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/

‘Social Media for Business’ lecture @ The University of Leeds

Slides from the 1hr ‘Social Media for Business‘ lecture I gave to around 50 students at The University of Leeds yesterday (21st February 2012).

Topics include:

  • how technology has changed in the 14yrs since I graduated from Leeds in 1998
  • how these developments have affected my career and personal life
  • how I use a wide range of free Social Media tools in business, with a particular focus on the Shell LiveWIRE programme
  • how people can use Social Media in their personal life to take control of their career and create opportunities for themselves

Please feel free to share this presentation with anyone you feel would be interested. If you’d like me to deliver a similar presentation for your business, organisation or event give me a call on +44(0)7734 722716 or email plandigital@live.co.uk

Are Facebook and Twitter overrated for business?

If you listen to what all the ‘experts’ have to say, then you’ll know you need to Tweet, Like, share and blog about your business if it’s to have any chance of success these days. That’s a given, right?

Well, after 14 years in a variety of IT/web/marketing roles and 3 years using Social Media for business I’m starting to question just how essential it really is.

Of course it all depends on the type of business you run and who your target audience is but I’d like to share with you some insights on why I think Facebook and Twitter could be a little overrated. This from someone who has had years of practical hands-on experience running websites rather than just a Social Media guru or consultant who has only ever advised rather than implemented long-term.

My day job is to manage ‘the UK’s biggest online community for young entrepreneurs aged 16-30′ and so it’s important for us to engage with our users on the Social Media platforms they use. Having read all the books and immersed myself in the ‘Social Web’, I’ve totally bought into the idea of giving users choice about when and how they can interact with our service. I agree that the old way of expecting people to come to your site and passively consuming the information you present them with is no longer sufficient, especially if you provide a service like ours.

In addition to a wide range of free articles, videos and how-to guides, our site includes a popular discussion forum where members can get free information and advice on starting a business and a social network which acts like a shop window to their business. We also use Twitter to share all our latest news and to signpost people to other useful business resources, a Facebook Page to do the same and a YouTube Channel to highlight all our latest videos which can then be embedded back into pages on our site or of others. Users can bookmark, share and comment on all content within the site and we have a LinkedIn group for former award winners too. We are indeed ‘truly social’ and our members regularly tell us how much they love this fact.

The downside is that as a small team (4.5 people) covering the whole of the country, our strategy of embracing Social Media the way we have has given us a lot more work to do. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been worthwhile. It’s certainly helped us reach new people, communicate with and nurture our existing online community, and provide even better (and faster) customer service to our users, partners, stakeholders and the media. It’s also brought increased traffic to our site through referrals, recommendations, Tweets and ‘Likes’.

However, despite daily, day-long Social Media activity, the referrals from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube are still tiny compared to visits from Google. In fact, over the past 3 years, organic search on Google has resulted in almost 20 times as many referrals as Facebook, almost 50 times as many as Twitter, over 350 times as many as LinkedIn and a whopping 1800 times as many as YouTube! Furthermore, 53% of visits to the site have been via search engines with Google way ahead of all the others (33 times more effective than number two search engine Yahoo). Another 26% of visits were from direct traffic (those who clicked on a bookmarked link or typed the web address into a browser) and the remaining 21% were from referrals.

So, rather than see Facebook and Twitter as the great panacea, I’m here to tell you that in my experience they are merely another (great) way to raise your profile, encourage and facilitate online conversations about you and your brand, and provide great customer service. But these are all intangible benefits which are difficult to measure when it comes to the bottom line. Therefore, I think you should think long and hard about whether you realistically have the time and resources to manage a Social Media presence effectively and whether it’s really necessary for the business you are in. For the time being and for the foreseeable future, great content on your site that is useful and highly relevant to your target audience is still the key to success and so don’t for one second think that it’s no longer important or that Social Media will give you a shortcut to success!

How influential are you?

Influence is a powerful currency in society, but it’s always been difficult to quantify and measure in a meaningful way. However, sites like Klout and PeerIndex are doing their very best to provide us with scores that demonstrate how influential we are online through our personal social networks.

My Klout Score increased to 50 for the first time today; the mid-way point in a measure from 1-100 (apparently the average score is 20). But what does this actually mean? Well, to me it suggests that the work I do is having the desired effect, encouraging others to:

Klout Profile

Ok, but what other purpose does Klout serve? Klout’s business model is to offer a free service to users and obtain payment/sponsorship from businesses that wish to offer Klout ‘Perks’ to people with a certain level of influence. So, I may well start to be sent more promotions from now on but unfortunately at the moment they all seem to be aimed at US-based consumers.

Of more interest to me is the way that I (and others have already started doing) can use my Klout Score to demonstrate to my employer, potential clients and business partners that I have a higher than average ‘social influence’ which they can benefit from in return.

One downside to this is the fact that very few businesses understand what the Klout Score actually is. Another is that Klout is still in Beta phase which means that changes and improvements to their algorithm can sometimes result in a temporary reduction of some people’s score. However, Klout is a cool tool and I can only see it’s importance grow in the coming year as more people start to use it and recognise it as a way to validate someone’s influence, particularly those who work in digital marketing / social media (like myself).

One caveat. There are many people whose Klout Score is very low, but you know in real life they are hugely influential, just not online in social networks. A personal example of this would be my uncle, a local councillor who is extremely well-connected and influential, making good things happen for his community each and every day – yet he isn’t on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or any other type of social network. He made a very valid point to me over Christmas when he said that our family gathering was the greatest type of ‘social network’ known to man. Very true and worth remembering when you start using tools like Klout. Nothing ever beats meaningful, face-to-face, human interaction.