Ideas and inventions. Part I – is it viable?

I get many emails from people with ideas that they want help in funding or getting to market. I thought I would do a couple of blogs about what you need to consider, dealing with the more common issues first.

Is the idea or invention viable?

So you have a great idea or invention to launch to the world. You are sure it will actually work and you may even have made a prototype. However useful the idea is, you must check it is viable – this means that:

  1. a significant number of people would pay for it
  2. what they are happy to pay is more than it costs to make and deliver AND
  3. there is also enough money to cover the setup costs

There is some fairly simple maths in steps 1 to 3 which I won’t cover here. The principles of 1 and 2 are more significant than the sums.

What problem are you solving?

To be successful your idea must solve a real problem for your customer. Somehow they manage to go through life without your idea – you need to know how they manage now, and be sure they would consider your idea to be a better alternative. It has to be good enough for them to abandon their current arrangements (however imperfect they are).

It is much harder to sell something that is ‘nice to have’ than a real solution. Write down “the problem I am solving is …..”

What is the solution worth?

The world is full of items that are a little better than the last. Your idea must be so much better that people will part with money for it now. Instead of asking “do you agree my idea is better”, ask “is my idea worth throwing away your old one and buying mine now?”

Summary

So, the first part of assessing ideas is to ask yourself 2 questions and be honest with yourself about the answers:

  1. What significant problem do I solve?
  2. Is my solution so much better that people will pay for it?

All the steps of assessing your business idea are in the online course “Up and Running“. Contact me to be one of the first to use the new course material.

Making use of the Festive Break

This is the time of year when you are likely to receive two phases of emails, tweets and blog postings. Phase one (roundabout now) provides a handy list of the business tasks you can do whilst relatively undisturbed or less hectic with meetings. Phase two happens throughout January, and it includes 101 benefits and uses of setting goals and targets for the forthcoming year.

I would like to suggest an alternative to lining up these recommendations, lists and tasks – PAUSE AND LOOK AROUND YOU.

But I love my business

Most of us who run a business do. We have all heard some people in business saying “it’s not really a job, I would do it anyway”, and that may apply to you.

My invitation is to be really honest with yourself and become very aware of the things that you would love to do if your business disappeared for a month without any harm. If you need a help starting your awareness, try exploring the headings of leisure, sport, health, family, friends, your community.

What do I do?

Carry a notebook and pen (electronic stuff tends to have close work links so can be distracting), and as you spend more time thinking about non-business life, jot down the new things that you start to notice. Maybe “call old frinds2, “take a walk”, “read a book”, “try a new recipe”. You will gradually rediscover the activities you used to enjoy when you spent less time on the business.

Even better, instead of writing notes just get up and enjoy the reading, chatting, running or tasting.

What if I have a good business idea?

Well, make a note of it but resist the temptation to dash to the computer and act further. The idea will not get lost – just dealt with after your break.

What will the result be?

Strangely enough, this may take you back to the times of a junior employee – when a day off was a day off, a holiday was just that.

You may not start 2012 with goals or marketing plans, but you may just rediscover the reasons you do what you do and remind yourself what success actually means. That is worth quite a lot.


Whatever your faith or traditions, enjoy the festive break!

Dealing with failure

The word ‘failure’ can be very emotive, and in a business context can be quite debilitating. I was recently asked to do a short workshop of about 45 minutes on the subject of failure and thought that I would share it with you.

Aims of the ‘failure’ workshop

  • to explore what the word means to you
  • to discover your current strategy for failing
  • to leave with a modified strategy that may be more effective

The workshop runs in two sections – the ‘process’ part and the emotional / human part.

Take a minute and to yourself what the subject of failure triggers in your mind, and what failure means to you. Is it ever useful? Is it emotional? Is it alien as a concept? Our group came up with a board full of words, almost all related to emotion rather than pure fact or logic. The factual words we got were ‘outcome’ and ‘goals’.

Perhaps if we had to come up with an emotion-free definition of failure it may be:

‘something that results in an outcome that you did not want, and / or does not result in the outcome that you wanted.’

Setting good outcomes or goals

We discussed a number of formulae for setting good outcomes or goals and, without exploring each one in detail, wondered if we could emphasise two components and also add two more steps to most of the models.

It’s worth emphasising:

  • evidence – make sure that you know what success will look like to avoid a false perception of lack of success
  • control – be very aware of what you have control over before setting a definite goal. If there is something significant that you cannot control, it is unrealistic to expect success all of the time.

What we could add:

  • acceptable tolerances – they exist in engineering, so why do other business settings get encouraged to pin everything down to a specific value rather than an acceptable range?
  • potential side-effects or by-products. Often if an outcome is not achieved there is consolation in the form of lessons learned or other benefits. Why not consider there in advance so that their existence is seen more as  as benefit than spin for something going wrong?

The overall recommendation is to avoid being so specific in your original aims that success or failure balances on a knife edge. This reduces underlying stress and the burst of disappointment, which dissipates as the events fit into perspective.

Reflecting on how we would approach something which could go wrong, we noticed what a more flexible and realistic approach to setting goals could be like.

This ended the ‘process’ part of the workshop.

Emotional reaction to failure

We started the part of the workshop that deals with individual reactions by considering how we would coach a colleague or client through a setback or failure. With that in mind, we contrasted it with the way that we reflect on our own setbacks, and in general found that we offered others more understanding and tolerance than ourselves – even though we were not being insincere or condescending to them.

One of the most common emotions expressed was fear about what might happen, and we will probably follow-up with a workshop on this, because fear of the new or unknown can definitely rectrict business growth and personal development.

For now, the lesson was to treat ourselves at least as well as we do our colleagues to get a more useful reaction to setbacks.

The new strategy

Having gained an appreciation of some practical elements of our processes and some more helpful insights into our own reactions it was time to consider an amended way of approaching important tasks. The steps we considered follow – you can of course expand and fill in stages that you personally find useful:

  • set appropriate goals that you have control over and which make it clear what will have been achieved
    • add acceptable tolerances to some of the figures
    • add a ‘bail-out’ condition, i.e. if things are not working, when is it wise and acceptable to stop
    • be aware of any useful side-effects (including learning and improving) that add to the overall value of the experience
  • monitor your progress
  • review both planned and unplanned benefits and setbacks
  • reconsider your tolerances in the light of your experience – you can probably tighten them a little for next time

Summary

The concept of failure is such a personal that I can’t give a definitive guide in a manageable blog post or even a group workshop. However, here are some of the key points that people found useful:

  • with practise you can replace the word ‘failure’ with more useful ones or focus only on the learning points. This can be useful as long as you appreciate that for many people failure is a real word that triggers real emotions which need to be considered. The well-worn phrase ‘there is no failure, only feedback’ is valid only if it is sincere and acknowledges personal disappointment or frustrations
  • there is a scale between ‘success’ and ‘failure’, with many useful outcomes in between
  • setting useful goals is vital – both to know when you have achieved something and to be aware of what lies along the scale towards total success. Goals can include tolerances, acceptable lessons and the odd surprise
  • the concept of tolerance is not a cop-out. Sometimes second and third place are OK when they lead to first
  • business involves people and people have emotions. It takes skill and practice to work with both emotion and logic, and it is key to recognise which one is influencing the decision process at any one time

So, enjoy tweaking the way that you go about things in order to recognise how far towards the success line your actions are. Failure will still exist, but it may be a place that you are aware of rather than frightened of, and one which you rarely visit.

Succeeding in demonstrations and events

A couple of times I have recently got involved in helping people make the most of their opportunities at events or exhibitions, and someone suggested that I put up a few hints for anyone planning to do a demonstration or have a stand. The notes below are just a short taster of the thought process that can really give you results.

How do I choose the right exhibition to attend?

It can be so tempting and flattering when you are invited to attend or exhibit at a show – with privilege tickets, a guaranteed audience, early discount or other carrot. So always do a bit of research to find out and decide:

  • who typically attends
  • what competition will be there
  • do people visit the event to sell or buy
  • what do you expect your time and money to get you?

What resources do I need?

To some extent, that depends on the answer above – what your aim is. Do you want people to take a sample, book an appointment, experience your product or style of presentation?

If you want people to stop to talk with you then make sure that you have some refreshments ready and space where you can talk undisturbed. All too often people are geared up to give away leaflets and samples but have not planned to help anyone who is really interested. Always have a diary and plenty of business cards, but avoid thinking that success means how many cards you have given out.

Who should be on a stand?

If you are just attending an event, then people on the stand need not necessarily be the subject experts, but they should know what your business or organisation does and does not do. As a minimum they should be able to:

  • make a visitor at ease
  • enquire what the visitor wants and be able to understand their answer
  • explain what your organisation does WITH RESPECT TO the visitor’s needs
  • be able to get them time with the ‘expert’ e.g. book a time for them to chat now or later
  • be able to take detail and make an appointment for a follow-up discussion
  • know when to stop talking and let the visitor think!

Be very aware of the keen helper, who loves what you do but cannot explain it in simple terms or relate it to a visitor’s needs. Equally, a keen helper who is not an expert can provide a good welcome and act as a very good triage system to make you as effective as you can be.

What should I give away?

Basically, something that will remind people of you and which they will not take purely for the sake of it. For example, sweets and pens disappear rapidly but have little benefit to you. Ensure that anything you give out is asked for rather than thrust into people’s hands, and it must contain your contact details and ideally a hint of what you do.

What about doing a demonstration?

In crude terms, do a demo or presentation either when people would not understand what you do from a description, or if they need to see you do it in order to spot the difference from your competition. So a presentation should fit the audience needs, not be a sales pitch. And a free taster session should educate the recipient about you, not just give them something for nothing.

A golden rule is that when you want to demonstrate your skills and not all of the audience can interact, you must have helpers on hand to give people some sort of commentary. Very often an expert can be doing great things and getting a lot of interest, but their helpers cannot capitalise on it by highlighting some of the special bits that they have done to the visitor standing next to them.

Keep your demonstration relatively short (it is not a free training session after all), so that people who found it engaging can speak to you within a very short time and take it forwards. If your slot is too long, they may hang on until you stop but then dash to look at the rest of the show.

Summary

  • know what you want to achieve
  • aim to provide a useful and memorable experience, not a sale to every visitor
  • give away things for a reason
  • have enough help on hand
  • ensure your help is fully briefed
  • even if your aims are low key, be prepared for a flood of enquiries
  • make sure that ‘experts’ are regularly on hand to deal with the post-demo interest
  • make the demo useful, and leave them wanting more!

I hope that you have found a few pointers, and remember that each bullet point is a subject in itself. Have fun!

Opening of Camping Pods at Two Hoots campsite

Today I had one of the occasions which anyone in the coaching world loves – an invitation to the opening of a new business, them launching a new product or a new product or service.

This time the invite came form Caz and Dave, who run the Two Hoots campsite near Alresford in Hampshire. They were opening their new camping pods, washing block and kitchen area.

Having had the vision when they acquired the campsite, they have been working on the plans for well over a year. I helped them with their business planning and finances, which benefited hugely from the support of a LEADER grant from the Fieldfare area. All credit to the Fieldfare team, especially Ken Brown and Eloise Appleby for their support in making this happen.

What now? Well, with bookings ahead of the budget and superb facilities, Caz and Dave will be working on the presence of Two Hoots campsite in a many places as possible, and of course making sure that their visitors get the best experience from their stay. I wish them the very best in building on their success so far.


Find the site at www.twohootscampsite.co.uk.

What is happening to Business Link?

During the run of spending cuts there is some confusion about the plans for Business Link, the government-funded chain of support agencies in England. I have quoted a couple of bits of information from the Zen Internet newsletter and one of the employees of Business Link Hampshire and Isle of Wight below.

For the time being do try Business Link first – they have a lot of information resources to use. Then, when you want a bit more hands-on involvement or a very personal focus, do contact me!

from Zen internet newsletter:

CUTS TO HIT BUSINESS LINK

The Government says that Business Link is to be scrapped and replaced by a new Web site and a call centre in April next year. Ministers think the cost of the Business Link network of offices, established in 1992, is too high and claim the advice they give is aimed at “lifestyle businesses that have no aspiration to grow”. The announcement follows research claiming that the current Business Link site has been costing taxpayers over £1m per month to maintain and operate.

http://short.zen.co.uk/?id=fae

http://www.businesslink.gov.uk

http://short.zen.co.uk/?id=faf

From Business Link Hampshire and Isle of Wight (information from the new Business Advisors Manager, Amber Kelly.

Contrary to popular belief, they are still here, and have a new service which they are launching in November. Please find some helpful info about their new service.

    • There are 10 advisors for Hampshire, 1 for IOW
    • Emma Clark is the lead advisor and Amber has expressed that for the moment, everything should go through Emma to be disseminated out from there to the relevant advisor.
    • Emma’s patch is Winchester and Eastleigh.
    • Business Link South East have downsized from over 300 people to just 95.
    • Advisors make up 50 of that 95.
    • The contact centre in Burgess Hill still exists and has 12 inbound advisors, 3 outbound, and 3 online advisors
    • The new service is split into 3 plus a financial intermediary role for Richard Holmes. He will mediate any disputes between businesses and banks, insurers, etc. He will also report to BIS on credit demand etc. I have asked if we can see this information regularly.

 

  • The 3 main “products” will be, Start Up, High Growth, and everything else.
  • The Start Up programme is being finalised, but will be managed by Steve Cunnell.
  • We will get this information as soon as it is available, however it is likely to be in the form of the previously successful Start Up Workshops, where people with a business idea can attend 3 intensive workshops to develop their idea into a workable business plan, ready to start to trade.
  • The High Growth programme is called the “growth accelerator” programme. Advisors work with businesses where there is at least one of the following:  the commitment to grow, 5+ employees and with an expected or planned for growth rate of 5% turnover, profit or resources.
  • Businesses that fall into this category will receive upto 2 days support from a BL advisor.
  • They have tried to leave this category as loose as possible to enable as many businesses as possible to be seen.
  • This is the feeder programme for Innovation & Growth teams, should these businesses go on to achieve the predicted growth.
  • Everybody else will get the call centre advisors and online advisors, but there will be no one to ones for this group.
  • A Hampshire launch event for the new service is planned for Dec 10th with a venue tbc

Enterprise workshops with University students

Last week I had a great day as an ‘expert’, helping with a two-day student course on enterprise in an event called the Dynamo Challenge 2010. It followed the fairly popular format of setting teams a task to develop a business plan for an idea, then having them present the idea to a panel for feedback and marks. So what was that formula that made this one good?

The ‘Dragon’s Den’ experts

The organisers invited a team of about thirty experts, who cam from a broad range of backgrounds. They included accountants from some large firms, business coaches and consultants, marketing consultants and business owners in fields as varied as product design and logistics. Although we only attended the day, we were well briefed on our roles and very much welcomed into the delivery process. For me, it was so good that with minimal time to get to know each other, the experts were able to work well together to coach the students – the last thing they would have wanted was a bunch of smug or very directive ‘experts’ sounding off about what was right, or points-scoring between each other!

The Graduate Enterprise workshop format

The organisers did a good job selecting a venue ( the Marwell Hotel near Winchester) that had good parking, plenty of breakout rooms and an un-stuffy atmosphere. Here are some of the things that I think really contributed to the success:

  • an icebreaker for the undergraduates to meet the experts, who acted as customers in a free-for-all sales hall
  • keeping the energy very high and the activity times short
  • bringing in enough jargon to represent the real world, but making the emphasis practical more than academic
  • keep the spirit of experiential learning – do, reflect, learn, plan. See David Kolb’s learning cycle, (http://www.ldu.leeds.ac.uk/ldu/sddu_multimedia/kolb/static_version.php et al)
  • having meaningful rewards for the winners
  • including ‘meetings’ with the experts as well as information presentations. This again reflected real life, where a business has to find a business advisor and decide what to take on board

Business Startup Courses for the future

So, what do I take away from the event?

Having both lectured on an enterprise course and delivered business coaching for a number of years, I feel that a practical approach is invaluable in preparing for a thriving business. Because there are few right and wrong answers, success is more likely to come from someone who learns from experience and puts their own mark on a process. There is a strong argument that attitude and approach make an entrepreneur, and it is the business theory and academic side that builds on what the entrepreneur starts.

It reminded me how dry some business startup courses aimed at ‘adults’ can be, and is something I will bear in mind to make sure that the Simply Work for Yourself experiences I will run next year alongside the online course will be upbeat, fun, challenging and memorable.