Category: Management

Punctual Payments

imageThere are few things that cause us more paranoia than money. Where is it? How do I get it? Is anyone taking it? When a business provides services and sends its customers an invoice, the expectation is to be paid the proper amount in a timely manner. For some businesses, the timing of payments is a critical component because they need that cash to buy more raw materials to make more products to sell.

One of my responsibilities as COO of influencers@ is to manage all of our vendor relationships, in addition to handling all billing of our customers. Sitting on both sides of the table as a vendor and a customer, I quickly learned the importance of paying on time. Similar to being a good neighbor and not blasting music at 2am, being a good customer and paying your bills on time signals to your vendors that you are honest, trustworthy and value their relationship.

Sometimes, paying on time is not so simple because your customers are waiting for their own invoices to be paid so they can pay you. Consider the follow guidelines to ensure you are a good customer for your vendors by making punctual payments:

1. Organize invoices properly

Whenever a vendor sends you an invoice, be sure to organize it properly so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I work with Eileen Han on our team to log each invoice in an expense form and check that form at the time of each payment period to make sure we don’t forget anything.

2. Keep vendors updated on payment status

Knowledge is power and comfort. Let your vendors know when you have received their invoice and when a check has been sent. If they send you the invoice on the 7th of the month and your company policy is to pay invoices on the 15th, simply let them know that you’ll be sending a check on the 15th.

3. Be brutally honest

If there is ever an issue with paying an invoice, the best course of action is to be completely honest with your vendor. They are business owners too and will likely understand. They might be willing to work out a payment plan or write off a part of the invoice. After all, they want to keep you as a customer and help your business grow so you’ll continue to buy more from them.

4. Treat vendors the way you want customers to treat you

This one is simple – just remember that you are to your vendors as your customers are to you. You would hate it if your customer didn’t pay you on time, so give your vendors the same courtesy that you expect from your customers.

One Goal a Day

“Alright class, settle down!” boomed Chris Walsh, my 9th grade science teacher. As the high school freshmen entered the classroom, the first thing each student did was dart to the right side of the blackboard to look at the day’s agenda. Each morning, Mr. Walsh would write the objective for the day, the specific topics the class would be covering, and that evening’s homework assignment. I headed to my desk, confident I could attack the day’s challenging astronomy curriculum because I knew what to expect.

The daily agenda was one of the most effective strategies I saw a teacher use because it kept the entire class on the same page. Everyone knew what was going on and what was expected of them. Both the teacher and students were held accountable for accomplishing the clear task outlined on the blackboard.

As I thought about ways to use this strategy for my team at influencers@, we ended up trying a new idea deemed One Goal a Day. With the help of Eileen Han and Devon Grodkiewicz, we drew a big chart on the whiteboard next to the door with every team member’s name on it. Next to each name is a spot to write one goal that they want to accomplish each day. As everyone walks into HQ, they go to the chart and write one concrete goal that they want to accomplish by end of day.

What is so great about this system? 

1. It keeps people organized

Occasionally, we will get to the end of a day and think to ourselves, “What the heck did we accomplish today?” Writing a goal keeps us on track with a clear path towards exactly what we need to complete.

2. It keeps people accountable

When we proclaim publicly on the One Goal a Day chart that we are going to accomplish something, the rest of the team now knows about it. That social pressure holds us accountable to ensure the task is completed.

3. It forces people to think in the morning

Since writing the goal is the first thing that we do in the morning, it forces us to think about how the business day is going to be a great one before arriving at the office. This way, people are already coming in with a mission, ready to attack it.

What kind of tactics do you use to keep people in your organization on track, organized and accountable?

No More Spreadsheets

image“Damn, this thing is tough to look at” I thought to myself as I stared at the Campaign Tracker spreadsheet during my first day as COO of influencers@. This master spreadsheet contained all of the information about the marketing campaigns we were working on and was used to keep track of who is working when, locations, payroll and everything in between. As I scrolled through the seemingly endless spreadsheet I could see lists of campaigns we worked on months ago, stacked next to the ones we had scheduled for the next day. Thinking aloud, I mutter “there has to be another way to do this… it may have worked in the early days, but if we want to scale this business we need something better.”

Part of the job of a COO is to analyze business processes and craft solutions to make them more efficient. Our campaign tracking process was a prime example of one in need of serious improvement. In order to improve, I knew that we needed an:

  • Appealing view of what marketing campaigns we need to focus on at a given time
  • Easy way to track which student Brand Influencers are working on a campaign
  • Automation of the time-consuming billing and payroll process
  • Effortless reminders for staff regarding when they are working and where to go
  • Access to rich data and intelligence on what is effective and not so effective on our campaigns

I quickly realized the best way to improve this process was to leverage technology and software, and thus I decided to code my second back-end PHP project, a web app called Campaign Tracker that has left our old spreadsheet collecting dust in the corner and given our team access to unparalleled insight and efficiency for our service business.

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The software takes the same data about our marketing campaigns that was initially entered into the spreadsheet and instead stores it in a database. The simple value of this is that we can pull that data out in a variety of different ways and use it to make better business decisions. Using Campaign Tracker, our Service staff can instantly find out which Brand Influencers are the most effective through ratings on each campaign, how much payroll needs to be issued and a wealth of other vital business statistics. Our senior leaders can use Campaign Tracker to get a quick pulse on our Service division’s performance.

I learned a ton from this project, and am proud of how beneficial it has been for our business. I’m understanding more and more how valuable it is to be a technical operator” – one who gets both the business side of things and how to use technology to work smarter. I’m excited to continue to learn about how to grow a business and develop great software. 

Special thanks to Kirill Klimuk, Drew D’Agostino and David Thor for their selfless assistance on the many code questions I asked them throughout developing Campaign Tracker.

Ask For Help

Some people (including me at one point) are too proud to ask for help. They think success will come if they sit for hours trying to do everything themselves and getting assistance is a sign of weakness. Today, I’d like to squash that theory.

Ask for help. It is one of the smartest moves you can make: getting something done better and faster because you asked someone else to help you make it happen. Even the most legit “experts” are only experts because they asked a lot of people for a lot of help along the way to learn what they learned.

I ask a lot of people for help. When I don’t know how to code something, I gchat Kirill Klimuk. When I have an operations challenge, I call Ryan Durkin. And if I can’t get the P&L statement to look right, I shoot Ed Jaworski an email. If you’re smart, you should compile a list of people like this and ask them for a lot of help. Each time you do, you learn a little bit more and get smarter.

At the same time, you should take every opportunity you can to give help. I talk to Jacob Mulligan about his career options and Phoebe Farber about how much forming an LLC should cost. Do this – and do it a lot. The more people you help, the smarter they become and the smarter you become from teaching.

The Little Details

How fast do you think I can bike from my house to the influencers@ office? Turns out it’s 8 minutes and 51 seconds. I started the timer while standing in front of the house and stopped it when arriving in front of the office. However, that time doesn’t tell the whole story.

Sure, it did take me 8:51 to go from door to door, but is that the time that I care about? Probably not, because we need to take into account turning off the lights, picking up my bike, putting on my helmet, locking the door and going down the stairs.

These are the “little details” that we often overlook, yet they play a key role in making decisions. If I based when to leave on 8:51, I’d be late every day. If I was getting paid for my time and I overlooked those details, I’d lose money. When it comes to business operations, it is critical that we look at the details and account for them in our cost and time projections. In a real business, the small intricacies compound and have a magnified effect.

The People Roadmap

Every product needs a roadmap: that cool chart that CTOs and Product Managers use to explain how a technology will get to market, complete with important features and timelines. What if we take this roadmap concept and apply it to people?

A few weeks ago, I locked myself in the conference room at influencers@ and created a “People Roadmap” for each of the members of my team. Each Roadmap outlines:

  • Goals: What do they need to accomplish and when? This is how their success is measured.
  • Core Responsibilities: What are the most important things they should be working on?
  • Daily Focus Areas: What should they be thinking about outside of their core responsibilities? 
  • Skills to Develop: What should they learn and improve on? Hard skills (PHP) or soft skills (writing).
  • Strengths and Areas for Improvement: Where are they strongest versus where are there opportunities for improvement?
  • Progression: What are their next steps in our business? Ex: Designer > Creative Director > Chief Creative Officer.
  • Notes: What else is worth noting about the teammate? Qualitative description of what they do best, how they work most effectively, etc.

Creating these Roadmaps takes a lot of thought – it forces you as a leader to analyze your team and gain a deeper understanding of your people’s abilities. Once the Roadmaps are created, the next step is to schedule meetings with each team member to walk through the document, get their insight on it and collaboratively edit it (this ensures that both you and your teammate feel ownership for the process). 

Every team member should keep their Roadmap close and reference it often. This allows everyone to always be on the same page with what their goals are, what they should be focusing on, and how their success is being measured. 

For full transparency, take a look at my Roadmap here.

Ultra Reliability

There is a certain breed of people who are what I call “ultra-reliable.” They have an innate knack for getting things done, and when you assign them something, you can sleep well knowing that it’ll be complete on-time and with the utmost quality. As I sat in a meeting last week with Mike Irvine, COO of PXT Payments, I was reminded of how valuable these people are to work with.

“We’ll need the app done by August 15th to meet the outlined deadlines, and development must start now” declared Mike as we reviewed the detailed schedule of an exciting update to PXT’s mobile payment app. Mike was organizing a team of developers and was sharing a meticulously designed Gannt chart as he discussed how each department needed to provide deliverables for the complex development process.

When you’re running a real business, there is an immense amount of intertwined moving parts that depend on each other. Development needs input from finance and marketing. Project Management has to talk to sales and vice versa. Things start to get very complex, very quickly. The technology world demands people who can handle engaging with a multitude of stakeholders of different disciplines, and coordinating between those people is challenging. 

As Mike explained his timeline and how he was rallying the team, it become clear that he is a member of that rare group of people who get it done. As a COO, he needs to be communicating with everyone in the business and constantly stepping into every department, even when it isn’t his expertise, to ensure deliverables are completed the right way. I see the exact same thing on a smaller level as COO of my start-up company. Mike and I are pulled in every direction to assist members of our teams and are relied on to deliver every time. 

There are a few other people I know that I can always rely on to get things done. Matt Bilotti is one of them. So is Cory Bolotsky. These folks are the ones that are destined for senior leadership positions like Mike has… because at the end of the day large teams can rely on them to make it happen under pressure. 

Business Assassins

“Every business should have a team whose entire purpose is to destroy the business”

Sounds a bit insane, but it actually might be one of the more brilliant pieces of advice I’ve heard as I sat at dinner with PXT Payments Chief Marketing Officer Rivka Tadjer (an influencers@ client) last week. Considering the fast pace of today’s business climate (especially in technology and entrepreneurship), if we want to survive, we need to innovate and find new ways to delight our customers before our competitors do. However, many businesses don’t do that. They get comfortable with products or services that people liked last year, and assume they will continue to work in the future. Consider Blockbuster’s bust – when Netflix first came out, Blockbuster management didn’t think much of them.

Now suppose Blockbuster had a crazy internal destruction team. Let’s call them the assassins. When brainstorming “what might mess up our physical retail locations?” online streaming might have made its way into the conversation. The thing that could “destroy” your current business might actually be your next product or service release. 

Even for earlier stage start-ups, we need to constantly be thinking about how our business model and product can evolve. We start early be leveraging lean principals to continuously user test and iterate rapidly (Jason Evanish is my go-to expert there). While it might not be feasable (especially at the early stages with limited capital) to have an actual team dedicated to “business destruction”, you might consider implementing the following at your venture:

1. Make it part of the culture

Everyone on the team should always be thinking about innovating and identifying potential threats to the business. Consider encouraging openness and collaboration where people are comfortable enough to say “look what this other company is doing… this might hurt us, how can we beat them and do it ourselves?”

2. Apply pressure

Blockbuster must have not felt much pressure or anxiety to address Netflix’s entrance and rise in the market. We need to apply pressure that says to teammates “while we are doing a good job now, this won’t be enough to last forever. Lets push harder.”

One thing is for sure, I will be taking Rivka’s advice and making it a part of my regular brainstorming meetings at influencers@. We will always consider what might destroy our business, and align ourselves so potential destruction becomes profit.

The Importance of Pressure

The best learning takes place under pressure. While you can observe someone making a mistake and learn from it, it is not nearly as effective as making the mistake yourself. Consider the following challenge I encountered back when I was a 14 year old computer repair technician:

I can’t believe this thing won’t turn on” I said to Jeremy Blum, my business partner. We had built our first computer for a customer that wanted a custom gaming desktop and it wasn’t working too well… in fact it wouldn’t even turn on. The sleek red case glistened under the glow of the florescent lights in our office as Jeremy and I hovered over the desktop with the side of the case ripped open. “It might be the CPU, we can try that again” suggested Jeremy. “We’ve done that like 3 times now… I honestly just don’t know how to fix this. What are we going to do? It costs $1,300!”

This was one of the biggest challenges we had in our computer repair business: a customer had a problem and we didn’t know how to fix it. In fact, sometimes we broke it more. We were only 14, so $1,300 was a small fortune back then. There was tremendous pressure to perform… there was nobody to bail us out if we did not. In the end, Jeremy and I sat in that office and tried part after part until we eventually got the machine up and running.

If we had a boss that was ultimately responsible for servicing the customer and fixing the computer, Jeremy and I would not have felt that massive pit in our stomachs. It is that feeling though that forced us to learn so much. This is the essence of the learning process – pressure forces you to figure it out.

This is why I am a big believer in responsibility – if you want to learn, you need ownership and pressure. Whether you succeed or make mistakes, you are held accountable. This philosophy is the cornerstone of the culture I was proud to build at the NU Entrepreneurs Club and now at influencers@. It makes things harder and scarier – but pressure is an absolute must if you want to truly learn.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Like many recent college graduates, as I finished my last semester this past May I felt like I was on top of the world and qualified for anything. After all, I had a great GPA, led a massive student club – the real world felt as though it would be in the palm of my hand.

Here’s a realization I’ve come to over the last 3 months: college DOES NOT translate too well to the real world. In fact, college graduates, you’ll be shocked at how unqualified you are for the real world. Unlike school, there are no grades which means it isn’t immediately clear how you are performing. If you mess up on a report, you don’t just get a scowl from your professor but instead could face getting fired. The expectations are enormously higher because generally you are dealing with someone else’s money while in college, you are dealing with your own since you pay to attend.

Especially if you are in the entrepreneurial world, the fact is that taking on jobs at businesses with REAL responsibility is, well, really hard. I was quickly humbled my COO role at influencers@ because I came in thinking it would be a lot easier than it actually is. Don’t mistake the sexiness of a title or company for relaxing… any real business that makes money every month will be challenging and also rewarding.

Schools like Northeastern take a good first step in preparing their students for the real world with co-op. For kids that are currently still in school, consider these pointers to prevent the real world from smacking you in the face when you graduate:

1. Get an internship. Right now.

Students have to do internships. I don’t care if it means taking hours out of your social life or having to work an on-campus job as well. You need to be in real companies that give you real responsibilities. I’m biased, but I recommend interning at a start-up where your desk is close by to the company leaders.

2. Student clubs are good, but not the real world.

Taking on leadership roles in clubs is a great first step for students – highly encouraged. Work your way up to a top position: it will give you confidence and great experience. However, it is not the same as the real world because there isn’t as much pressure. You need to compliment student group leadership experience with real world, revenue-generating, internships with a boss.

3. Talk to everyone.

The more people you meet, the more insight you will get on what the real world is like. Cold email senior executives at start-ups if that is your thing, or your favorite musician if that is your thing.

4. Start something.

Work on a software project or start a non-profit. Entrepreneurial ventures like this give you real world experience with minimal risk and not much to lose.

Finally, this stuff has to start FRESHMEN year. Not junior or senior year. Get started now, you’ll be glad you did.