Why and how to use Google+ effectively

Google+ is really cool, but most people still don’t know why or how they should use it. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of people I know who use it regularly.

I’m on there now myself but it wasn’t until I watched this excellent video of my Twitter buddy and No Email Day supporter Luis Suarez (Knowledge Manager, Community Builder & Social Computing Evangelist @ IBM) that I finally ‘got it’ and could see how it could be useful and relevant to my work. It’s hard to believe that this video was shot just over a year ago but it’s well worth a watch as Luis does a great job explaining how he uses Google+ to engage in much deeper conversations with his contacts and networks than he could ever do on Twitter, which as we know is great for broadcasting and consuming news but so fleeting and random that it’s easy to miss out.

In it, Luis talks about how he decided to focus on and invest heavily in 3 social media tools – Twitter, Google+ and IBM Connections, with a clear strategy for each. He also talks about why he dislikes Facebook and deleted his account after reading their terms and conditions which state that they own all the content you put on it, compared to Google+ where you own the copyright and can remove / export it all should you choose to.

What Does Success Look Like?

Before you embark on any new project or business venture, you need to ask yourself the question ‘What does success look like?’

Without an end goal in mind (and preferably written down somewhere), how will you know you’ve achieved what you set out to do? Having a goal (or many) will help you focus on the work that’s genuinely important and worth pursuing, rather than just being a distraction.

The problem many people encounter (including myself sometimes), is that they are so keen to get started and ‘make stuff happen’ that the busy work (Email, Facebook, Twitter, unproductive meetings) is often confused with meaningful work, which is the only kind that truly matters.

Success means different things to different people and in my line of work it’s mostly measured using bespoke software and tools like Google Analytics to set statistical goals for the websites I manage. Unfortunately, having all this data at your fingertips can be overwhelming so it’s important to focus on the stuff that counts and which you can act upon. Always striving for more website Visits and Unique Visitors, Faceboook ‘Fans’ or Twitter ‘Followers’ can be dangerous as you can never, ever have enough. When it comes to digital, there’s always more you can do and therefore no end to the workload if you’re not careful. For this reason, it’s important to set yourself realistic, achievable goals and milestones for a specific time frame, remembering to congratulate yourself if you reach them, and not to beat yourself up if you don’t! You can try benchmarking and comparing yourself to others, but there can only be one you so it’s much better to compete with and set challenges for yourself. The important thing is to work and try with purpose.

In my opinion, the most important things in business are sales and happy customers, so if you’re creating both then you should consider yourself a genuine success. Your own happiness and personal fulfilment are very important too. If you don’t feel good about the work you are doing then it’s unlikely that your customers or clients will either. If that’s the case you need to stop what you’re doing and change your direction. If you go out of your way to provide the best possible service then you will not only please others but make yourself feel fantastic too.

In addition to the small scale stuff, you need to set yourself some ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that having a grand vision and shared goals with your colleagues (if you have some) are powerful ways to motivate a team to great heights. The most successful businesses and inspirational leaders understand this and often talk in abstract terms which inspire others to dream and follow their footsteps (listen to some of the best on Nancy Duarte’s website). Once the ‘big idea’ has been defined, it becomes much easier to gauge whether your day to day activities are contributing to the overall success of the mission, or if they can be jettisoned to free up more of your time to work on what does. Keep your aims broad, loose and ambitious and this will give you the freedom to experiment and feel inspired to create your very best work.

Another thing to remember is that work, just as in life, is a journey not a destination. When you achieve one goal there is always another, bigger one up ahead that requires you to ‘Level Up’. As Lord William Armstrong, one of the great British pioneers of the industrial age once said; “However high we climb in the pursuit of knowledge, we shall still see heights above us and the more we extend our view, the more conscious we shall be of the immensity which lies beyond”. Or as the posters which adorn the walls of Facebook offices say, “This journey is 1% finished” to remind employees that the company has only begun to fulfil its ‘mission to make the world more open and connected’.

Start setting some goals for yourself today. Try writing them down on paper and sticking them up on the walls of your office, cubicle or home to remind you what you are trying to achieve. I believe that anything is possible with hard work and determination but you need a plan and some focus to help you get there. This is the very first step in becoming the person you want to be.

Why Mentoring Matters

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/05/02/why-mentoring-matters/

There’s a big drive to increase the number of business mentors in the UK today through Government-backed initiatives like Get Mentoring and Mentorsme.co.uk. This is because along with finance, mentoring is regularly cited by start-ups as one of the things they need most in order to achieve success. Indeed, research shows that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more (double the rate of non-mentored entrepreneurs) and 20% are more likely to experience growth.

But what exactly is a Mentor? Well, it does seem to differ depending on who is asking and at what stage of development they are at, although the Wikipedia definition of ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague’ is probably one you are already familiar with. In general, a mentor is usually a trusted person with whom the mentee can discuss ideas or problems and receive impartial feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism. A two-way process, the ideal relationship is one where the mentor gains just as much as the mentee, by being mentally stimulated and having the feel-good factor of ‘giving something back’ to the ecosystem.

Most of my career has involved ‘helping’ people in some way or another. Sharing knowledge and ideas and encouraging others to fulfil their potential is something that I not only feel is a worthwhile occupation but something that I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from. The past three years in particular have involved me sharing business start-up information online by writing website articles and blogs, signposting young entrepreneurs to useful resources, delivering lectures in person, moderating forums and answering queries by phone, email and social media. In effect, I’ve been working as a virtual mentor for people across the UK, so when the Get Mentoring campaign began, I decided to register for some ‘official’ training to give me a better understanding of the role and how I could do more in an offline setting.

One of the things that surprised me about this training was that the ‘official’ Get Mentoring definition of a mentor is slightly different to what I understood it to be. There is a clear emphasis on the fact that although a mentor is there to be a sounding board and offer feedback, they’re not supposed to offer ‘advice’ to the mentee. Instead, the mentor is advised to do lots of signposting, ask challenging questions and encourage the mentee to arrive at their own conclusions through reflective conversations around problems. The difficulty arises when the mentor is asked a direct question like, ‘What would you do in my situation?’ or ‘How do you do X?’ and the mentee expects a direct answer or opinion on the matter. In this situation, the mentor is ok to talk about relevant, personal experience but is meant to offer a range of options from which the mentee can choose.

I understand the theory and reasoning behind this thinking, but in real-life, the entrepreneurs I meet and communicate with online usually want a quick answer so I’m not 100% convinced that the no-advice rule is suitable in every situation. I think it depends on the mentee, the urgency of their problem and the relationship with the mentor. Having said that, the ultimate mentors – Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi of Star Wars – often talked in riddles and set tests for Luke Skywalker to overcome and emerge more skilled as a Jedi warrior, so perhaps it depends on the scale of the task?

Startup Weekend Newcastle

Since doing the Get Mentoring training, I’ve had the chance to be a mentor at two key events in the tech start-up world. The first was at a fifty four hour Startup Weekend event in Newcastle where I did an epic twelve hour stint mentoring twelve teams who had only met the previous evening. Perhaps it was the time-limited nature of the event but there was a real intensity to each mentoring slot which felt more like a brainstorming session in which all kinds of crazy ideas were suggested by everyone in the room, before the best ones were filtered out and developed further. I got a huge buzz out of this event as I was able to share insight and knowledge whilst receiving inspiration from the mentees in return. It was also particularly pleasing to see that each of the teams had implemented some of the ideas we had discussed in their final pitches, demonstrating that they had both listened to and believed in me as a mentor.

Springboard London

A few days later, I travelled to London to spend a day at the new Google Campus to meet and mentor the eleven start-ups who are part of the Springboard London tech accelerator programme. This was more like a speed dating event where I was given a table and then each of the teams were given twenty minutes with me to build up a rapport, discuss their business and challenge their assumptions. Again, the short time period meant there was little time for polite chit chat and so it was straight down to business. I’d been sent background information on each of the teams and they had all done their homework on me too which was great to see as it helped the conversation move much faster than it would have otherwise. Apart from feeling good about helping a group of exciting new businesses there is kudos for me in being involved in a programme which is at the epicentre of the European tech start-up scene, not to mention the chance to spend a day at the Google Campus.

Rocket @ Google Campus
Start-up launchpad @ Google Campus

These recent experiences have convinced me that mentoring is a vital ingredient in the success of any new start-up. In my opinion, the major advantage that Springboard London, its Newcastle equivalent (ignite100) and similar tech accelerator programmes throughout Europe and the US give to their participants is not only access to finance but a wide range of experienced mentors who can open doors and help them achieve their goals much faster than they could on their own. Ultimately, it is still the start-ups themselves who are doing the work, but to know that there is a network of people out there who believe in you and your idea(s) can often be the difference between success and failure.

Obviously, not everyone is lucky enough to be part of a tech accelerator programme, but you can still build up your own network of mentors. Look around you in your current profession and further afield for people who you admire for their achievements and with experience relevant to what you are aiming to do. There are paid mentoring networks out there you can join but most people are quite happy and flattered to be asked to be a mentor. Just be clear about the format of the relationship, what you are hoping to achieve and respectful of their time. Remember that the mentor is not there to do all the work for you, but rather to talk things through and to push you to ever greater heights. Finding a good mentor or team of mentors could be the most important thing you do in your business career and so it’s important to do your homework and to ask for help. Your search for a mentor (or mentors) begins now!

Confidence – The Stuff Entrepreneurs Are Made Of

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/04/03/confidence-the-stuff-entrepreneurs-are-made-of/

Over the past three years I’ve worked with thousands of start-ups across the UK, and have come to the conclusion that confidence is the number one ingredient that entrepreneurs need if they are to succeed in business.

Although funding (or the lack of it) is regularly cited as a barrier to starting a business, it’s really the mindset and attitude of the founder that is more important than anything else. Let me qualify this statement.

Working for one of the UK’s longest running youth enterprise programmes means I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many hundreds of entrepreneurs at various stages in their career including some of the most successful business people in the country. They all share a common trait with each other which is an unshakeable self-belief in what they are doing and the path they have chosen.

There’s a long-running argument in the business world about whether entrepreneurs are born or made but I’m now a firm believer in the latter. Confidence is born out of experience and so the more varied experiences you are exposed to the more confident you will become. In particular, it appears that if someone experiences a positive outcome to their entrepreneurial activities early on in life (no matter how small), they are highly likely to repeat this behaviour again. It’s almost like a switch in their brain is flicked and they start to see things differently to everyone else around them.

It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve lost count of the number of entrepreneurs who talk fondly about their time washing cars as a kid or selling sweets in the playground which gave them an early taste for business and set them on the entrepreneurial path. Lord Sugar (the UK equivalent of Donald Trump on our version of The Apprentice) caused controversy recently by saying that ‘If parents don’t send their kids out to make money by the age of 13, they’ll become lazy dreamers!’ He may have a point but I don’t think it’s ever too late to train yourself to think in a more entrepreneurial way.

In my own life, my main focus at school and university was always on ‘getting good grades’ (whilst having fun along the way) which would eventually lead to ‘a good job’ with ‘a good company’. I’ve been fortunate to work for some fantastic companies over the years but I’ve also had some setbacks too – including being made redundant and out of work for almost a year in 2001 which took a long while for my career (and finances) to recover from. However, I actually see this as a positive period as it allowed me to spend more time at home with my family, reflect on what I really wanted to do with my life and pursue a career in the music industry for the next few years before pivoting again into the not-for-profit sector where I have been ever since.

Each new role and the experiences they brought have made me stronger and more confident in my own abilities to learn new skills and adapt to previously unknown situations. It’s given me a much broader perspective on life and in work which means I am always eager to learn and quick to adopt new ideas. My personal motto is ‘Stay Curious’ as I feel you can never stop learning and growing as a person which is what Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha mean by living your life in ‘Permanent Beta’ in their new book The Start-Up Of You. This attitude and confidence, plus the fact I am working with start-ups every day means I have become more entrepreneurial in my role and can see opportunities for new projects and collaboration everywhere I look.

But what if you didn’t catch the entrepreneurial bug as a kid or jour job doesn’t inspire you to think like an entrepreneur? What can you do to build up your confidence and train yourself to be an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur)?

Some ideas you could try:

  • Read widely – the fact you are here suggests you are curious about personal and professional development but there are many great websites and blogs out there as well as Upmarket. I recommend not just reading online though. It’s still good to get away from your device and I still get a lot of inspiration from reading a physical newspaper, magazine or book. If you want to open your mind, I recommend reading any of The Domino Project books, preferably starting with Poke The Box by Seth Godin.
  • Talk to people – although we’re living an increasingly virtual world, you must never stop meeting and talking to people face to face. Too many problems at work are caused by poor communication within teams so perhaps you could try a No Email Day so you can build up greater rapport with your colleagues, even if it’s just getting away from your desk for a coffee in another part of the office. Human beings are inherently social and real conversations ebb and flow and meander into all kinds of interesting directions which can result in fantastic innovation if you let them.
  • Network – people always talk about the importance of networking but not many people do it right. There are so many ways to network these days, both online and offline but it’s important to try and do it with a goal in mind. Remember though, networking without a purpose is just socialising!
  • Create opportunities – why not start your own informal networking events for similar, like-minded people with a shared interest to gather? The trick here is to keep the agenda loose rather than define a structured event and let the events evolve and form around the people who attend. For example, in June 2011 I started hosting informal, after work events for local developers, designers and start-ups in my city which now attract 50 people each week. The events are free to attend and the format is simply to have one or two speakers on a theme, followed by relaxed drinks in the bar next door (where the really interesting conversations happen)!
  • Enter Awards / Competitions – I’ve seen first-hand how even just a small amount of money or just the kudos of winning an award for their work can be a real boost to an entrepreneur. Time and again the feedback we receive for the start-up awards we give out is that although the (small) amount of cash was what attracted them to the competition in the first place, it was the confidence and validation that winning gave them that was the biggest benefit. More than money, awards can generate fantastic PR for your business and open doors to more opportunities down the line.
  • Scare yourself – the only way to grow and develop both personally and professionally is to try things that you previously couldn’t do. Fear is a completely normal and natural feeling to have if you are in a dangerous environment but is usually irrational and without substance. Even if things go wrong, the negative outcome of doing something is rarely as bad as you think it will be and unless you try you’ll never know if you can do it. A good example of this is public speaking. Most people are afraid of speaking in public but the more you do it the easier it gets. If this sounds like you, why not put yourself forward to speak at an event on a topic you are passionate about? The fear and nerves will make you try harder and once you’ve done it the fear will be gone forever. Follow the fear. If you’re afraid of something, that’s where you should go next!

Welcome to ‘Permanent Beta’ – The Start-Up IS YOU!

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Start-Up Of YouThe Start-Up Of You‘ by LinkedIn Founder/Chairman Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha and am feeling pretty inspired.

If you’re stuck in a rut, wanting to advance your career, find a new job or start a business (i.e. everyone) I’d strongly urge you to buy and read this book!

If Reid’s career credentials weren’t enough – employee at Apple, Fujitsu and PayPal before founding LinkedIn, not to mention being board member of companies like Mozilla, Kiva and Zynga and partner at Greylock venture capitalists (you name it, they’ve invested in it) – then I really don’t know what would be!

Yes, he’s obviously a very smart guy to work with and for great companies like them, but that’s only part of the story. Reid is living proof that network literacy, the ability to ‘conceptualise, access and benefit from the information flowing through your social network’ is what will set you apart from everyone else and lead to bigger and better opportunities for yourself and your contacts.

The Start-Up Of YouThe Start-Up Of You is packed-full of practical, real-life examples of how to leverage your contacts, find new ones and maximise your potential. It’s time to take control of your career. All humans were born entrepreneurs. Welcome to ‘Permanent Beta’. The Start-Up IS YOU!

If you’re still not sure if this book is for you, take a look at the description, table of contents and free resources at www.thestartupofyou.com/about-the-book/

Upmarket magazine column #2

My 2nd monthly column for US-based online magazine ‘Upmarket‘ titled ‘Stop Tweeting and Start Making!‘ was published on Thursday 1st March.

Stop Tweeting and Start Making!

Read the column in full at: http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/03/01/stop-tweeting-and-start-making/

Stop Tweeting and Start Making!

Anyone who knows me well will vouch that I’m a huge advocate of Social Media as a tool for encouraging greater collaboration and sharing and have been using both for business for just over 3yrs with great success. However, I’m also aware that Twitter and Facebook can be a massive time suck which can actually make you LESS productive at work!

In particular, I’m concerned that start-ups (including new projects within existing organisations) are seeing Twitter and Facebook as a great panacea which will bring them more customers and riches, simply by being on it all day every day and picking up as many new ‘Followers’ (on Twitter) and ‘Fans’ (on Facebook) as possible.

In my line of work, my Twitter Timeline is filled with people who Tweet a lot but say very little. Of course, the majority of people I Follow are interesting individuals doing interesting work but you wouldn’t necessarily know this from some of the things that they share. Perhaps it’s just the type of people I am Following but if you’re a sole trader or small start-up of say 1 or 2 people, I would question how much ‘real work’ you are doing if you are on Twitter all day. You are either not doing the work, or are working ridiculous hours (late nights and weekends) just trying to keep up with all the work that is going undone whilst you are on Twitter and Facebook.

Yes, I understand the attraction of Twitter and Facebook. It’s free, but not really. There’s always a cost to you or your business in terms of time and effort it takes to build up a Following or Fanbase and to respond to all the @mentions and DM’s that come through. Also, it doesn’t really feel like work does it? It’s quite fun being on Twitter and Facebook and so very easy to kid yourself that you are doing extremely important work that will develop your online brand and business. This may be true of course, but you need to think long and hard about how much time you can realistically devote to ‘doing Social Media properly’ and what this will look like for you and your business.

In general, this is how I use Twitter and Facebook for work which you may find helpful to know:

  • First thing in the morning – I travel to work by bus and metro and use some of this time to catch up on latest news via various blogs, Twitter and Facebook. If there’s anything that I feel is of interest to our Followers on Twitter I will Retweet it along with posting my own Tweets about our latest news. Research including that by Dan Zarrella suggests that before 9am is a good time to share links to your own articles and blog posts as this is when professional bloggers, journalists and web editors are looking for stories they can feature on their own site. It’s also when other ’general readers’ are getting ready for and travelling to work so there’s some dead time here during which they are consuming information. I’ve been doing this in recent months and it does seem to be paying off with an increased number of Retweets and shares of things I post in the morning, between 8am-9am. I’m also finding that evenings, after 5pm and weekends are a good time to engage with Followers and Fans (or users/clients/customers).
  • Get into the habit of only posting things on Twitter and Facebook when you actually have something NEW and interesting to talk about! There are so many people just blabbering on about the same old stuff, day in day out. If people aren’t clicking on the links to products and services you are talking about, perhaps there’s a very good reason? Maybe your Followers and Fans simply don’t want what you are offering? Either that or the things you are saying are coming across as too boring, salesy or spammy! However, unless you are actually measuring clickthroughs via free analytical tools like Bit.ly, Google Analytics or Facebook Page Insights then you really won’t have a clue if the work you are doing is having any meaningful impact or if it’s just a massive waste of your time. This goes back to my original point that if you’re not actually creating anything new then you will quickly run out of things to say. It will just be empty marketing for marketing’s sake.

So, my advice would be tread carefully with Social Media and don’t get sucked into believing that it’s the solution to all your marketing and sales problems. If the products and services you are offering in the first place aren’t very good (or not what your customers want), then no amount of blogging, Tweeting or Facebook updates is really going to help. It sounds obvious but you’ve also got to remember that a Follow on Twitter or a ‘Like’ on Facebook isn’t the same as an actual sale. At the end of the day, it’s only really actual sales and happy customers that matter in business.

If you need some help understanding Social Media and how you can realistically make use of it based on the time, money and resources at your disposal, email me at plandigital@live.co.uk or call me on +44 (0)7734 722716, Paul @lordlancaster

Leap Year

2012 is a ‘Leap Year’ so that means you have an extra 24hrs to do something special, be it volunteering / raising money for a good cause or starting that business you’ve been talking about.

Maybe you could use the extra day, 29th Feb, to focus your efforts in one go or spread it out over time like 1hr a week over 24 weeks?

Perhaps the term ‘Leap Year’ could start to mean something new? It’s time for you to take the plunge! I’d love to hear if you do!

We need more Leaders not Followers

In the past few years we’ve become a little obsessed with getting more ‘Followers’ on Twitter and ‘Fans’ on Facebook. This is back to front thinking.

If we’re completely honest with ourselves and each other, it’s unlikely that every little thing that we do is really that remarkable and worthy of a ‘Like’ or ‘Follow’.

I often hear people say things like, “If only we had more Facebook Fans or Twitter Followers we could sell more of XYZ” or “When we get more, we can then start spending more time improving our product/service”.

The problem with constantly striving for MORE is that you can never have enough. You’ll never be satisfied until your numbers are higher than everyone else. Also, just because someone is a ‘Fan’ on Facebook doesn’t mean they are an actual, paying customer. It just means they have the potential to become one now your Status Updates appear on their News Feed.

A much better and healthier attitude in business is to do everything in your power to make your product/service the best it can be (and then some). If you are offering something truly remarkable then your loyal Fans and Followers will appear and not necessarily online.

We need more inspiration and delight in the world. We need more Leaders not Followers!

Normal rules no longer apply

If you run a customer-focused website, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that you need to be posting updates to Twitter and Facebook during off-peak times, i.e. 

  • first thing in the morning (before 9am)
  • evenings (after 5pm)
  • weekends

See this infographic from Dan Zarrella for a handy summary http://danzarrella.com/infographic-how-to-use-contra-competitive-timing-for-more-retweets-likes-comments-and-clicks.html

I’ve been doing this a lot more through my smartphone in recent weeks (i.e. on the bus/metro into work or occasional updates whilst watching TV at the weekend) and it does seem to be paying off with a higher number of referrals, shares and Retweets. 

Sadly, this means that the normal 9-5 rules no longer apply. Really, a website is a 24hr operation so in an ideal world you should have a team of people working shifts throughout the day/night. Either that, or you consider changing your working hours accordingly.