the Olympics this past winter to the Malaysian airlines search. Make sure your employees know the danger one click can cause.

Don't be stubborn about passwords.

Bearfield says many companies refuse what should be an simple security tactic to implement. "We still see so much pushback from the C-suite and sales teams on the necessity to change all passwords every 90 days. They feel like they can't remember new passwords, can't come up with a new secure one with frequency, and think the process will trip them up in their workflow," she says. "It sounds so easy, but this is actually a big issue--password security is the first layer of defense but people feel like it's impossible for them. We also suggest case-sensitive, special characters, and lockout after a certain number of attempts."

Encrypt before you ship.

Encrypting your email messages is another easy way to shore up sensitive information. "For some reason, people often see this as a negative thing [that implies their network isn't secure]. To encrypt an email, all you need to do is enter a username and password, which is maybe five to 10 seconds of your time," she says. "We have automatic encryption software that will encrypt a message if you write a string of numbers [in the body], write the word 'secure,' or other keywords." During one consultation, Bearfield says she showed a CEO how easy it was to access his email by asking him how his daughter enjoyed life after getting her braces off. "All it takes is one message before you realize how important encryption is," she says.

Dedicate more resources to IT.

IT spending is one of the most forward-thinking investments you can make in your business. "Many organizations do not dedicate resources to their IT departments. Without proper investment, these IT departments are constantly putting out fires and don't have the time or ability to address other important concerns," Bearfield says. "They can't keep up with patching, which can leave vulnerabilities exposed for weeks, or months, if not longer."

Categories: Small Business News

The Power of Stopping for No Good Reason

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 8:36am

Because sometimes the best reason is no reason at all

The first thing the old man said to me was, "The cows don't come by here anymore."

A few years ago, I liked to ride my bike on the roads that snake along a local mountain range. The views were beautiful, and there were plenty of hills to climb. It was friendly and country (in the best sense of the word), and the people sitting on their front porches always waved.

One old man was almost always sitting alone, and I made a point of waving to him.

Then one day, caught in a driving rain, I glanced sideways and saw him waving me off the road and onto his porch. I leaned my bike on the rail and clomped up the steps as he pulled a dusty wooden chair from behind an old coal box for me to sit on.

And then he started talking.

He told me the cows used to slowly drift by every day as they grazed the fencerow across the road. (His favorite was an older cow that always pushed her head through the fence as if to see whether the grass really was greener on the other side.) Why they no longer came by was a puzzle he had yet to solve.

He told me his mail was delivered every day at about the same time. He could tell how his carrier's day was going by the size of her smile. He told me he knew the lack of rain had hurt local farmers because lately they hadn't been hauling nearly as many hay rolls. He told me the girl up the road had just gotten her driver's license. Whenever he saw her go by, he tried to watch for her to come home because he worried about young drivers.

He also talked about me.

"Some days you ride that thing a little like that cancer fella I used to see on TV, but most of the time you look like somebody stuck me on there," he said. Then he smiled, taking any sting out.

As he spoke, I thought he seemed lonely, almost desperately so. Then I realized he wasn't lonely, at least not in the way I assumed. Though he had met very few of the people he watched go by, his porch still gave him a very real connection to his community.

He could tell when neighbors were getting company and was happy they had friends who wanted to visit. He enjoyed watching families drive by on their way to church, even though Sundays were bittersweet because the mail didn't come and he didn't get to wave to his carrier. He even worried about me, until that day a stranger, because he thought it was dangerous for people to ride bicycles near cars.

He watched and wondered, but not in a nosy or critical way. He seemed to only see the good in the people he saw from his porch.

And that was why, on a couple of cloudless days, I would stop and visit instead of waving and riding by. I wouldn't bring food or a token gift, even though that's what people like me tend to do in return for kindness or courtesy. Instead I just stopped to find out what was new.

Maybe he would tell me the local farmers' crops were doing better. Maybe he'd tell me the young girl up the road was still safe. Maybe he would have puzzled out why the cows didn't come by anymore.

It didn't matter. He just wanted to talk. I could tell. He always left my chair out.

And then one day my chair was gone.

So was his chair. So were the tools scattered around the yard, the old Buick in the driveway, the worn curtains in the windows.

And so was he.

How often had I stopped? How often had I sat and listened? How often had I taken time away from work and fitness and personal goals and striving for success to be a friend to someone who clearly needed a friend?

Not often enough. Not nearly often enough.

We all have people in our lives that leave a chair out for us, only to die a little inside when that chair sits empty.

Once in a while--before it's too late for you, or for them, or for your relationship--take the time to stop and sit and visit for no good reason...

... which, when you think about it, is the best reason of all.

More in my "The Power Of..." series:

Categories: Small Business News

Show the Love: How Customers Reward Responsive Brands (Infographic)

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 8:14am

More than 90 percent of customers are more inclined to make a purchase after reading a brand's response to feedback.

What exactly is the value of responding to customer feedback? Column Five used survey data from Bazaarvoice, a user-review software company, to answer that question with the infographic below.

Categories: Small Business News

How to Conquer the Unique Challenges of Running a Family Business

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 8:01am

President and CEO of Stew Leonard's reveals a powerful principle that will bring success to a family business

Categories: Small Business News

How Smart People Get Ready for Being Away From Work

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 8:00am

Holidays and spring break are upon us. Here, Inc. columnists share how to keep a few days off from equaling mountains of work when you return.

It's been a long hard winter, which was great for productivity. But now that the weather is nicer and spring holidays are here, a little time away from the office is warranted. For many people, a few days away can bring almost as much stress as not leaving at all. Sure, the days on the sunny beach are great. But not if you come back from vacation to piles of extra work and problems that take you weeks to resolve.

Whenever I take time off, I set up a checklist for the week prior to my trip. On that list are four categories and specific actions I take before the vacation.

1. Things I must complete before I leave. I give these items absolute priority and focus to finish.

2. Things I must delegate before I leave. I make sure that my team knows exactly what must be accomplished and has the tools and resources to make it happen.

3. Things I must defer before I leave. This is everything important that can wait until I get back. I make sure I let everyone involved know that this won't be addressed until my return. By managing expectations, I won't be bothered with anyone's panic during the trip.

4. Things I will handle while away. Sure, it's nice not to do any work while taking time off, but some things need to be resolved, and I find it's better to deal with them on vacation then worry about them during the trip.

This efficient approach not only makes sure everything is appropriately handled, it leaves me total peace of mind so I can actually relax and enjoy the time off. Otherwise, what's the point of leaving?

Here are more tips from my Inc. colleagues to help you get the relaxation you want without the stress of a major workload when you return.

1. It's All in the Planning

I always build my companies in a way that they don't require my day-to-day presence, so weekend trips are no problem. When I do plan to take extended time away from the office, I let my staff know well in advance. The sooner I plan and communicate the fact that I won't be available, the easier it is to arrange important meetings and events and cover tasks that need to be accomplished while I am gone. While on the road, I check in once a day at a predetermined time to address anything unexpected that might have come up. Eric Holtzclaw--Lean Forward

Want to read more from Eric? Click here.

2. Disconnect a Little at a Time

I'm a terrible example--I work virtually and am never disconnected. In October, I hit a brick wall of overwork and exhaustion and escaped to Cape Cod to stare at the ocean--but I still checked my email several times a day. Sound like you? That's bad. I recently met a brilliant entrepreneur who likened always-connected bosses to helicopter parents. He notes that those who work for you can't grow up into good managers if they never make their own decisions and--inevitably--mistakes. Start small: Next vacation, have no contact whatsoever with your office for the first 48 hours. If the sky doesn't fall, make it longer next time. Minda Zetlin--Start Me Up

Want to read more from Minda? Click here.

3. Document Everything

I have a friend who is a part of a virtual team in a small business. Last week, she sent an email to her boss, only to receive an auto-response saying she was out of the office for three days. Entrepreneurs take time off with great trepidation, yet they fail to prepare employees for their absence. Discuss your plans and leave a checklist of important procedures, including the things that someone else must do while you are gone. Would your team know whom to call if the company website went down? Document a course of action for emergencies, and prepare them to handle things that may go awry. Marla Tabaka--The Successful Soloist

Want to read more from Marla? Click here.

4. Set Expectations

I recently unplugged from work for a rare, four-day vacation. What was really rare about this vacation wasn't the fact that I took it--it was my determination not to do any work at all for a change. I knew that the only way I could pull this off would be to warn my key clients well ahead of time--letting them know via email a couple of weeks in advance, and then reminding them again a week later. I then made sure that I took the time necessary to catch up on all of my projects and deadlines so I wouldn't have any reason to break my no-work vow. Finally, the night before my vacation started, I set a vacation responder on my email, thanking senders for their message and letting them know that I would respond when I returned on Monday. Which is exactly what I did. Peter Economy--The Management Guy

Want to read more from Peter? Click here.

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Categories: Small Business News

7 Ways to Put Your People First

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 7:30am

To be an effective boss you need to focus on your people. That allows them to focus on customers. It's a virtuous circle, and here's how to get it rolling.

Being the boss means being busy, so busy that you run the very real risk of overlooking the most important thing in your business--your people.

Setting goals and issuing instructions is not enough. Neither is a relentless focus on your customers. Yes, they matter--a <i>lot</i>--but to have happy customers you need to happy employees. To be at your best, both as a leader and as a person, you need to connect and sincerely communicate with your employees. Apply these seven steps for putting your people first

1. Build Them Up Instead of Cutting Them Down

While it's true that management involves a certain amount of direction and problem-solving, great bosses realize a significant part their role also involves coaching their employees and facilitating better performance. It seems simple enough but it's not easy to pull off, because it requires a sincere commitment to on-going interaction with your people, and that takes time. Interact with your people in positive ways. Become familiar with your employees' talents and limitations, and give them the tools and encouragement they need to succeed.

2. Foster a Positive Atmosphere

Most of us spend roughly one-third of our lives at work. Ask yourself and answer truthfully: Do you enjoy going to work? Do you think your employees look forward to coming to work? If you're not loving it--and if your people aren't loving it in return--something is seriously wrong and your employees aren't going to give their very best. When you can go to bed and look forward to getting up early and going to work, you'll know you've made your workplace a fun place to be. A positive atmosphere is full of constructive energy, and your customers and clients will notice.

3. Model the Behaviors You Want

No one likes a hypocrite, especially when that hypocrite is the boss. Your people watch you very closely, and if you aren't walking the talk you can bet your employees won't either. If you want more-engaged employees, improved customer service, or a bigger bottom line, then make a point of modeling the behavior you want. Odds are good you'll start to see positive changes right away.

4. Trust Your Own Judgment

There is no end to the lists, tools, and resources you can find to help you improve as an entrepreneur. Believe it or not, you already have the most important thing you need to be an effective leader: your own common sense. Exercise and listen to your inner voice at every possible opportunity. Pay attention to your intuition and let your sense of fairness be your guide whenever possible.

5. Don't Just Manage Your People, Get To Know Them

Putting people first is easier said than done. However, like most everything else in life, the more you do it the easier it gets. You can put your people first by interacting and communicating with them often and sincerely. Listen to them. Encourage them, provide them with guidance, respect their efforts and ask questions to get a feeling for what motivates them. You'll know you're interacting positively with your people when they in turn make time to interact with you.

6. Acknowledge and Reward, But With Discretion

Everyone likes to be recognized when they do a good job. Carefully consider and communicate the behaviors you want from your people, and then acknowledge your employees' efforts to embrace those behaviors. And, be careful not to reward poor behavior by ignoring it.

7. Accept That Change Is Constant

Not only can everything change tomorrow, but odds are good it will. The visionary accepts this fact as an opportunity for things to get better, while the pessimist feels it only confirms his worst fears. Change is a constant in our business and in our personal lives. As a result, flexibility and adaptability are two of the most important qualities for business success--both in the long and short terms. Set a good example by rolling with the inevitable changes, and help your people do the same.

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Categories: Small Business News

The Secret to Hiring a Savvy Social-Media Manager

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 7:30am

Learn how to avoid the hype and get serious about hiring the right person to manage your social media.

If you're at all familiar with the nature of marketing, you know the importance of constantly evaluating and evolving your strategy to stay competitive in your industry. Chances are, you've been paying more attention to customer experience, digital data, measurement, and various forms of content marketing and promotion.

In all this, there's probably no doubt in your mind that social media should be an integral part of your marketing strategy.

But how does your company approach social media? Are you still designating one or two interns to just "handle it"? If that's the case, it's time to once again evaluate your strategy. You might want to start by sending a message to your HR manager. Your next social-media manager should be as familiar with business and marketing concepts as he or she is with Facebook and LinkedIn.

Marketing professionals leading the way in social media recently revealed some of their background experiences with content marketing expert Jay Baer, identifying the skills that are essential for the demands of today's successful social-media campaigns.

Here are several insights gained from Baer's e-book, Social Pros All-Stars: Career Paths & Tips from 27 Big Company Social Media Professionals, as well as feedback from social-media experts highlighted in the book.

Experience Matters

Until recently, social-media marketing was considered a field anyone could break into, several of the social-media experts pointed out. As a general rule, companies figured if you were young and active on social media, you were a good fit for the job, says Jason Miller, social content manager for Jim Beam and one of the experts highlighted in Social Pros All-Stars.

"Now, it's totally different, and just being an 'awesome' Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr user isn't going to cut it," he says. To succeed in the field, you must be forward thinking, demonstrate you can understand and interpret consumer data and marketing strategies, and write effectively for your targeted audience, he says. "You must be willing to fail," Miller adds. "You need to just go and do it."

Multiple Skills

There's also a misperception about what it takes to develop expertise in social-media marketing, especially for an enterprise company, says Adrian D. Parker, VP of digital marketing for the Patrón Spirits Company.

In the future, Parker says, careers in social media will be heavily focused on business elements, including governance, globalization, technology adoption, user experiences, and content strategies.

"It's important to think about what you want to accomplish before assuming that all social jobs are created equal," he says. "The art of implementing social media at the enterprise level is very different from using social for personal pursuits."

Did I Mention Skills?

In the near future, social-media marketing experts will need to expand their skills even further, particularly in the area of data analysis, Miller says. With social listening and Big Data key to the field, you must be able to read and interpret data.

"Numbers still matter very much. We are a truly balanced profession," he says.

Marketing Degree Not Required

Going into this project, Baer says, he had expected most of the social-media pros to have a marketing degree, or at least something close to the field. According to the group surveyed, only 24 percent have marketing, business, or advertising degrees. However, 50 percent have undergraduate degrees in English, English literature, public relations, or journalism.

The main key for a successful career in social media lies in the skills of listening, communicating, and problem solving, says Parker, who says his background and experience in public relations taught him how to present ideas, persuade audiences, and compel action--all elements of great storytelling.

Facebook Myth

Although Facebook is the largest social network, it's not the favorite among the social marketing experts featured in the e-book. Of the 27 respondents, 14 reported Twitter as their favorite. Instagram was favored by eight, while Facebook only received two votes. LinkedIn and Untapped each received one vote. Pinterest was not mentioned at all.

Overall, the experts pointed out that there continue to be misconceptions about how to run a successful social-media campaign. The biggest issue is not understanding the scope of work and resources it takes to run social media, says Bryan Srabian, director of digital media for the San Francisco Giants. "Social media is not free, and companies that are succeeding are dedicating resources," he says.

Categories: Small Business News

Simple Ways to Deal With Negative People

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 6:45am

Though you can't always avoid the complainers at work, you can make certain that they don't bring you down with them.

There's no question that being positive and optimistic both cushions the blows of adversity and makes it easier to notice and take advantage of opportunities when they come your way.

But staying positive is difficult if you're forced to deal with negative people, a category that unfortunately includes a large percentage of the workplace population.

Here's what you can do to ensure that the complainers don't bring you down with them:

1. Avoid them when possible.

This probably goes without saying, but the absolute best way to deal with negative people is to cut them out of your life.

At work, don't hang out with them at the water cooler or sit next to them at lunch. Uninvite them to any meeting at which their presence is not absolutely required.

If they're customers that you can't avoid, stay cordial and friendly but don't get sucked into a deeper relationship.

If you're online, don't read the comments sections on political blogs or anywhere else that people vent anonymously. That's like drinking from a sewer.

2. Don't go Pollyanna on them.

When you must deal with negative people, the worst thing you can do is get all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Your display of positivity won't cheer them up. Quite the contrary. They'll see it as a challenge and amp up their negativity to compensate.

Being optimistic around a pessimist is like painting a target on your forehead--a target at which the pessimist will aim his or her hatred and unhappiness.

Don't believe me? Google "I hate optimists" and read some of the spew. Negative people are invested in their negativity. You're not going to jolly them out of it.

3. Agree, then weaken by rephrasing.

Negative people express themselves using negative, emotionally charged words (such as hate, sucks, crap, effing, and so forth).

Because such words are loaded, they make the negative person more miserable and negative. It's a classic feedback loop.

The only way to help negative people out of that loop is to edge them out of it by putting yourself on their side.

To do this, you immediately agree with every negative statement that they make. Then, as part of that agreement, you rephrase what they said using words that are less loaded.

Examples:

  • Debbie: "I absolutely hate it with a passion when..."
  • You: "Yes, it's irritating when that happens..."
  • Debbie: "This totally sucks."
  • You: "So true. There are some real challenges here."

When you do this, you'll notice that the negative person will actually change her physiology. Her body straightens, her glowering frown lightens up.

Do this long enough and you can actually erode a person's negativity to the point where he can take off the crap-colored glasses. It can take a long time, though.

4. Clear your head afterward.

Dealing with negative people taxes and drains your energy. Therefore, whenever you're forced to deal with such folk, take time afterward to recharge your emotional batteries.

The best thing to do after dealing with the downer is to call or visit a kindred spirit who shares your basically positive attitude.

If that's not possible, go for a walk, listen to some music, read something inspirational. Do something--anything--that creates a mental break.

Failing to do this is like failing to wash yourself or change your clothes after wading through mud. If you're not careful, negativity can and will stick to you.

In fact, that's the reason that negative people are negative. It's a learned behavior. After all, most children are natural optimists.

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Categories: Small Business News

You've Merged With a Huge Company. Now What?

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 6:30am

How to help your employees survive the post-acquisition commotion

Business as usual doesn't seem to be in my professional vocabulary these days, and I'm loving it. Since my company, Blinds.com, was acquired by the Home Depot earlier this year, my days have shifted from merger and acquisition intensity to full-on integration efforts with our new partners.

As much as I love being on the edge of the day-to-day operational activities in my company (and I say edge because as CEO, you're the most useful being the visionary leader, not the guy balancing the books, right?), this integration period is an exciting one.

Here are my strategies for getting my employees as excited as I am during this integration phase.

Hypercommunicate

After the glow of the big news fades, the rumor mill takes hold if you're not careful. No matter the initial response to an acquisition, change is very stressful, especially when there is an impact, perceived or real, on compensation, stability, and day-to-day responsibilities.

Let's be real for a moment about smart communication. Sending out vague and verbose companywide emails every once in a while doesn't count as helpful communication. Boring PowerPoints and long-winded diatribes don't either.

Instead, combat the fear with regular and frequent "state of the union" communications with your employees. As CEO, make sure to include these points:

  • Where we're going, when, and how we're going to get there
  • How we're doing so far
  • What's working
  • What I hope starts working better soon

Reach your employees through as many channels as possible, and be smart in how you're crafting your message. Treat this kind of communication strategically, as you would any marketing piece--in this instance, you're marketing internally to your team members on the ongoing success of their labors and new business partners.

Ask for Feedback

Continuous improvement is one of our company's core values, and this focus doesn't fall by the wayside during a large company transition. This is a great time to gauge your employees' sentiments, to pick up on any warning signs that key aspects of your company culture are at risk. As with any companywide poll, keep it easy to respond to (no giant essay questions or tricky software to log in to), keep it anonymous, and keep it important.

Our human resources team launched a simple online poll to evaluate our Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), asking questions like, "How likely are you to recommend working at Blinds.com to a friend or colleague?" HR will resend this same poll in three months to see where we stand then, and you better believe we'll dig down and act on any changes from the earlier responses.

Scrum

We run an Agile programming shop, which, for you nontechie folks out there, is a kind of software development methodology that includes "sprints," to break up larger development tasks, and daily standup meetings to check in.

During this integration phase, I run a similar scrum for my senior leadership team in which we meet daily (yes, I said daily) to touch base on the day's key issues and updates. From there, these top-level managers disseminate the information needed to the right people on their teams to get the job done.

What are some of your tips in helping your company weather great (and exciting!) change? Leave a comment below or tweet me at @BlindsComCEO.

Categories: Small Business News

3 Actions That Instantly Build Trust

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 6:00am

Your door might be open, but are you? Try these trust-building actions the next time a team member needs to talk.

We live in an information-rich, time-poor world, with lots of inputs coming at us in any given moment.

Although it seems like our environment requires us to multitask, more and more research reveals that single-tasking is the most effective approach to getting things done.

Single-tasking is particularly critical to the leader who is trying to establish real trust. Taking the right steps will make it clear to your team members that you:

  • Value each of them as a person and a team member;
  • Are genuinely interested in what each of them has to say;
  • Feel everyone's input can help improve team performance;
  • Are trustworthy and trusting.

These might sound like soft responses, but they yield hard results, because these are three ingredients that determine whether people give discretionary effort--choosing to go above and beyond to help meet your team’s goals.

Your door might be open, but for your team members to feel like you are open, try these trust-building actions the next time a team member needs to talk:

1. Eliminate distractions.

  • Silence your phones (landline and cell) and email and text notifications.
  • Close your door if the topic warrants it.
  • Move away from your PC screen and keyboard so you will not be tempted by them. Put your phone down, ideally out of sight.
  • If you expect an interruption, ask your team member to excuse it in advance.

2. Set time expectations.

  • Tell your team member that you have X minutes to talk, then ask if he or she thinks that will be sufficient.
  • If not, it is perfectly fine to reschedule so you can focus your full attention.
  • If it is an urgent matter, spend any time you have now, then schedule a follow-up in short order.

3. Ask, then listen.

  • Show genuine interest by asking questions to understand the root cause of the issue.
  • Seek to fully understand your team member’s concern before you suggest solutions.
  • Paraphrase what you heard to ensure it was what your team member intended to communicate.
  • Watch for nonverbals to get the full story. Assess what the nonverbals say about the person’s anxiety, confidence, and degree of emotion around the topic.

Give your precious time and attention and get your team’s trust.

Find more practical words to lead by. Read free book chapters from the author's book Leadership Matters for more insights.

Categories: Small Business News

8 Easy Ways to Become an Expert Traveler

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 6:00am

A veteran business traveler shares eight secrets he's learned over the years--from buying a Tom Bihn bag to carrying a spare battery.

A recent survey found that Southwest Airlines had the best customer service in the airline industry, and it deserves it.

Want proof? Just call Southwest Airlines to cancel a flight: The company will do it without a charge. Now try the same with some of the other airlines, and you could pay up to $300.

Want more proof? Just listen to this hilarious Southwest flight attendant go over her flight's safety procedures. I wish all airlines could be like Southwest.

But let's not complain. In 1927, it took Charles Lindbergh 33 hours to fly from the U.S. to Paris. And no movies were shown. Travel today, especially business travel, is a marvel. For the business traveler, it's all about comfort and speed. I travel frequently, and I've learned a few ways to make the experience even better. Let me share them.

1. Join a loyalty program and stick with it.

Pick an airline, a hotel, a car rental company, and be loyal. On US Airways, I frequently get upgraded to first class (even though, ahem, they charged me $200 to change a flight recently). At Marriott hotels, I'm checked in faster and find it easier to get late checkouts. At Avis, my car is waiting for me when I arrive. These are little things--but still huge things when you're trying to travel in comfort and save time. You'll get more thank-you's and offers to help. Top customers are just treated better by companies. Don't you do the same for yours?

2. Take advantage of temporary office space.

The airline clubs are fine, but I prefer Regus, which is available in more than 1,800 locations around the world and provides me with an office away from home. There I can do my writing, my phone calls, and even meet with out-of-town clients in a professional setting and with privacy. I also like Regus because it provides fast Internet service, administrative support, and office equipment such as faxes and phones, and it has different programs available for small-business owners.

3. Get Global Access and TSA Precheck.

This is huge. I travel to the U.K. a few times a year and no longer have to wait in line at immigration when I return. I just slide my passport through the scanner, offer my fingerprints, and away I go. Domestically, the TSA Precheck lines are significantly shorter than the usual security lines, and I'm not asked to unpack my bags before they go through the scanner. These services have cut down my airport time significantly.

4. Lose the Rollaboard.

Never, ever check luggage. It takes too long to retrieve and costs extra. Adapt, pack less, and buy a Tom Bihn bag. Why? It will fit anywhere, even under a seat when you're crammed into one of those little regional jets with smaller overhead space. And you can fit the universe inside.

Don't believe me? Check out how this guy packs his stuff, and prepare to have your mind blown.

5. Have a data plan.

I'm online all the time, and when the Internet is slow, I'm slow. Unfortunately, not all airport or hotel Internet services are created equally. That's why I'm committed to my Verizon data plan. For the extra $20 per month, I get 4G access most places I go, and I wind up using that service more frequently than public Wi-Fi.

6. Carry a spare battery.

Let's face it, no matter what your laptop manufacturer says, your battery is going to go on you midtrip, right? Fork over the extra bucks and buy another one. The battery usually weighs around a pound. It will not only provide you with an additional four to six hours of work time, but it will also be a source to charge your smartphone when you connect via the USB port.

7. Squirrel away some cash.

Each time you travel, go to the ATM and take out a hundred bucks in cash. Then, don't spend it. Use your credit card everywhere you go so you can accumulate points. When you get home, take the hundred bucks and stick it in an envelope. After your fifth trip, take your $500 bucks; make amends to your spouse for all that time you've been away and treat yourselves to a great weekend. Or just save it. You've earned it!

8. Buy a good pair of headphones.

You'll thank me the next time you're sitting next to that guy on the plane who wants to tell you his life story and all you want to do is politely zone out to Phish.

Happy, and safe, travels!

Categories: Small Business News

Do Good Students Make Bad Business Owners?

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 5:44am

The idea that most business owners are dropouts might be an urban myth, but that doesn't mean the habits of A students don't generally stand in the way of successful entrepreneurship.

Ask the average Joe or Jane on the street to describe a typical entrepreneur and you’re pretty likely to hear something about a college dropout with a dorm room startup and a crazy dream. Business owners and studious academics aren’t exactly tightly linked in the popular imagination. But is it fair to take that association a step further? Are lifelong A students less likely to be successful founders?

First, a word of caution about the underlying assumptions of the discussion. Though the stereotypical entrepreneur may be a college dropout, the statistics tell a different story. Most business owners in the U.S. do, in fact, have college degrees (given our tech-saturated world, it’s probably no shock to you that many have advanced degrees in technical subjects), and plenty of high-profile folks in the world of entrepreneurship, from Google’s Eric Schmidt to VC Brad Feld, have argued that if you want to start a business, your best bet is to finish your degree.

Are M.B.A.'s the Problem?

So why does it make intuitive sense to many of us that being good at school makes it less likely that you’ll be good at entrepreneurship? Part of the blame may lie with one type of schooling in particular: M.B.A. programs, which have developed a reputation in some quarters for stamping out creativity among students.

Here, for instance, is organizational theorist Jim March summing up this view: "My experience with business school students is that those who possess an instinct for joy, passion, and beauty often learn to suppress their expression by virtue of a sense that such instincts are unwelcome both in business schools and in business, thereby making the sense self-confirming." Even some business school professors themselves have publicly aired similar suspicions.

Or School in General?

It’s not just M.B.A. programs that many fear are hostile to the innovation, risk taking, and wild dreams that are at the heart of entrepreneurship. Plain old regular school is pretty bad at nurturing passion, according not only to many who experienced it in its less enlightened forms but also to education theorists like Sir Ken Robinson. His TED talk on how schools kill creativity is one of the most watched of all time. One gets the sense he may have struck a nerve.

But though it doesn’t seem outlandish that the regimented, highly structured world of standardized tests and eight periods a day might not be the ideal environment for nurturing imaginative, risk-tolerant, self-starting entrepreneurs, that still doesn’t get at the nitty-gritty of exactly how classroom learning might extinguish the entrepreneurial spark. Which is why a recent post on the bad habits of A students by Melissa Suzuno on AfterCollege is so fascinating. It lays out five ways good grades train you to be bad in business, arguing that learned behaviors such as expecting constant affirmation, always asking for permission, craving rules, and fearing failure are what erode students’ entrepreneurial abilities.

What’s your sense: Do you have to unlearn many of the habits you picked up in school to be a successful business owner? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Categories: Small Business News

6 Things You Need to Know Today

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 5:36am

A roundup of the day's news curated by the Inc. editorial team to help you and your business succeed.

1. So Much for Your Gut

A recent study, led by a Harvard professor and published in the April edition of Psychological Science, found that the ability to discern if others are trustworthy, dominant, and competent just by looking at them is not a skill honed over time and with experience. Adults and children evaluated faces similarly during the study, showing that you may not be as good a judge of character in the hiring process as you think you are.--Harvard Business Review

2. Tax-Day Plea

Airbnb, which is reportedly seeking new funding that would value it at $10 billion, is still sparring with New York City. The latest: Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky penned an editorial claiming that current tax laws prevent the company from collecting what would amount to $21 million in occupancy-related taxes for the city per year. Your move, regulators.--The Huffington Post

3. Take That, GoDaddy

Squarespace, the Web design and hosting startup, announced a $40 million round of funding. In its zeal to top rival GoDaddy, the company said last month it plans to spend--you guessed it--$40 million on advertising this year to expand its market.--PandoDaily

4. How to Encourage Niceness in the Office

Here's a good reason to keep a few extra snacks around the office: A growing body of research suggests that there's a real connection between low blood sugar and becoming angry. In one study, researchers found that participants who drank lemonade were less likely to be mean to others and blast them with loud noise when given the chance.--Vox

5. Game On

Next week's Supreme Court battle won't be easy for Aereo, the cable upstart taking on broadcasters, the Office of the Solicitor General, and the U.S. Copyright Office. According to some legal experts, the "case is so complex and the communications statutes so intricate that ... the decision could end up as lopsided as 7-1--in either direction." Keep an eye on this one, as it should be instructive for other disruptive startups ruffling feathers in their respective industries.--The Hollywood Reporter

6. Legal Recourse for Interns

Does your company run on intern power? New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio just signed a bill giving unpaid interns the ability to sue if they believe they are being discriminated against or sexually harassed. The legislation comes in response to a federal court ruling stating that a woman couldn't sue a TV station where she worked for sexual harrassment because she was not paid.--CBS New York

Categories: Small Business News

Now Is the Time to Pounce on a Business Deal

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 5:30am

It's a good time to buy a business, and sell one, too.

According to BizBuySell's quarterly Insights Report, small business sales remained robust, continuing the trend of a consistent, healthy business-for-sale market. Opportunities abound on either side of the table.

It's a good time to be a seller.

Long-term trends show that small business transaction volumes in the first quarter of 2014 remained strong, with 52 percent more sales per quarter than during the Great Recession. 1,726 transactions were reported to BizBuySell in the quarter, making it the fifth straight quarter with more than 1,600 transactions. This is a benchmark not seen since the second quarter of 2008.

The small business transaction market hasn't yet worked through the pent up supply of and demand for small businesses that built up over the long recession years, which is also reflected in sale prices. In Q1 2014, the median selling price was $175,000, roughly $25,000 higher than the median sale price witnessed during the 2010 to 2012 period.

It's an even better time to be a buyer.

Why? Value for your business-buying dollar. While sellers are getting much higher prices than they did just a few years ago, buyers are getting better value for their money. This is shown by multiples, which remain at historic lows. The average multiple of revenue for sold businesses in Q1 was 0.59 and the average multiple of cash flow was 2.21. To put this in context, this cash flow multiple is roughly 18% lower than the multiple seen prior to the Great Recession. Buyers are now getting 22 percent more cash flow for their business-buying dollar than they did prior to the recession.

The most recent numbers and the longer-term trends show that both small business buyers and sellers are working out deals in today's market. The depressed transaction activity from late 2008 through to the end of 2012 created the supply and demand fundamentals for a sustained recovery. If it continues, and access to acquisition financing continues to improve, 2014 should be a banner year for small business transactions.

Categories: Small Business News

The Exit That Wasn't: How This Entrepreneur Bought His Company Back

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 5:30am

Tony Conrad explains how--and why--he reclaimed control of About.me from AOL a year ago.

A startup founder who navigates her company through a significant exit might find herself with full pockets and an itch to get back in the game. This is how many an angel investor is born.

Tony Conrad, however, walked backward through the process. He moved his family to the San Francisco Bay Area as the last dot-com boom was heating up, and started helping friends and acquaintances launch their companies with bits of cash. It was only after a few of them became successful that he caught the entrepreneurship bug himself.

After founding a handful of tech companies along with both technical and business-savvy co-founders, Conrad in 2010 launched About.me, a network of personal-profile websites. Just months after the website's launch, he sold the company to AOL for a sum reportedly in the range of $35 to $40 million. About.me experienced two years of lackluster growth under AOL, and in February 2013 Conrad, along with co-founder Ryan Freitas, bought the business back for a fraction of that sum.

Since then, the site's traffic growth has been remarkable, according to Conrad. "Last January we did four million profile views," he says. "This January we did 158 million." The company employs 20 people, and About.me hosts about five million individual profile pages.

When I meet Conrad, who's 52, he's outside a restaurant at the Four Seasons in Austin, Texas, sitting cross-legged on the floor in a hallway hand-brewing himself a cup of pour-over coffee. Our discussion ranged from the advice he gives young founders to the tactic he used to get his company back from AOL. What follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You're both an investor and a founder. How do you split your time?
Tony Conrad: When I wake up in the morning, I'm thinking about About.me. I don't know how I manage my time; I feel like I spend 100 percent of my time on [my VC firm] True Ventures, and 100 percent of my time on About.me. But I do straddle this line with investing. I just do it at an institutional level instead of an angel level. It just works for me. It works for [LinkedIn co-founder] Reid Hoffman, it works for Aneel Bhusri at Greylock Partners. There are a lot of unfair advantages that come from being in both roles.

Explain what you mean by "unfair advantages."
I can't imagine being successful at either one of them without the two of them working together. The other reality is, founders get invited to different things than venture capitalists. Venture capitalists get invited to different things than founders.

So, you get all the best invites?
[Laughs] I don't get the best invites. But I think I get meaningful invites that create access in ways that are maybe advantageous.

Why don't you bring me up to speed on how About.me is doing? What's new?
There's a proliferation of social-media sites out there, and a problem we were seeing is: Which one should represent you? None of them should represent you. I am not the sum of my tweets. I also don't think of myself as a person as being the sum of my professional accomplishments only. They're a huge piece of me, but they're not all of me. You wouldn't know I have a tattoo, you wouldn't know I surf, you wouldn't know I've done an Ironman, you wouldn't know I'm a father. It doesn't tell you what makes you tick. We thought that everyone in the world should have a page that could be the starting point for your true identity.

How do you do that?
First off, I'm not interested in being another social network. We are working on a bunch of different things. The first is identity. The next phase is called discover. It's really about getting people to interact with you. We started tracking views on your page, and tags, so we got more information on users, on their school, their work, things that interest them.

What's the business model--or the business model in the future?
The business model is pretty killer. There's some stuff we'll do lightweight around premium offerings--people who want to make their pages a little more spruced up. Promoted profiles, too--that's huge. It is like Promoted Tweets. Our feed works. If I take your profile and put it in our staff picks, you will get 10,000 views in a day. If you're an author selling books, that has value to you. If you're an artist or photographer or just someone who wants attention--hey, we don't judge--that has value to you. It helps people to discover people, but it helps you if you want to be found. And I think secretly we all want to be found. We do.

What was the process of getting the company back like? Where was your head at during that process?
A couple things first. It's incredibly flattering when somebody offers to buy your business. And I often tell this to young entrepreneurs, but when they actually follow through and close the deal, it's even more flattering. You can never forget that. We hear all these ugly stories about acquisitions that go poorly, but you can't forget that something great came out of that. Not only financially, you probably got a good reward, but the best reward you ever get in life is validation.

But obviously you didn't think AOL was the best home for About.me.
With AOL, one of the things that was hard for me was I got there and after a year I started having some reservations about whether we were a fit or not. We sold it prematurely. We thought it would be a good fit with AIM and AOL Mail, but each of those have their own sets of issues in terms of identity, so we're not going to be a priority for integration there. And my interest was how to get to scale. I realized that wasn't happening, and that wasn't going to happen.

How did you start the conversation?
The challenge is that Tim [Armstrong, AOL's CEO and chairman] is a great guy, an honorable guy. I didn't want to offend him. It was a series of conversations. I started talking to Tim about it, in a very adult way. I just sat down and said, "I really think we should spin this out." The first conversation was "no." The second conversation was "no." Finally I got to "yes." I said, "Tim, what's the deal? You have an analyst call in six weeks, are you willing to talk about About.me as a core strategic piece of your mission?" He goes, "Well, maybe." So, I told him that I am a real entrepreneur and this is my baby. The right thing to do is to let me buy it back. To Tim's credit, he said, "I support that."

Did you have to move your team out?
I never moved them in! The company was so young when we were acquired, it was a four-month-old product, that I wanted to maintain our culture and allow it to build.

You almost used it as a growth strategy.
No--not really. I had a vision for integrating our product into theirs that would have allowed it to scale much faster. They have 30 million mail accounts--imagine if every email and AIM account had an identity tethered to it? We could have gone to tens of millions of profiles in a short amount of time. That wasn't happening.

How do you define success?
You know those things that happen to you in your life that make you stop and reflect? After I had an exit on Sphere [a search engine for blogs he co-founded], which was the first company where I felt I was the driving force, I was surprised. The sense of pride I had was the most powerful, overwhelming feeling I'd had in my life aside from my children being born and getting married and my mother dying. It was right up there in that basket of emotions.

Let's talk a bit about your investing. What's the most common question founders come to you needing help with or advice on?
How not to cry at night. [Laughs] No, seriously: The kind of people who want to work with me want practical experience, but they know from my demeanor that I'm not heavy-handed. Yeah, I've done it before, but I'm not trying to impose my way on you.

When you're thinking of making an investment in a company, what's the biggest consideration you make?
I look at the founder and ask myself, "Could this person be the founder of a movement?" I think Bre Pettis [of Makerbot] has this. I learned this from [investing in and working with] Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Wordpress. I think the first time I talked to Matt, he was 18. We were talking on the phone. I had no idea he was that young, and probably didn't know for about a year that he wasn't even 20 yet. But he had it.

What do you get out of the experience of mentoring startup entrepreneurs these days?
Oh, everything. There's been a period for the past five or six years when I didn't see an exponential change in what I was getting from it. But in the past year and a half, the whole thing changed again. It's the same change that happened with the whole "lean, mean" methodology. It's the speed at which they iterate. These kids are really comfortable with going, "you know what, I tried that, let's move on to the next idea." We used to try to build monuments.

Categories: Small Business News

9 Ways to Be as Productive as a Navy SEAL

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 5:00am

The best teams in the world practice specific behaviors to ensure maximum efficiency.

When performing capture-or-kill missions in Iraq, we often used Humvees as insert platforms. It didn't take long to see the difficulty of getting out of a Humvee and over a six-foot wall while wearing nearly 70 pounds of gear. It was taking us too long to get into the yard and breach the target. So we worked together to improve the existing strategy. We removed the doors, welded running boards along the side to stand on, and built ladders out of two-by-fours. By getting creative and working together, we cut our target entry time in half.

The elite nature of Navy SEAL culture is in large part driven by the creativity and organizational capabilities of its team members. Every single team member practices habits that enforce productivity. The same principles apply to startups, medium-size businesses, and global corporations. As an entrepreneur, I have diligently attempted to replicate this type of culture in my own organizations.

Here are nine ways that team leaders, and members, can ensure high productivity.

1. Get the right team members. Without self-discipline and accountability, no process will work. First and foremost, your team members must embrace the organization's values. You must recruit, train, and promote people on the basis of those values.

2. Clearly define roles. Once you have the right team, you need to make sure each person is sitting in the right seat, by clearly defining each person’s role and leaving some room for evolution. When people know exactly what is expected of them and how they will be judged, your team's efficiency and morale will improve.

3. Eliminate overlap. Inefficiencies are created when resources aren't allocated properly and overlap exists between internal teams. If you're overstaffed or have poorly defined roles creating these inefficiencies, do something about it.

4. Demand transparent communication. Move. Shoot. Communicate. That’s how we break down the essential capabilities of a great SEAL operator. Communication is the most important element. The culture has to promote honesty and the importance of constructive feedback between teams and individuals. One of our core values at our company is "Everyone has a voice." And believe me, everyone does! When you know you have the right people on your team, it's foolish not to want their input.

5. Always improve processes. SEALs constantly adapt their combat tactics. If you fight the same enemy long enough, it will adapt to your strategies. So you must adapt as well. Owing to growth, economic shifts, or industry changes, every company has to evolve. To do this well, the team must regularly audit its systems and identify what needs improving.

6. Fill the gaps. When an efficient team has a rhythm for auditing the way it does things, gaps will be revealed. If this occurs, make the necessary changes quickly. Doing so will have an immediate positive impact.

7. Remove obstacles. When we found a more efficient way to get out of the Humvee, it was a team of enlisted operators that provided the concepts and execution for improving our efficiency. In the corporate world, removing obstacles usually costs money, and that means approvals from above are needed. Productive team members at ground level are usually in the best position to understand what's not working. Leadership has to trust and empower them to make change.

8. Problem-solve creatively. Imagination played a key role in improving the operational capabilities in SEAL teams over the years. At our company, working in an industry that is constantly changing has forced us to be always evaluating and changing the ways we provide our services to clients. This requires organizational restructuring, recruiting new talent, and constant training. We get the team involved, get creative, and adapt.

9. Embrace adaptability. We often fail to change soon enough to avoid problems. One of my favorite quotes is "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." And I can assure you that is true. You can do all of the planning you want, but having the capability to truly be dynamic and flexible is what sets apart the best organizations.

Take the time now to ensure that your company is set up for success.

Categories: Small Business News

17 Things Happy People Say Every Day

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 5:00am

Are you as happy as you wish you were today? If not, try saying a few of these simple, inspiring things to other people. They won't just improve your mood; they'll trigger positive reactions that will legitimately make you feel happier, too.

There's an easy-to-articulate, hard-to-implement best practice when it comes to how to teach yourself to be happy. It stems from the recognition that the positive things you do for other people often reverberate back to create positivity in your own life. In effect, doing little things to make other people happy can greatly improve your happiness.

Make sense? There are two theories at work. The first is that focusing on others creates joy of its own accord. The second is that as you succeed in improving others' happiness, you'll wind up with happier, more grateful people around you. They'll find you likable and charismatic, which in turn can lead them to treat you in a manner that produces even more happiness.

It's easier said than done, but fortunately, there's a compelling shortcut. Your words are among your greatest tools, so you can have an outsize effect on others simply by thinking about what you say every day and making an effort to be both positive and sincere. There are certain inspiring things that truly happy people find themselves saying to others all the time. Try making an effort to say a few of these every day for a week. You'll be amazed at how the positivity you create improves your happiness.

1. "I'm happy to see you."

This is the most basic and attractive sentiment you can express to another human being--that simply being in the person's presence creates a positive feeling. Whether you're telling an employee that you need his skills, that you value his opinions, or just that you think he's good company, you've begun an interaction on a very high note. How can that not produce some level of happiness in the other person?

2. "I'm always happy to see you."

Take the previous remark a step further. This is the opposite of most relationship advice--that you should never take a specific negative action and suggest that it's indicative of someone's entire way of acting. Well, turn that on its head, by expressing that it's not just this interaction that has produced positive feelings but basically all interactions with this person. It's an amazingly gratifying thing to hear.

3. "Remember when you..."

Surprise someone by bringing up a positive thing that she did in the past, and you're almost guaranteed to induce a positive response. Maybe it's a joke the person told that you're still laughing about; maybe it's a small act of heroism she performed. Regardless, if it's something she thought was long forgotten, learning that something she did made a positive, lasting impression on someone else is an amazing experience.

4. "You might not realize this, but..."

This an even more potent version of the previous suggestion, provided you finish the sentence with a description of how the person's actions led to a positive outcome. It's one thing to learn that other people recognize the favorable things you've done; it's another thing entirely to learn that you're having a positive effect on other people without even realizing it.

5. "You really impress me."

This is similar to "I'm happy to see you" and "I'm always happy to see you," except that it focuses on things that the person does, rather than his or her existential being. Other variations include "You are really great at..." or "People love that you..." Simply be sincere and specific. "You're really great at calming stressful situations" or "People love that you always have the best music." It can be anything, as long as it's authentic and truly positive, and it's guaranteed to elicit positive reactions.

6. "You really impressed me when..."

Focusing on specific actions or events can be even more powerful. It means that you're not only thinking abstractly but offering proof that things the other person does provoke positive reactions. It's the difference between saying that a comedian was really funny and quoting one of his or her best jokes. (Other versions: "You handled that well when you turned that client's objection into an opportunity" or "It was really cool to see how you parallel-parked that car into that tiny spot.")

7. "I believe in you."

People have self-doubts. You do, I do, we all do. (Heck, every time I write a column here--and this is number 167, by the way--I wonder how people will react.) When others simply say they believe in you, however, it becomes easier to believe in yourself.

Here's an analogy. Have you ever gotten into lifting weights, or simply watched people do it? It's amazing how the slightest bit of assistance from a spotter--with force equal to the weight of a pencil--can help someone lift far more weight than he could on his own. It's the same concept here--just that small expression of confidence can push people to achieve more--and then to be thankful for the help.

8. "Look how far you've come!"

It is so important to celebrate achievements. This doesn't mean you have to throw a party, but even acknowledging that someone's efforts have achieved results can be extremely gratifying for the person.

Of course, heck, if you want to take things to the extreme, throw a party. Just be sure that you're the one buying the first round and singing the loudest.

9. "I know you're capable of more."

Everyone needs to be pushed at times, especially when we fall short. If you care about people, you're going to be called on sometimes to be a bit of a coach, or maybe to employ a bit of tough love. Even the most steadfast and confident among us sometimes need a friend to guide them to a better way of acting.

The late, great NFL coach Vince Lombardi put this best: "Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve." Nobody does anything great alone, so be the one standing by to help, and you'll inspire positivity and gratitude.

10. "I'd like to hear your thoughts about..."

Everyone likes to think that his or her opinions matter, and of course they do--sometimes. However, this kind of invitation to share what someone thinks can't help making the person feel just a tiny bit more self-worth, which in turns creates both happiness and positive feelings toward you. Just be sure to be sincere; don't just say this for the sake of saying it. Make sure that you are truly interested in whatever subject you're asking about and listen actively.

11. "Tell me more."

This is the best follow-up to the last item. It tells the other person that you're listening, and that you find value in what he or she is saying. The actor and writer Peter Ustinov once said that the greatest compliment he ever received took place when he was afraid he had gone on too long in a conversation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, only to have her tell him, "Please continue."

12. "I took your suggestion."

OK, it's almost too easy at this point. Combine asking someone's opinion and demonstrating that the person has had impact on your life and you've provided him with two of the most gratifying, basic experiences of the human condition.

It doesn't matter really whether you tried a new restaurant on the other person's advice, followed his suggestion on how to begin an important conversation, or started getting up 15 minutes earlier for a week because he said it was a good idea. Simply being listened to and having impact makes people feel better. Bonus points if his suggestion created a positive result, but you'll get credit regardless. (Related: "You were right.")

13. "I'm sorry."

Say this when you mean it--when you've done something worth expressing regret for or the other person deserves sympathy. However, don't water it down by using it when you don't mean it. In fact, one writer made a compelling argument recently that the phrase is so overused that it ought to be retired. That would be a shame, but it underscores how people appreciate this phrase when it's sincere, and how it annoys them when it isn't.

14. "I'd like to be more like you."

Now you've got it--you're expressing positivity toward other people almost naturally, pointing out not only things that they do well but maybe even things they do better than you do.

If you want to see a sentiment similar to this work very effectively, watch the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets. Or else, just read this short bit of dialogue in which Jack Nicholson's character offers Helen Hunt's character the ultimate compliment: "You make me want to be a better man."

15. "Thank you."

It's not that much of a stretch to suggest that every other item on this list is in fact a form of "thank you." This is truly one of the most powerful, underrated phrases in the English language. It packs a heck of a punch, encompassing positivity and impact in two little syllables. (By the way, thanks for reading this far into this column. Maybe if you share it with others, they'll thank you, too.)

16. "You're welcome."

Not "yep." Not "no problem" or "no worries." Say "You're welcome."

Instead of deflecting another person's thanks, as some of these other phrases do, saying "you're welcome" dignifies the person's gratitude. It acknowledges that yes, you did do something worthy, or nice, or positive for someone--because you believe that she's worth it.

17. "No."

There's one small risk in this entire mode of expression, and this word is your fail-safe. The danger is that sometimes people who make other people's happiness their priority can wind up doing so at the cost of their own happiness. We all know some people who take advantage, or who simply aren't going to be happy no matter what your efforts amount to.

Two little letters, and yet they can be so powerful. Most important, they demonstrate that you care for yourself, which is a key prerequisite to caring truly for other people. Carry this one in your back pocket; use it when necessary. You'll find that the most positive and happy people you interact with respect you for doing so--and that can make you happy, too.

Want to read more, make suggestions, or even be featured in a future column? Contact me and sign up for my weekly email.

Categories: Small Business News

With Great Freedom Comes Great Profitability

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 4:30am

When companies grow, rules proliferate. And that's what strangles them.

If the ball's falling, catch it.

That is the job description for everyone who works at Gripple, a global engineering firm. The company has no HR department, and it's expected that employees will take only as much vacation as they need and the company can bear. In other words, this is a company which provides its staff members (the CEO won't call them employees) with a great deal of freedom.

Another impressive characteristic: 25 percent of all sales today come from products that did not exist four years ago. The company prizes and achieves high levels of innovation.

Freedom to Succeed

The combination of freedom and innovation is not accidental. According to consultant Caterina Bulgarella, freedom drives innovation--and the companies that give their work force high degrees of freedom are necessarily the ones that innovate.

In her study of nearly 1,000 companies, Bulgarella studied what she calls high-freedom and low-freedom businesses. High-freedom companies are, she demonstrates, at least 10 times more likely to achieve high financial performance, and 20 times more likely to innovate and to be successful long-term.

The sting in the tail of her research is that these outstanding businesses were also in the minority, making up just 20 percent of those studied. By contrast, 50 percent were low-freedom companies, in which hierarchies are steep, rules proliferate, and people, relationships, and ideas remain isolated. These businesses may believe in free enterprise--just not inside their own offices.

"One of the most intriguing findings has to do with the role of values," Bulgarella told me. "I wasn't surprised that they matter, but the finding that human values are so influential is remarkable. Emphasizing performance and winning has far less impact than placing a great deal of value on integrity and creativity."

And what about the low-freedom companies; how did they react to her findings? "They recognize that there is some growth they're missing out on," says Bulgarella. "But they are so enveloped in the way they work that it's hard for them to envisage drastic change. They appreciate that freedom-from could just mean chaos. But it's the freedom-to (to take the initiative, to reach out, explore, and think broadly) that they find most hard."

Bulgarella's work formalizes much of the same thinking as Reed Hastings's HR strategy for Netflix: Freedom and responsibility are sides of the same coin. And the policy there is nearly as simple as Gripple's: Act in Netflix's best interest. Both echo the psychologist Barry Schwartz, who argues that we need to pay attention to practical wisdom, and couple moral will with moral skill in order to do a great job.

The biggest threat to a business is that, as it grows, it becomes mired in rules and regulations which, aiming to prevent chaos, prevent creativity and responsibility, too. The solution isn't to lower expectations--but to raise them.

Categories: Small Business News

The Art of Unforgettable Opening Lines

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 4:15am

Whether you're giving a speech, pitching an investor, or just making small talk, your first line leaves a lasting impression. Make it a good one.

How do you begin your presentations? Do you work on your opening to create drama and curiosity? Or do you play it safe, and tell them what you're going to tell them?

Stanley Fish, a professor at Florida International University, grabbed readers by the collar with the importance of first sentences.

Here's the situation he posits. You're at the mystery section of an airport bookstore. You hear last call for your flight. You have about five minutes to choose a book. How do you make a choice? Look at the back cover? No, because it's hype, written by an advertising guy paid to sell the book.

How about the blurbs? No, because famous authors often praise other books in publisher's lists to do the publisher a favor and increase the likelihood of getting their next book published.

The only thing left is to read the first sentence.

Professor Fish quotes a few doozies. "He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water." No thanks.

"Brianne Parker didn't look like a bank robber or a murderer--her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone." Too cliché!

"Some stories wait to be told." Too pretentious!

Time is running out. You open another book. "Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son." Pretty good but too self-conscious, especially that name.

And then Professor Fish finds the real thing. "Joel Campbell, 11 years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride." The name isn't too fictional. "11 years old at the time" takes away the seriousness. And "with a bus ride" is not self-consciously clever but matter of fact. It deepens the mystery.

How many yawning executives snap to attention when you utter your first sentence? How many people look forward to hearing you speak?

Everyone is rushing to catch a plane. Your ability to grab attention is key to your success.

Categories: Small Business News

It Takes All Kinds of Brains to Make a Perfect Team

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 4:00am

If your team isn't cognitively diverse, you're missing a huge opportunity.

Have you ever wondered why a team of smart, experienced people aren't performing well? It's not owing to a lack of skills. More likely there's a breakdown in something deeper that precludes the group's ability to generate ideas, get things done, or perform at high levels.

This can happen as a result of many things, but in my mind, it really breaks down to two factors.

1. Does the team have the diversity of thought to come at things from different perspectives or is it a one-note band?

2. Even if there are multiple perspectives, does the team have the requisite openness, trust, and communication to allow divergent thinking and ideas to flourish?

From our research into psychology and human behavior, we know that thinking is manifested in four distinct areas--conceptual, social, analytical, and structural. We also know that every person's behavior falls somewhere along a spectrum in each of three arenas--expressiveness, assertiveness, and flexibility.

Cognitive Diversity: The Golden Ring

Teams that exhibit a full spectrum of these seven attributes are the goal. We call it a Whole Emergenetics, or WE, approach to team building, and it is incredibly powerful in practice.

It's easy to see how this approach works--diverse teams have all the tools at their disposal. They're critical thinkers, innovators, and organized and empathic all at once. They can be accommodating or firm, process internally or be gregarious, and be peacekeepers or drivers, whatever the task requires.

Diverse teams have the ability to see every perspective and put the strength of each individual team member to work toward the common goal. Teams that lack that diversity are unbalanced in one way or another, and that imbalance erodes effectiveness over time.

A group leaning heavily toward one thinking preference may excel in the formation of ideas but lack the ability to formulate a clear plan and see the project through to the end. Or be great at planning and follow-through but short on ideas.

Another group may have the potential to embrace diverse speaking but not actually value or elicit all perspectives. A team led by a few driving, gregarious people may never let others speak, especially those on the quiet end of the expressiveness spectrum. Valuable thinking and ideas are lost.

How to Achieve It

Chances are, you're not going to just stumble across a cognitively diverse team in the wild. You need to be deliberate. If you have a tool like Emergenetics to uncover preferences, that's great, but if not, you can apply these tactics.

Ask for volunteers to fulfill roles. If you're a team leader, you can see inklings of how team members think. Ask the team for volunteers who can naturally bring a perspective of analytical, structural, social, and conceptual thinking to the table. Make sure they're responsible for the perspective. Do the same for expressiveness, assertiveness, and flexibility--you need representation from across each spectrum.

Put tasks and projects into a diverse approach. Any initiative the team works on can be seen through the lens of cognitive diversity. If you're having a meeting, ensure that you approach it from all seven attributes. As you come up with solutions, put each into a framework and test it against the full thinking and behavioral spectrum--does the solution speak to analytical concerns, for example? Is it resonant for structural thinkers? Ask this question for each attribute.

The potential for cognitive diversity exists for all groups and teams whether they are naturally diverse or not. In reality, unbalanced teams exist. What's important is that you as a leader are in touch with the team dynamic and take a deliberate approach to assigning work and creating teams. With conscious effort, balance can be achieved, and potential unlocked and channeled into results.

Categories: Small Business News