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Making space to plan for visual summaries

| business, entrepreneurship, planning

Consulting is going well – so well, in fact, that I’m going to make myself take a three-day break, Monday to Wednesday, so that I can focus on building a business that is different. I want something that doesn’t focus on the time = money equation. Besides, there’s so much to learn.

I keep coming back to this idea of visual summaries. People respond to them. I want visual summaries even for myself, so that I can quickly flip through visual triggers for the books I’ve read. (We’re talking maybe hundreds of summaries, even if I’m just focusing on books worth keeping instead of the thousands of books I’ve probably read by now – and even more over my lifetime!)

In terms of copyright, I’ll probably have to arrange for permission from authors before I can publish a book of graphic summaries. In the meantime, I can test the idea as book reviews, which should fall under fair use. When I put together a book, I think the paperwork will be a good excuse to reach out to my favourite authors. =)

I thought about whether I should hire an illustrator so that I can focus on the key business questions: Would people be interested in this? Can I make money at this? How can I scale? There are talented artists who do graphic recording and illustration for a living, and I regularly flip through their work to inspire myself. (I’m getting better at not being intimidated by the gap between our skills!) If I outsource parts of this work, I might get to answer those questions faster, iterate faster, punch above my weight class with beautiful illustrations and more content.

I’m holding off, though. I can learn slowly, immersing myself in this, understanding it, imagining new things because of it. And besides, maybe this fabled minimum viable product doesn’t require a totally awesome illustrator. Maybe it’s fine with an authentic voice.

Sure, a big outfit like Soundview could easily swoop in and do this while I learn. All the better, because they already have a lot of the summaries and rights agreements. If a startup is an experiment in validating an idea, then having someone else take over that idea frees me up to create the next one. It’ll all work out.

I’m thinking about other possibilities, too. People who give webinars or write e-books might also be interested in visual summaries, and I’m better set-up for those than I am for the large form-factor needs of graphically recording in-person events. I can also offer transcription, or connect with other people to get transcription covered. Established executive summary companies probably won’t cover webinars or e-books anyway. We’ll see!

Here are a few things I can work on next week to move this forward:

  • Highlight visual summaries on my blog
  • Create a landing page
  • Plan a site redesign
  • Get inspired to draw more colourful sketchnotes by looking at examples and trying out techniques
  • Draw more books! This is fun
  • Start building a graphic vocabulary and a lettering vocabulary
  • Look for people who give good webinars or write decent books on topics I like, and see if they would be interested

It feels good learning about these things. =) Looking forward to drawing better and making stuff happen!

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Sketchnotes: Sal Sloan of Fetching! at the Toronto Public Library: Small Business Networking Event

Posted: - Modified: | business, connecting, delegation, entrepreneurship, sketchnotes

fetching-small

(Click on the image to see the larger version)

The Toronto Public Library hosts monthly networking events for people who are interested in starting a small business. Most people have not yet started a business. It’s a good opportunity to ask questions and learn from someone who has figured some things out.

Sal Sloan came up with the business idea for Fetching! when she got a dog. She had signed up for a fitness bootcamp, and the combination of exercising herself and walking her dog wore her out. Why not combine the two activities – help people exercise with their dogs? With a $10,000 loan from her parents, Sal started Fetching! by focusing on exercise for people and obedience training for dogs. With early success, Sal broadened her scope to focusing on helping people have active fun with their pets. She has been doing the business for two and a half years, and continues to work part-time on another job. This helps her grow the business organically by avoiding financial pressures.

One of the lessons I took away from the conversation was the power of delegating work to other people. Sal knew that other personal trainers could run sessions much better than she could, so she hired good people whom she could trust to represent her company. She’s looking for someone who can help her with the business side so that she can grow more, too. After I bank some money from this consulting engagement, I might start my delegation experiments again.

The session was an interesting contrast to last month’s meetup with Kristina Chau of notyouraverageparty, who had been in business for three years and who was struggling to scale up beyond herself. Sal has clearly put work into figuring out how to scale up, and it’s great to see how it paid off.

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Visual book notes: 6 Secrets to Startup Success

Posted: - Modified: | book, business, entrepreneurship, reading, sketchnotes, visual, visual-book-notes

20120229-book-notes-6-secrets-to-startup-success

(Click on the image to see a larger version, which could be good for reading my teeny-tiny handwriting. If you need a text version instead of an image, leave a comment or e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com.)

You know how I was looking for books about people-centered entrepreneurship? Checking the Amazon list of books on new enterprises led me to 6 Secrets for Startup Success by John Bradberry. Its main point is that entrepreneurs tend to fall in love with their ideas and end up ignoring reality. Bradberry points out six common failures associated with being too attached to your idea, and suggests ways to avoid those pitfalls. One of those ways is to focus on people instead of on your product or service idea. This is more of an overview book than a step-by-step guide with concrete tactics, but it’s a good wake-up call if you’re starting to get lost in your own dreams.

In addition to the chapter about focusing on people, I particularly liked the chapter on figuring out your math story. Bradberry points out that companies go through different stages and that your core question is different in each stage. In the first stage, the question is: “Do we have a concept that anyone (other than us) cares about?” After you successfully answer that question through prototypes and experiments, you can move on to the question, “Can we actually make money at this? How?” Validating your business model lets you move on to the next question, “Is this business scalable? How can we create significant value over time?” Many businesses struggle because they get all wrapped up in the third question before they’ve answered the first. It’s a good idea to keep those considerations in mind, of course, but it’s important to pay attention to the steps that will get you to that point instead of jumping ahead and pretending you’re a huge company.

What I’m learning from this book: Yes, it seems to make sense to focus on people and let them teach you what they want. (The Lean Startup makes this point as well.) There’s room in the world for wildly visionary companies, but it’s perfectly okay (and much less risky) to start by creating something people already want.

Whom this book is great for: Worried that you’re getting too wrapped up in your entrepreneurial vision? This book might help as a reality check. If you like answering questionnaires as a way of learning more about yourself, you’ll also want to check out the appendix, which has a long self-assessment for founder readiness.

You may also be interested in The Lean Startup (Eric Ries, 2011; see my visual book notes), which has lots of good ideas for testing your business and iterating your way towards success. The Lean Startup book will help translate the chapters on the pull of the market and startup agility into concrete terms.

6 Secrets to Startup Success: How to Turn Your Entrepreneurial Passion into a Thriving Business
John Bradberry
2011, AMACOM
ISBN: 978-0814416068

Buy this book: Amazon.com (Hardcover, Kindle), Amazon.ca
If you buy stuff through the links above, I get a small commission, yay! Commission-free links: Google Books, Toronto Public Library

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This is what five years looks like

Posted: - Modified: | business, entrepreneurship, experiment, planning

I was thinking about my experiments with entrepreneurship the other day, and I realized that I have a lot of room to learn things. Books tell me it takes about five years for many businesses to shake out the bugs and settle down; even then, only about half of new ventures survive the first five years (according to US statistics). As a relentlessly optimistic person, I immediately read that as, “Cool! Half of new ventures succeed in surviving their first five years!”

Anyway. Five years is a long time. This is what five years looks like:

image

Five years is longer than my university degree. It’s longer than the time I worked at IBM. If I work hard and I work smart, I should be able to learn lots of things in five years.

Things I am curious about:

  • How to help people, groups, and organizations adopt different ways of working: This is a challenge! It’s difficult to help one person change, much less a team, much less a community. But it’s essential because otherwise people will miss out on all these productivity improvements from technologies or processes. They’ll waste time. They’ll get frustrated. They won’t make the best decisions they can make. I want to help people work better so that they can focus on things that make the most of their skills and passions.
  • How to document and improve processes: Many organizations struggle to grow beyond one person or a small team. So many things aren’t written down. There are few processes in the beginning. Then there’s no time to document operations because there are too many things to do. Besides, people don’t feel like they can write down what they’re doing, or they’re too close and they forget what else other people would need to know in order to do their job. I can interview people and watch how they work, write those steps down, and make it easier for people to scale up by delegating, automating, or eliminating the things that they do.
  • How to communicate effectively and engagingly: People want to learn, but they don’t have the time to read lots of books or listen to lots of talks. I want to help people learn more effectively. People like the things I sketch or write about, and they like my presentations too. I want to learn more about things that help other people, and I want to get better at organizing and sharing what I learn.
  • How to build a scalable, sustainable business: I want to build a business that goes beyond the time = money equation. More than that, I want to learn how to systematically build these businesses, so that I can help other people do so too. That’s because there are a lot of people whose talents and skills aren’t sufficiently used because of their time requirements, their location, or other factors. I want to help more people have these options and create the kind of value they can create.

Five years should be a decent length for a self-made program. Maybe a Master of Business Awesomeness? Here we go. =)

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Experience report: So much for having a virtual bookstore

Posted: - Modified: | entrepreneurship, experiment

As part of my experiments in entrepreneurship, I decided to try out selling used books online. I like books, and am happy to keep a small library of my favourite titles in order to reread, give to friends, or resell.

I checked out Toronto Reference Library’s bookstore, focusing on donated hardcover business books that had never been in circulation and limiting it further to books that I had liked.

Listing my books on Amazon was quick and easy. I described the condition and picked a price in the neighbourhood of the other sellers.

After two weeks, I received an e-mail telling me that someone had bought one of my books: Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick, an excellent book on how to make ideas more memorable. I wrapped the book in bubble wrap and dropped it off at the post office as soon as the store opened on Monday.

Here’s where the wrinkle is: Canada Post is expensive. Let’s break the transaction down.

 
Price of book CAD $10.50
Amazon fees CAD $-3.31
Shipping credit CAD $6.49
Actual shipping cost (regular parcel, no insurance) CAD $-13.71
Cost of book CAD $-1

Net: $-1.03, not including packing costs and time. (“That’s all right, we’ll make it up in volume!” as the joke goes…)

There are probably cheaper ways to ship, but I can’t imagine that they would be drastically better, or result in anything close to minimum wage.

On the plus side, I got a blog post out of it, so that’s not too bad. I’ve increased the price on the other book I listed, but I don’t mind not selling it either – the benefits of picking books I like anyway.

Selling books online might work fine in the US and other countries with inexpensive postal systems, but probably not here. I think my future experiments will focus on things that don’t need to be physically shipped! =)

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Experience report: Applying for a Harmonized Sales Tax account

Posted: - Modified: | business, entrepreneurship, experiment

In Canada, corporations are required to collect and remit Harmonized Sales Tax if their revenues are over $30,000 in a year or if they meet certain other conditions. If you’re starting out, it might be a good idea to register for an account anyway. That way, you don’t have to change things when you do earn more than $30,000 (doable with consulting), and you can claim input tax credits for the taxes that you pay (with some exceptions).

Registering for an HST account turned out to be more of a convoluted process because Revenue Canada didn’t have my ownership information on file. I had created a federally-incorporated company just the weekend before, and the process didn’t ask for the information that Revenue Canada needs. If you happen to want to register for GST/HST for a newly-incorporated federal corporation, the easiest way is to call Revenue Canada (1-800-959-5525 – redial if you get a busy signal), explain that the business registration online system won’t let you register for a GST account probably because you don’t have information on file, and give that information (SIN, etc.) to the call center agent.

Me, I took the scenic route.

First, I tried the Business Registration Online system. It asked for my business number. “What business number?” I asked. I couldn’t find anything remotely resembling it on my incorporation certificate. I called and found out that I could use Industry Canada’s Federal Corporations Search to get my business number. Okay.

With this business number in hand, I tried registering for an HST account through Business Registration Online. It reported that my details didn’t match the owner they had on file. I called the agency to clarify, and found out that it was because they didn’t have any owner information yet.

The first call centre agent I talked to directed me to the RC1A form for opening a GST/HST account, or to the RC1 form for registering a business number and applying for a number of other accounts. The RC1 form looked more complete, so I filled in the general information section and the GST section, checked the box for the corporate income tax account (I’d probably need that!), and attached a copy of my certificate of incorporation. I figured that if the business number I looked up wasn’t the business number they were looking for, they could get the right one.

After I sealed the envelope and put a stamp on it, I hesitated and decided to call for confirmation. Was I sending the right form in? Would it create a duplicate account? Would sunglass-wearing agents from the Canada Revenue Agency break down my door?

I explained my situation to the second call center agent, who told me that yes, the ownership information wasn’t on file, but this was something that we could set up easily over the phone. I gave her my social insurance number and company details, and she set up the corporate income tax account and the GST/HST account for me. By golly. We were done in ten minutes or so.

So, if you want to set up a Harmonized Sales Tax account and the online forms just aren’t working for you, see if you can do it by phone. Sometimes that’s faster than trying to do things yourself.

See also:

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Experience report: A brief chat with an accountant

Posted: - Modified: | business, entrepreneurship

I checked out two accountants on my way home from opening a business bank account. It’s difficult to get time with an accountant during tax season, but they spared a few minutes to answer my questions.

The first accountant I talked to ran a small office with a few other people. He had just finished talking to another client who did business on the Internet, so that was good to hear. He chuckled when I told him that I had just started a business and I wanted to make sure I did things right. “You can come by near the end of your fiscal year with a shoebox of receipts,” he said. I told him I’d like to be more organized than that. (I’m the kind of person who updates her financial records every week or every other week and uses double-entry accounting for fun…) So I guess I don’t have to worry so much, although I still want to set things up properly. (Hence the separate business account.)

The second accountant I talked to handled accounting, payroll, and tax returns. She seemed busy, so I took her business card and promised to look up her website. I like how she offers year-long consultations, and may probe this further once the personal tax season subsides.

It sounds like picking an accountant is less critical, then, although still a good idea. I’ll find one sooner or later, possibly when things settle down enough for accountants.

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