Be careful who you go into business with


Setting up a new business venture can be one of the most exciting things anyone can do. Very often two or three individuals with an idea will pool their financial and mental resources to get an enterprise off the ground. At that point, everyone is in it together and the energy created is extremely motivating for all concerned. These strong personal alliances geared to getting started in the early days can appear trouble free – discussions with solicitors and other professional advisers are viewed as an unnecessary bureaucracy. My advice is, be clear from the outset what happens if the wheels start to come off the wagon and disagreement ensues.

For as many partnerships I have seen work wonderfully, I have seen an equal amount go sour several years down the line. People live their lives in chapters and all too often individuals who started their company together with a common aim very often end up with opposing views on direction of travel. The attitude towards risk, differing views on markets and products, misaligned values and ambitions along with conflicting approaches to putting in a long shift can very quickly destabilise a business, one that often has massive potential. I have seen this all too many times, the only winners are the legal and financial profession – the ones who should have been consulted at the start not when things are going wrong.

50:50 shareholdings can be a particular recipe for disaster, so my advice to anyone setting up as equal partners is, set clear ground rules from the outset, this means:

  • Have clear shareholder agreements in place
  • Set a clear and common vision for the business
  • Define precisely who is going to do what
  • Be clear on what is important personally, financially, emotionally and commercially
  • Have grown up conversations when one or the other is particularly unhappy about an issue
  • Have an open relationship that means no dancing around handbags when something starts to get on your nerves (e.g. “I am doing all the work and my partner is sitting back and taking as much as me out of the business” – a classic!!)
  • Have regular out of office discussions about how each other feel
  • Don’t let bad feelings fester, get them into the open fast

Partnerships set up the right way can be a massive positive for growth when approached maturely, they can spread the load when things are not going to plan, two minds are better than one and the lonely feeling is not quite as bad. However, very often things change, so prepare and look over the horizon. These challenges can be even more profound if you are going into business with a friend. Get it right from day one and listen to your gut feel about whom you are going into business with.

Work life balance – does it exist?


For many years the issue of work life balance has occupied the interest and curiosity of HR professionals and academics. I have personally struggled with the concept. Having spent the past 20 years in the entrepreneur’s world I am not sure it means a lot to the individuals I meet on a day-to-day basis. The two go hand in hand and are the same.

I have been reflecting on the philosophy of work life balance over the past few days, the reason being I have just returned from two weeks holiday in the sun. Did I have a good time? – Yes, it was brilliant, and did I keep in contact with colleagues and answer emails? – Yes. As well as keeping on top of the inbox, I spent time writing and thinking of new ideas to implement on my return. My phone would have had to be surgically removed from my body as I answered most calls and emails at the end of each day. Was I doing this because I don’t trust colleagues and team? Absolutely not, very much the opposite. It’s because my work is my life and my life is my work – its a hobby, pastime and hard-wired into my mindset. Does this mean I have no work life balance?

I actually don’t think I am alone in this way of thinking. Can anyone who runs their own business truly switch off when they go on holiday or at weekends; those who do are a very rare breed. For the majority of individuals who have set up and grown their own business, work and life are joined at the hip, they cannot be separated. I have seen lots of entrepreneurs who have sold their business (particularly the ones who have not planned life after) go stir crazy within weeks of walking away, even with a big wedge in their back pocket. Take away the work and there is no life! Work life imbalance and panic quickly take root.

So the question is, does work life balance apply within the entrepreneurial world? Separating the two is a dangerous thing to try to do. Complacency usually results from switching off for too long.

The Mindset Staircase – understanding how high growth entrepreneurs think


So much of the work to date on high growth companies has focused on what I would refer to as the hard issues of business – strategy, management, incubation, raising finance, selling. It has also extended into regional economics, proximity to universities, sectors and clusters. This all features as valuable contribution to the debate, but high growth companies are started by human beings, individuals on a mission to win and do something pretty special. Often high growth is planned and sometimes it just happens, being in the right place at the right time. My experience has been the businesses that grow rapidly and create value are founded by individuals with “a special mindset and personal mission”. In 2010, my second book Success Factor was published, it brought together observational research around what I think the ingredients of the entrepreneurs winning mindset looks like. Now we are extending the research and working with the Centre for Enterprise at MMU, looking at more fundamental issues such as:

How does a high growth entrepreneur think?

Why do they go one step further than those who remain more modest in their ambition?

Why do they keep going when the odds are stacked against them?

Why do they keep going when others give up?

Why do they take risks others wont and very often risk their kids inheritance?

Research shows that the majority of UK business stock stays small, the economy needs more mid-sized businesses in order to create the jobs needed. My opinion is we must under stand the DNA of the mindset of successful high growth entrepreneurs in more detail. If we can model how they behave then we can teach it. It’s the missing piece of the business support agenda! Attached to this blog is the growth staircase, it shows the transition points of growth. My mission is to understand how the mindset of an entrepreneur affects the successful breaking of the inevitable glass ceilings the journey presents.

Growth Companies – Ability to climb the staircase    staircase diagram

Working with those individuals who have the right mindset will undoubtedly increase the odds of creating winning businesses.

Sales Skills for Growth


A re occurring theme and one I regularly blog about – high growth means being great at selling!

For many of the businesses I have worked with, recruiting and retaining high performing sales talent seems to be a constant challenge. I can recite many horror stories of businesses who have fell foul of the smooth talking sales person who in the job interview appeared to be a gift from heaven but rapidly turned into a missile of destruction – leaving a trail of bad feelings with customers, staff and other stakeholders. The resultant effect being senior management spending six months after their departure repairing the damage and groveling to customers in order to get the brand out of intensive care.

In the UK sales remains to be a taboo word that many professionals like to dissociate from, you would be amazed how many entrepreneurs I work with still feel uncomfortable with selling. It is a real problem and the truth is business growth means, “selling loads more stuff”. The fear of picking up the phone and the pedestrian approach to getting out and about, wearing down the shoe leather is a common inhibitor to accelerated performance.  The high growth businesses and successful start-ups I have come across have one common denominator (apart from a great product/idea) – they have a well-tuned sales engine and sales centric culture totally aligned to making the customer jump for joy. Winning businesses of the future will be the ones who can sell or at least have someone in the team who excels at selling. Whilst business strategy and all those other topics our fantastic management schools teach are important – personal and business growth happens only when a sales mindset is embraced.

In line with my observations on the paucity of sales skills and the urgent need for employers to access high performing talent, I will be launching a Sales Academy in autumn – an accredited sales qualification and a raft of related practical personal and organizational development tools will underpin the Academy. This new entity will bring to life the fact that great sales skills drive growth. It will become the incubator for the next generation of stars employers want on their payroll. It will also help those ambitious entrepreneurs to fine tune how they go about winning more new business.

Whilst traditional sales skills have their place, we also need a new breed of sales person, those who exhibit entrepreneurial flair and “sell from within”, they don’t hide behind the enablers of emails or social media. The enlightened sales person will: live in the customers world, have a great understanding of their employers strategy vision and values, articulate value with clarity, will recognize the mental imprint they leave with customers, exhibit passion & energy, be able to have a grown up conversation, walk away if its not right, exhibit creativity & innovation, build confidence and trust, demonstrate personal momentum, have a positive mental attitude, make doing business fun, cultivate their personal branding, recognize relationships are about win –win, caring, this list goes on.

It was great to meet with Jurek Sikorski this morning at London University Business School (LUBS), a successful life sciences entrepreneur who preaches all of the above and who’s mantra is successful business is down to selling, a statement of the obvious, however, the obvious is often very deceptive.  As a passionate ambassador for “sales”, it was a breath of fresh to hear that selling skills are embedded and taught within the LUBS entrepreneurship courses. It’s not dressed up as customer relationship management, business development, customer service or key account management – it’s about selling!

Jurek’s newly formed Sales Club at LUBS and the first Sales Academy in Manchester will have a lot to talk about going forward.

Searching out high growth companies – Part 2


SMEs will lie at the heart of economic recovery for the next decade, that’s why there is so much focus being placed on flushing them out and supporting them. This blog and the previous one focused on looking at the factors that can help us predict whether a business has the potential to grow. In my last blog I discussed the importance of looking for:

1.Leaders knowing what they are good and bad at – building on the former and addressing the latter

2.Business which are driven by purpose and making a difference in my view ones that enjoy a better chance of achieving and sustaining success

3.Well thought through decision-making based on expert inputs often deliver a better result than those based on impulse – think (but not for too long that you have missed the opportunity)

4.Personal clarity aligned to business vision delivers energy – is there momentum in the business or does a pedestrian culture prevail

5.A strong team bound together with a common vision, values, positive culture and conditions to allow personal growth is critical.

This weeks growth predictors include:

6. Entrepreneurs who build strategy through trial and error create momentum, just thinking about what you want is not enough. Successful businesses have a clear picture of where they want to get to then follow through with action. Strategy evolves out of a process of iteration. A just have a go mentality (controlled) delivers results

7. A business with an “edge” stands out from the crowd. This edge could be their brand, product differentiation, partnerships, attention to detail – businesses that are memorable get their rewards. A culture of innovation and creativity are drivers of the “edge”.

8. A proactive sales culture focused on delivering customer service (and walking away when there is no opportunity) is often indicative of growth potential. Delivering to the needs of the customers world builds a strong reputation and brand.

9. A tight grip on the business is achieved when there are effective measures and controls in place. Businesses which have an eye on the detail are the epitome of success. They recognise and invest in putting the checks and balances in place – typically around sales pipeline, short/medium/long-term finances, customer service, IT, production…..They know their KPI’s and surprises/shocks are less frequent because they are predicted. A bit like the fuel gauge on your car, a yellow lights tells you, its time to fill up. It gives you time to sort things out.

10. They invest in trusted advice and bring in experts to address issues the team/board are not capable of handling. Trusted advice comes in many shapes and forms, however my experience is, those entrepreneurs who appoint Non Executive Directors or have mentors benefit massively from their wisdom. They impart advice from experience and wisdom. They enable more effective decisions to be made.

Well there are far more than 10 ingredients, however businesses that do the above are well on track to getting what they deserve. In a single sentence great business have great leadership.

Are your staff on the bus?


What is stopping many companies from growing? Many say its finance others say its regulation. My view is that many entrepreneurs find hiring the right staff just short of a nightmare. This is a serious challenge, one that presents a serious problem for ambitious growth hungry companies. As Jim Collins says if you have the right people on the bus then you can take it anywhere. My experience tells me that so many get it wrong, staff turnover becomes a bit of a revolving door. Once bitten, twice shy…not going there again, I make more money with fewer people, are common sentiments. Here lies the growth challenge, creating a great culture where staff want to come to work and bring both head and heart.

My colleague sent me an email today titled what amazing staff do? I have reproduced it (I take no credit, not sure its source) because its great…..As leaders if we could all produce a culture which creates an energetic and innovative atmosphere then we would all be winners!

So what do great staff do?

1. Enthusiastically Learn All Aspects of Business

They understand they’re part of something bigger and more worthwhile than just their job. They look to learn other areas of the business and be fluent in finance and management so they’ll positively impact multiple areas of the company.

2. Steward the Company

They treat the company as if it were theirs. They look to make prudent decisions about expenses and opportunities with the long-term future of the company in mind. They easily assess risk vs. reward, selflessly when making decisions.

3. Generate Viable Opportunities

You don’t have to be in sales or marketing to help a company grow. Strong networkers from all divisions see company growth as a collective effort and constantly keep their eyes open for ways to more than pay for themselves.

4. Resolve Issues Before They Are Issues

My favorite days running companies are when I notice positive change in procedure when I was totally unaware of the need for change. Amazing employees are always looking to improve systems proactively, and they do.

5. Tell It Like It Is

Amazing employees understand that hiding bad news helps no one. They find kind ways to bring uncomfortable information to the surface, but they DO bring it to the surface. They tell people what’s necessary before major damage is done.

6. Demonstrate High Standards, With Low Maintenance

I always feel relaxed when I can trust an employee to perform a task to the same high standards I would expect from myself. Not all can do this without constant attention or difficulty. Amazing employees quietly drive their own high standards.

7. Grow Themselves, and Others

They not only drive their own career but they inspire others to do the same. These employees lead by example in how to advance without creating animosity or resentment. They see and create their perfect future, and also bring others along.

8. Research, Apply, and Refine

No employer expects people to know everything. In this fast changing world, I choose employees who will learn over those who know. The best employee proactively explores options, takes action and then improves without direction from the top.

9. Stimulate Happiness

Amazing employees aren’t always sunshine and roses. They do know how to keep it real. But they understand the dynamics of people, stress, and the blend of work, life and friendship. They are self-aware and able to direct their own path that brings out their best with family, friends and career. They exude positive energy even in stressful times and share it around, making for a happier office.

10. Facilitate Amazing Bosses

Amazing employees make me grow as an employer. They self-confidently get their value and help me get mine. They make me want to be worthy of working with somebody of such high calibre, without ever saying it directly of course.

Fantastic, something I will be reflecting on and hopefully not beating myself up!

5 Rules of Selling for Growth Companies


Any business owner will tell you that the ability to sell lies at the heart of success, however the term frightens the life out of many, as it conjures images of unethical smooth talking individuals manipulating others so as to get their own way. This is not the case; great selling is grounded in ethical behaviour coupled with a mindset of offering real value through a passionate belief in the proposition offered. Over the years the shelves have become crowded with books teaching the art of sales and more specifically, how to close a deal or overcome objections. However, selling is not about imposing a product or service on someone at any cost; this fairly old-fashioned view provides a strong basis for failure and mistrust, which can damage your company reputation. Here are my rules to ensure sales success:

Rule 1 – Your business must be in good shape

Selling is inextricably linked to all of the other functions and processes that help to build a great business. You could be the best sales person in the world, but if you can’t produce or deliver on time, then orders will quickly dry up. Ensure all of your team understand how your internal processes are linked, and how they impact on order fulfillment. That way they will realize how they fit into the overall sales process, even if their role doesn’t sit within that function

Rule 2 – Know what makes you different

Everyone wants to stand out, whatever market you’re in. However, it is important that everyone within your team understands what your unique selling points (USP) are, as opinions can vary. When talking to customers, or simply having conversations with suppliers, partners, or other members of the team, your USP should remain at the back of everyone’s mind to ensure you’re always positioned as you want to be. With this in mind it’s also crucial that your whole team keep an eye on competitors and the market place so your USP remains competitive. For example, if another company launches a product just like yours, your sales team will need to understand why yours is better, and explain this clearly to your customers.

Rule 3 – Behave like a customer

Ensure your sales team truly understands the value of aligning products and services to customer needs. If there is an opportunity for them to spend time in a customer’s world, then they should take it. The art of empathizing with a customer allows you to explore options and suggest the most appropriate solution, not just the one you want to provide. By really getting under the skin of your target audience, your sales team will be able to highlight what your products or services can do for the customer and tailor their approach, rather than listing a series of features which may not be relevant or interesting to the person buying. Remember the importance of service/product impact and be able to  evidence it – be specific!

Rule 4 – Never stop innovating

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious link between sales and innovation, but in fact every sales person should be innovative in their approach. As your business grows and evolves, your sales team will need to think of new ways of doing things. Those businesses, which are growing the fastest, aren’t just those who invest in product innovation- they focus on keeping everything fresh, including the way they sell. If your sales team make customers feel excited by what you have to offer then you are already half way there

Rule 5 – Be energetic and passionate

Sales people generally have to be focused and mentally resilient to deal with a sale falling through, or targets potentially not being met. They don’t just turn up for meetings, they prepare mentally and professionally and are never complacent. If you are just beginning to build a sales team, you should look for passion and energy as much as you should product knowledge, as this positive approach will prove invaluable to nurturing client relationships and getting the best results. Likewise, you must show how passionate you are about helping them succeed, as motivation and drive are key.

Wake up – You can’t do it on your own


Successful business people recognise they can’t grow a business on their own – they have a high degree of self-awareness as to what they can and can’t do.  Founders who build value in their company surround themselves with individuals who plug the capability gap. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses – high growth entrepreneurs have laser guided focus on applying their skills to where they add greatest value. Deviating from our core strengths or taking on tasks we are not skilled to fulfill will inevitably result in inertia and chaos.

Very often entrepreneurs try to go it alone, ego and poor personal insight being main contributors to getting it wrong. The resultant effect is a feeling of being swamped, bad decision making, poor (no) team ethos. The hamster wheel effect kicks in ending in “I feel as though I am caught in a rut”. This overwhelming sense of not being able to cope produces stressful working conditions and loss of competitive advantage. Winning people avoid these situations by identifying others who can help. Don’t be afraid to ask for support, shouting for help is not a sign of weakness, don’t let pride stand in the way of getting things done. Great entrepreneurs build highly effective teams.

Your team is there to support, assist and guide in achieving the mission .  The majority of successful business founders will openly state that without the inputs of those around them the vision would never have been realised. By nurturing a talented team workloads become lighter, more gets done and the pressures become less intense. By letting go we get so much more done.

Be open and honest about your knowledge and skills gap, do away with personal pride and be sure to embrace the value of trusted colleagues. Delegation of tasks to those we know will do it better is a liberating feeling. If you are looking for an exit then you have to make yourself redundant – you can only achieve this by having a great team!

Creating the conditions for high growth


So what are the secret ingredients of high growth and gazelle performance? The reality is, there is no one formula that we can use to flick the switch for superior performance. My experience is that a blend of commercial, human and financial factors all feature in the jigsaw. The GrowthAccelerator programme that Winning Pitch is delighted to be a core deliverer of continues to help build insight into the gazelle makeup and our work with Manchester Metropolitan University will enhance our understanding of the entrepreneurial mindset.

In my experience one of the dominant features of fast-moving organisations is the positive, innovative and forward thinking cultures leaders build. Great leaders create an atmosphere and conditions that allow people and creativity to flourish, this builds momentum and releases an invisible force making almost anything possible.

Economic growth and revival of the job market will be very much dependant on increasing the number of visionary leaders who generate an ambience of enthusiasm and ambition – a culture of winning and success.

My own experience of those leaders who create such vibrant cultures is that they:

1. Are passionate almost obsessive about their business – they love what they do and this rubs of on staff and colleagues

2.Have clarity on what they want to achieve, this clarity delivers purpose and intention – more importantly it drives action (where there is no vision the people perish)

3.Constantly communicate aspiration and direction of travel.

4. Encourage openness and new ideas allowing everyone to feel part of the journey

5.Align individuals passions with the strategy of the business – the right people sat in the right seats

6.Value and recognise individuals hard work, effort, attainment and commitment

7.Recognise that work should be a fun place to be and given that we spend half of our lives on the job –  everyone has the right to have a laugh

8.Create reward structures which address individual needs

9.Build a learning environment and a framework for personal development and growth

10.Eradicate negativity through self policed company values that everyone buys into

Blending the above with a great proposition, well-managed finances/ processes and a customer centric approach help to build foundations for  growth and long term value. More importantly it goes along way to producing a company where everyone wants to get out of bed and go to work. If you feel like screaming when the alarm goes off – whether leader or not its time to go and do something different.

Old school sales training – should be banned


Selling from within is the philosphy outstanding sales people have mastered. As one person said to me the other week “I sell best when I don’t realise I am selling – the engagement comes from the belief in the products I sell!”. This is the view point of many high growth entrepreneurs I have worked with over the years. They communicate with clear value, consistently bring new thinking to the table and always think win-win.

So why is the market still flooded with old school training methodologies that use gimmicks and trickery to get someone to buy something when they don’t want it? Great selling often involves walking away if the deal is not right, you leave your reputation intact and the door open for another day. I came across a list of 63 closing techniques the other day the most bizarre being the puppy dog close. Is this for real? Do people actually teach this nonsense.

Closing starts the minute you open your mouth – no magic wand or closing technique does the job if you have been winging your way through a sales call. My advice is stay clear of old school training methodologies that promote this stuff because you are wasting your money. Effective sales people keep one foot in the customers world and one foot in the company till. An imbalance in this mindset does not deliver the required win-win.

Great sales people have conditioned themselves to truly believing they bring added value  with their propositions, they don’t blag it, they provide solutions and alternatives. If you are an entrepreneur looking for the right sales person check their integrity, track record and ask them to evidence how they have been honest and trustworthy in the past. Are they passionate about what you have to offer? Will they fit your culture? Have they got the right attitude? Do they understand your market, products and services?

If you have a sales force and they are not performing please don’t immediately send them on a sales training course, think it through, many such programmes are nothing more than a sticking plaster, more often than not they fail to provide a ROI  – the problems maybe more fundamental.

The best sales people love their products and services, they solve problems and they are keen to please – they avoid at all costs working through a checklist of objection handling techniques or weird closing methodologies.

Sell from within – it brings a quantum leap in new and repeat revenue.