Self-improvement, 2012, and New Year’s Resolutions

Welcome to 2012! Obviously, for those of you who check here regularly, it’s been a while. A certain business simulation class (with some Mandarin homework thrown in for good measure) played a key role in keeping my time occupied for much of the last few months. However, I can say both came off quite well in the end.

While I don’t particularly put much weight in New Year’s resolutions, I have taken it upon myself to better refine my ability at balancing everything going on. Thus I am coming to you with my goals for the coming semester, as a means of holding myself accountable. And, of course, to better refine the information I offer here. One of my goals is to focus on book reviews here. Currently, with my priority being scraping together the cash to buy textbooks this semester, those book reviews will be limited, but we’ll see where it gets us.

Meanwhile, I am currently developing a “self-improvement” plan, designed to allow me to put on paper all of my thoughts concerning strategies to address what I’ve identified as weaknesses that hinder me from getting where I want to go. For this task, I am using a Mind Map. Many of you will probably be familiar with this tool. For me, it is simply a means of loosening up my “thinking-space” on paper, allowing me to brainstorm more freely. I am working on revising my sleeping habits (if I allow my old habits of this past semester to have their way, my sleeping schedule over break would run from 4:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.), incorporating physical activity back into my day, and attacking my propensity for procrastination and poor time management. Sleep is coming first, with the goal of midnight bedtime and 7:00 wake up. My efforts so far have been rewarded with somewhat sleepless nights.

Finally, I am working on some feasibility analysis reports for a professor. These will help me determine which idea I want to run with for next spring’s business plan competition. The candidates are in publishing and manufacturing. Which will take this year’s competition by storm? The mystery remains to be solved…

 

Content Marketing – Value Adding at it’s Best

The struggle as of late has been primarily between reading history and practicing Chinese versus posting more often here. Unfortunately, as of late, the history and Chinese (as fascinating as those subjects are) have been winning out. Well, that’s about to change…. Okay, no promises there. However, I am committed to not entirely abandoning you yet.

On that note, the first subscriber-only content will be coming out at the end of the month. Be looking for a three-to-five page report on the key essentials that you as an entrepreneur need to have in place to be successful. If you haven’t subscribed yet, now’s the time.

Today I want to briefly talk about content marketing. Content marketing is essentially the idea that contemporary consumers don’t just want someone to tell them about a product and then they’ll buy it; rather, they want to get to know the product or service themselves, so will seek to become informed on the subject. From buying a car to giving to charities, today’s customers want to know everything they can before investing their hard-earned money. What does that mean for us as business people? We need to be willing and able to put the information they are seeking out on the table where they can easily find it. Do you sell used musical instruments online? Than blog about some unique aspect of music, build a following, and use that as a basis for building your instrument business. But don’t only think of providing content for the sake of driving customers to your website or shop. Find creative ways to provide value, even if it doesn’t immediately benefit you. Treat your content as a product, in every way from a “loss leader” to an “up-sell“. I recently heard a quote from a successful internet entrepreneur (sorry, I’ve forgotten the name) who said that you should give 80% of your content away for free, and that will allow you to sell the last 20% very well. This guy is in high demand as a speaker and consultant and people pay thousands to get his advice. Craig Ballantyne, whom I have mentioned here before, provides so much free, excellent content on his blog that he has people constantly asking him to sell them some form of coaching. They are willing to pay anything to work one-on-one with him, because they trust that he is legit.

Providing content is a way to legitimize yourself, your expertise, and your business. It is a conversation with your customers, with the goal of better finding out what they want so you can successfully give it to them. Your business tip (and challenge!) of the week is to find one new way of creating content to better converse with your customers. If you don’t currently have customers than find a way to converse with someone who represents your dream customer.

The War on Terror vs. America the Beautiful

Date: September 11, 2011

Ten years ago Americans were forced to accept they were not as secure as they had previously thought.  Ever since then, the American mind set has been radically altered.  There is now a pervasive fear in our culture.  We have surrendered an ever increasing amount of freedoms to our government in exchange for security.  Today we live in a society where the government has a right to know everything; from where we travel, to what we pack; from what we own, to how our children are educated.  They have the right to watch our every activity, to listen to our every conversation, and to know everything we do.  In exchange, they supposedly protect us.  But is that protection even real?  The majority of terrorist threats are halted by the vigilance of civilians.  The threat of in-home criminal activity such as theft, arson, or physical harm against the inhabitants is much greater than any terrorist threat.  Yet the government can do little to prevent that.  Police units are spread too thin to deal with every in-home crime.  In fact, criminal laws do more to protect the criminal himself from the defensive action of the home- owner then the private property being threatened.  For example, if a potential thief is injured in any way on your property, he can press charges.  As Simon Black, of sovereignman.com, has pointed out, if any one individual or organization were to take any of the actions that the government uses to maintain control of society, that individual or organization would be considered criminal.  Yet the government is legally able to take those same actions.

On September 11, 2001, 2977 American citizens were killed.  Since that day, as of June 5, according to the Washington Post, 6026 U.S. soldiers having killed.  What have they died for?  Did they die to protect Americans?  It was too late for 2977 them.  Did they die to avenge those lives lost? How can it be of any consolation when twice as many men have died as citizens they were seeking to avenge? Did they die to safeguard the rest of America? Perhaps. There have not been any other successful attempts. Yet was the risk enough to be worth 6000 more lives? Did they die to offer the same freedoms we think we have to oppressed citizens of foreign lands? For all intents and purposes, it seems that goal has not been achieved. What have our soldiers died for?

Rather than seek to understand why we were attacked and properly deal with the real issue at hand, we retaliated. Because of that decision, mothers have wept both here and over there. Because of that decision, countless minds will replay time and again horrors we can’t even imagine. Were we wrong to launch this war? Was this decision a poor decision? Can we even realistically answer that?

Today is not a day of celebration, but of mourning. For what do we mourn? The lives lost? Shouldn’t we mourn more that, in all appearances, those lives were lost in vain? Is our world better because of their deaths? Is our nation better because of their deaths? Are the lives of their loved ones better because of their deaths? Beyond mourning, today should be a day of questions. Are the rewards we have received worth the price we have paid? Have the deaths of our soldiers and civilians defended our freedoms, or opened the door for the government to do more to steal them than any radical terrorist ever could? Have their deaths mattered? You have to answer that for yourself.

A Sobering Moment (or, “Customer Needs”)

As an entrepreneur and innovator, it’s very easy to get caught up in formulating great ideas and developing a powerful vision. So easy, in fact, that we, as business people, often forget the fundamentals of what we are supposed to be about. I currently find myself in a place where I have brought together several great ideas that I would like to pursue. But the reality is that there is a gap between what I would like to be doing and what I can actually offer to the market. In an attempt to bridge that gap, I have developed a strategy for building a portfolio to demonstrate my experience. However, I received a sobering email from a close friend today reminding me of the limitations I face. I am reminded that my portfolio-building strategy is based on expecting something from my market. I expect that a core group of my target market will accept that I can bring certain things to the table without my being able to demonstrate that ability. I am prepared to present certain things to the market without confirming that my market will actually have a use for what I am able to present.

What it comes down to is that I haven’t taken the time to get to know my customers. I have a vague idea of what needs they might have, but I haven’t really gotten to know everything I can about them. I began with a wrong presumption: I began with an idea and tried to fit customers to that. Rather, I need to begin with a set of customers and determine what exactly their needs are. From there, I can build a business that will meet those needs.

On that note, my customer avatar is a young entrepreneur, perhaps high school/university level, who has a great idea but isn’t sure how to get started with it. Perhaps he has an idea for a product but doesn’t know how to go about producing it. Maybe she has an idea that she has started taking action on, but doesn’t know how to structure a “business” around the key idea. He or she is creative and passionate about this idea. What are the needs of this young person? Can he or she find enough support in online forums, through free, easily accessible information, or from non-profit agencies? Or is there so much information available that this young person doesn’t know where to begin?  If you have been in that place (as a young entrepreneur) or know someone who is or has been, and have feedback on what those needs are, your advice or suggestions are welcome!

Journal Entry #4 – The Journey Home

August 23, 2011

After  a long, frustrating night through which I came to regret nearly every decision I’ve made over the last five days, the Lord decided to add a dash of beauty to a canvas previously awash in stress and irritation. Last night, upon arrival in Riga, Latvia after a four-hour bus ride, I found out during check-in that skipping one connecting flight to go directly to the next is, let’s say, frowned upon by airBaltic (my regional airline). Being in Klaipeda (on the coast) for a writing retreat, I had decided it would be easier to go directly to Riga and pick up my flight there rather than go back to Vilnius for the earlier leg of that flight. I saved $10 and stayed an extra half-day.

So now in Riga, I was told that, while connecting flights normally can’t be skipped, for some reason I was fine and would be able to continue on to Stockholm. So I waited the three and a half hours for my flight, then prepared to board. When I handed over my boarding pass, the girl at the gate informed me that since I hadn’t used the connecting flight, I wouldn’t be able to fly. Of course, there were no other flights going to Stockholm (or any other means of getting there) that night. With the help of family back home, and a few hours and a several hundred euros later, things worked out, but not before hours of thinking, “Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?”

In one of my favorite songs from the old youth group days, there is a line that goes, “Though my sorrow may last for the night, His joy comes with the morning.” Taken from the Psalms, it came home to heart this morning as we touched down in Stockholm, , gliding through rays of light as the rising sun spilled across Sweden’s hills and forests. As if to make a final resounding statement of His glory, hours later as we passed over Greenland, the captain announced that we should look out the windows. Normally the cloud cover is too thick to see anything, but today of all days, the sky was clear. Through the open window, one could see icebergs that had broken off from land, and further, glaciers winding up onto shore; every swirl of ice, every contour of rock a testament to the majesty of the Creator. How can one missed flight compare to the One who with a word breathed continents into being? Who with a thought molded hills and valleys, raised forests, and scooped out the sea beds? Who with a touch of His finger shaped every living being, each unique, each more complex than science can fully explain? Who formed the heart of man, with all its meditations, sorrows, anxious thoughts, and joyful memories?

As I lay on airport seats in Riga, trying to steal a little sleep between the stress of the evening’s events and my early morning flight, all that had been stirring in my heart for the last few days came together. In those moments of loneliness I realized that as much as I love travel, I need the relationships in my life even more. They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Isolated from the outside world, it hit home again just how often I take for granted the people in my life. I’m grateful for the reminder.

Journal Entry #3 – After Camp Reflections

August 19, 2011

Wow. I really did mean to write much more consistently during the camp than I did. But instead, literally every minute was spent either working or investing in relationships with others. The few minutes I had in between were spent sleeping (like, five hours a night). But the investment was so worth it. While the content taught wasn’t particularly new, I did come away with a lot of value. For one, while the project we did was something I had done before, and thus was not particularly difficult, it resulted in some great ideas that I may find to be worth investing in. If I can find one or two business ideas from the camp that actually take off, and can get on board with those ideas as a consultant, that would provide great experience for my consulting firm idea. More on that later.

But of course the best thing coming out of this camp is the relationships I built. From housemates to business partners, hours-long conversations resulted in ties not easily broken by time or distance. Many of these people I will never see again. But I know that if one day I am traveling in places like Brazil, the UK, Bulgaria, Serbia, or Tajikistan, I will have a friendly face to greet me. And the vice versa is also true. A big theme of this camp was (as I’ve talked about before here) adding value to others. I don’t need to measure the investment value before knowing that I would gladly go out of my way to do whatever I could for many of these people. So once again the greatest lesson of business is affirmed: be intentional in investing in relationships. It will always pay off and is always the best investment you can make. There’s your tip of the week, now go live it out.

Journal Entry #2 – Introduction to the Camp

August 11, 2011

“I am here because…” And with that statement, the Blacksmith Entrepreneurship and Liberty camp began. We sat around our dinner tables, each introducing ourselves. Each individual, with all of his or her hopes, dreams, and fears, began to open a door to their souls; revealing just a little piece of what makes them tick. Not very far, but it all begins by cracking the door, right? And with some, I have seen that door open a little further.

I met the first part of the group of students here this morning, as we gathered to head to a local museum in Vilnius. After a brief lunch, we picked up our bags at the hostel and headed for the bus. And yes, four hours allows some doors to open pretty wide.

Stepping back twenty-four hours, I finally ran into the issue I was concerned about.  I knew I had to rush in Amsterdam because I only had fifty minutes to get to my next flight. If I missed that flight (due to delay), I would miss my connection to airBaltic (regional airline). I did make that connection. However, in Riga, I fell asleep at the gate and missed my flight to Vilnius. I had to head into town to buy a bus ticket. It was something of a mess, yet has been worth it. After several hours of conversation, I am very appreciative of the opportunity to be here.