You have NO Market Differentiators – Deal with it.

Recently, someone asked me this question in an interview,

Q) What is your market differentiator?

During my MBA days, we had all sorts of fancy, meaningless answers for this type of questions. I could take any number of jargon words like market penetration, excellent quality, strategic tie-ups etc. and mix-and-match them to spew an equally vague answer to this.

Now, I did not know what to say about “my start-up’s market differentiator“.

After thinking for a few minutes, this is what I told the interviewer.

A) Nothing really. Whatever I am doing can be done by anyone. What makes Chandoo.org successful (and profitable) is that I love Excel and share information about it enthusiastically. I love making people awesome and create products that go with this philosophy. I am eager to learn as much as I am eager to teach. So naturally we build a very good community of Excel users from all parts of the world (at last count, our website as 24,000 members). Many of these become customers overtime and enjoy my products (We had 1700 customers in year 2010).

I bet of many of you would be having similar questions when you think about starting your own company,

  • How can we differentiate from our competition?
  • What makes us special and creates warm-feelings in our customers’ heart?
  • How do we protect our product from imitation?

So, lets examine what makes us special.

What will NOT make you special?

In order to understand what makes us special, first we must understand what makes us same (ie not special). Once we know that, you can easily focus on your uniqueness.

Your product:

In all likelihood, your product will not be unique. There will be several equally good alternatives for what you sell. Take anything, for eg., your beer, your car, your bank, your coffee, your boy friend (or girl friend), your shoes etc. etc., everything can be replaced with something else that is equally good. Your customers too think the same way and thus, being over-protective about your product is not going to help.

Your partnerships:

Unless you have a water-tight agreement with your partners, chances are, they will collaborate with others in the same industry. So this makes any type of partnerships you have same as any partnerships your competition has.

Your Website / Store Design:

Very few designs are iconic (like a bottle of coke, ipod, Google homepage or an ikea store). Getting an iconic design would take a lot of time, money and expertise. And small business are short on all 3.

Other things that will not make you special:

* Your website ranking very well on Google for a particular term
* Your business having the best location
* You have the most memorable phone number, website address or whatever.

So What makes you special?

You:

You are special. Although, there are 6 billion others with similar features as you, no-one can match 100% to what you are. Realizing this is the biggest thing in running a small business. Unlike large companies, which can remain faceless and build a generic brand image, a small business like yours, has better chance of success if you focus on individuals.

Why are you special:

No one else in the world has the same story that you have to say. Your passions, your ideas, your values, your sense of humor, your story will remain unique, no matter how many more people flock your industry. Some important areas of your uniqueness,

  • Your story
  • Your values
  • The way you express
  • Your sense of humor
  • Your passion & knowledge

Never let that go away from your business in the name of growth. Instead, keep your image a core part of what your business is. That is what many successful business have done. Think about Apple (Steve Jobs), Microsoft (Bill Gates), Infosys (Narayana Murthy) etc.

Your Customers:

Just like you, your customers too are unique. It may so happen that the same set of people might be customers for someone else too. But the kind of interactions they had with you, the relationship they hold with you and the attention & respect you command from them will be special.

Your Team:

This includes your employees, board members, vendors, partners etc. All of them are special, gifted and rare, just like you. And no other company in the world has the same combination and that makes your company special. The real uniqueness is the kind of experience, passion and energy your team brings to the table to make your company a success.

That is all. I cannot think of anything else that will make us specail and distinguished from rest of the competition.

How do I apply these ideas to my business?

During my initial days of business, I used to worry too much about my website design, too protective about my files & ideas. I used to consider other Excel bloggers as competition.

Then, almost by chance, I experimented by following a different approach.

I started collaborating with my fellow bloggers. I started sharing my ideas and files openly. Instead of focusing on more customers, I asked myself, “how can I know more about the ones we have”. I started sharing personal stories and connected with our readers.

Over-time, I have established a relationship with our readers who now consider me unique, for what I am + what I know.

Now, if you ask my customers, why they use my products, some of the keywords they use are,

  • … like your style …
  • … you explain very well …
  • … your passion for excel …
    etc.

How do you differentiate your business?

I want to learn from your experience too. What do you think makes your business (or you) special? Why do you think customers purchase from you?

Please share your story using comments. I am all ears.

More reading on this topic:

When a Refund Customer loves you, you know you have done well

Refunds are an important part of running online business. But how do you handle refund requests?

Here is the process we use at chandoo.org,

  • All products come with 30 day no-questions asked refund policy.
  • When a customer asks for a refund, I issue it as soon as possible.
  • For customers requesting refund due to specific reason, I try to do a follow-up by asking them how I can help.
  • When in doubt, I go by the principle “It is better to have a happy prospect than an unhappy customer”.

Today I want to share with you a recent email I received from Marilyn.

Marilyn bought my Project Management Excel Templates and she could not use them as she is an excel beginner. Pasted below is a screenshot of the email exchange. Read it from bottom-up.

How do you handle refunds?

What process do you use to handle refunds? How do you wow your customers / prospects with your refund policy. What awesome examples you have seen in this area? Please share using comments.

Follow your Passion, but Manage Poop too…

There is an interesting discussion going on at Unicorn Free. In the article, Don’t follow your passion, Amy says,

So. You’re in love with a thing. Let’s say it’s coffee, books, design, code or solving interesting problems. You decide to open up a café to follow your passion for coffee. Or a used book shop, because you’re passionate about books. Or, because you’re passionate about solving interesting problems through code or visuals, you hang out your shingle as a freelance developer or designer.

Six months to a year later, and guess what?

Turns out that you hate running a café (or book store, or…). Turns out that running a café is as much about the coffee as raising a child is about snuggles. Yes, the coffee happens — and so do snuggles — but what really makes up the typical day is very little sleep and lots and lots of poop.

Sounds indigestible for start-ups right? Afterall, if not for passion (and millions of $s), what else would motivate us to go thru the risk and separation?!?

If I was writing this post 2 years ago, I would have totally gone against Amy’s point. But after running a mildly successful start-up for 2 years, now I can see the point about poop.

In year 2009, I would have definitely said, “follow your passion”. After 2 years, I now say, “yes, follow your passion, but manage poop too.”

Let me tell you the most satisfying parts of my business:

  • I enjoy teaching MS Excel: I enjoyed the process of teaching MS Excel using blog posts, tutorials, short videos and products thru my sites. I can do the same for next 8-10 years.
  • I enjoy helping people: I felt great pleasure helping a commenter about a question she was struggling with or a person who emailed me his problem.
  • Running a website is fun: Running a reasonably popular website and connecting to world-wide community of Excel users & experts is so much fun.
  • I enjoy making money: I like the challenge of making a living out of my business. I enjoy the process behind successfully marketing my products, testing variations, learning from my mistakes and keeping my costs low.

Lets talk about the poop, which is a lot:

  • I hate manual steps in sales process: No matter how much automation I do, there are still a few things that must be done manually – like enrollment of students, setting news-letters, discount codes, product campaigns etc. etc. They seemed pretty exciting at the beginning, but after a while, I feel bored setting up or doing same things.
  • I hate email overlaod: As my site and business grew, so did the email and phone volume. These days, I get at least 40 emails from customers, prospects, strangers and fans. While reading and replying to the emails is fun, it also means I never get a break. Thankfully, I have learned to cut my email time and effectively manage the email load. But I have no idea what to do when the volume goes up 10x or 100x.
  • I hate legal / administrative procedures: Just as an example, I am in the process of setting up a payment gateway to accept credit / debit card payments from my Indian customers. This process is so ridiculous that if I start explaining it, it would be Christmas by the time I am done. For eg. They want me to read, agree, sign and legally notarize agreements on at least 20 different documents.
    The process is same whenever I deal with government approvals or documentation.
  • Website maintenance is a pain: Then there is site maintenance. From time to time, I have to take backups, upgrade software on all my sites, setup caching, content delivery networks, speed up my pages, optimize my content for search engines, give warnings to sites duplicating my content, deal with advertisers & sponsors, update affiliate links, create and edit PHP/HTML/Javascript code, test in a dozen different browsers, monitor site downtime, email deliverability, site bandwidth, data base connectivity and a slew of things that I do not even remember. And there is no particular timeframe for these activities, some of them can happen even when I am sleeping and I need to attend or else… [related: how I maintain my website cheaply]

You get the drift. In simple words, running a business is not just about what you are passionate about, but also 1000 little things that can annoy you or reduce your attention.

Thankfully there is a workaround:

Just like everything else in life, in business too, you should optimize the portions that you enjoy most and minimize or avoid the ones you hate.

Remove things that are not necessary for your business

This is the most effective but very difficult part. Whenever you hate a particular aspect of your business, ask yourself if that task is really required to run your business.

For eg. I used to have search filters on Twitter for certain keywords (like excel formula) and then I would monitor these results once or twice a day and see if there is a question that someone is asking that I can answer or replying. While this worked quite well to acquire new members to my site, I figured that this is not really necessary. So I just stopped doing it. There are many other examples like this.

Automate

Your next best option should be automate all the activities that you do not enjoy doing. Once you automate by installing some software or setting up a process, you will have more free time to focus on things that you enjoy.

Outsource poop work

This is the simplest way to get rid of poop. Just outsource it to someone who is efficient at this. The only downside: it will cost you money. [related: my experience outsourcing work using oDesk]

Batch together poop work

There are some things that you can neither automate nor outsource. The best way to tackle them is to batch them. Just let the poop accumulate and do the cleanup work once a day or week. For eg. I must manually withdraw money from my payment processor to bank account. Instead of doing this every day I just let the money accumulate and when the balance reaches $3000 (usually once a week), I give the withdrawal instructions by logging in to their site.

Appreciate poop

This is important. Many of you might get in to business under the illusion that passion can help you coast thru all the boring tasks. That is never the case. No matter how much we love our kids, there is a point when you start hating the nappy changing routine. Instead, learn to appreciate all the little things that go in your business. Try to make them fun and always look for opportunities to remove or automate tasks.

What is your experience with following passion

I think passion is very much over-rated. While passion is a must have ingredient to run a fulfilling business, you also need to have doses of reality. Any meaningful business must deal with lots of little things and not all of them will be enjoyable.

I want to know what your experience has been in running a small business. How much do you agree with the views presented by Amy or myself?

Please share your views using comments.

2 Metrics to measure start-up performance – Million Days, Goal Days

There is no point setting goals if you are not measuring them. If you read start-up literature or blogs, it becomes clear that successful companies measure meticulously and use the metrics in everything. [related: which metrics to use for measuring start-up performance]

But most of the metrics tend to be boring. So, today, I want to introduce 2 new metrics that can pep-up your measurement process. Of course, you should continue to measure your business by traditional metrics as well.

Metric #1: Million $ Days:

Many start-ups want to reach million dollars in an year revenue level. It is a highly sought after goal. But million dollars sounds like a lot of money for a small business.

But when you break it down, a million dollar in an year becomes per day sales of $2,857 (1,000,000 divided by 350, assuming 15 holidays in an year).

If your average product price is $50, that is roughly 57 sales per day. Not so much frightening any more.

Now, I would call any day a million $ day if you make more than $2857 in sales on that day.

I am glad to inform that in 2011, I have had two million $ days so far. Both of which in the 2nd week of Jan when I re-launched my Excel School program.

Metric #2: Goal Days:

This is very simple if you understand the Million $ days concept. We just take your annual revenue target and multiply it by 1.5 and then divide that with 350 (ie we find how much you should make per day to exceed your annual revenue goal by 50%).

And then we call any day a goal day if the sales for that day are more than the above number.

Example:

As noted in my 2011 goals post, my revenue target for this year is $200,000.  That means, I my goal day value is =1.5*(200000/350) = $857.

Now, in 2011, I had 21 days so far (until Mar 17th).

What metrics do you use to track your performance?

While I prefer to sit back and do things at a slow, relaxing pace, I think setting a few goals and keeping track of the progress can take you a long way in life.

I want to know how you track your start-up performance? What metrics do you use? Please share using comments.

What I learned about Google Adwords by spending $103.9

During February, I have set myself a goal of understanding how Google Adwords work by testing them for a few products I sell. I have allocated a budget of $100 for this purpose and set out to create my first ever campaign in Google Adwords. This article tells you the story of how my experiment turned out.

Specifics about the Ads I ran:

I ran ads for 2 of my products – Excel School & Project Management Templates. Both of these sell quite well. The sales pages convert about 3% of visitors (about 1.2% if you calculate conversion ratio based on page views).

  • The ads ran between February 9th and 27th.
  • The expenses were – $61.2 for Excel School & $42.7 for PM Template ads

Experience with Google Adwords:

Ad Creation & Setup:

It took me a while to figure out Google’s Adwords website. It looked cluttered and confusing to say the least. May be I am not qualified enough to use the site. After spending a couple of hours, I could figure-out quickest way to setup ads, adjust budgets and start the campaign. The details of particular ads I have ran are below:

Ad creatives:

  • I have designed 4 ads in total, 2 for Excel School and 2 for PM Templates. The ads are shown below:
  • I have specified that ads should be shown uniformly over time (ie, each ad get same number of impressions).

Targeting & Budget of the ads:

  • Keywords: I have used a dozen highly targeted keywords that are relevant for each product. I am omitting specifics as they are not relevant here.
  • Geographical Targeting: I have analyzed my sales and based on that data, I have targeted most of Western countries.
  • Search vs. Display Network: This is Google’s way of asking whether you want your ad to be shown only in search results or even on sites that have adsense blocks. I initially set this to everything, later (I guess after 4 days) changed it to Search only.
  • Device Targeting: I have specified that ads should be shown only computers (ie not on mobile phones etc.)
  • Budget: I set the budget to $10 per day for Excel School & $4 per day for PM Templates
  • Bidding: This is Google’s way of asking how much would you pay for each click. I set the maximum CPC (Cost per Click) to $1.00 for Excel School and $0.75 for PM Templates.

Sidebar: How much budget is appropriate?

Since I was running a one-off experiment with the ads, I just set my total budget to $100. But in general, it is prudent to decide budget based on your daily sales & conversion ratios.

For example, if your sales page conversion ratio is 3% (ie for every 100 visitors, you sell 3 units), and your profit (sale price – cost) per sale is $25, then, for every 100 visitors you make $75.
That means, you cannot spend more than $0.75 per visitor to acquire traffic.
So this should be your maximum budget.

In fact, your budget should be much lower than that as you will have other expenses (for eg. taxes, shipping, customer service, returns, website hosting etc.)

How did the ads perform?

My Adwords results were mixed.

  • Google Adwords sent me 63 clicks for Excel School & 64 for PM Templates. (Note: These numbers are too small to conclude anything statistically)

Since I use a 3rd party shopping cart system, measuring exact conversion ratios was not possible (at least, I did not know how to). So I just used a crude approach.

ie. How many sales did we make?

  • Between 9th and 27th Feb, I sold 76 units of Excel School & 95 units of PM Templates.
  • There were 4650 and 7880 page views to these products respectively.
  • So the conversion ratio was – 1% and 1.2%.

Since I had no idea how many of these 63 and 64 clicks converted to sales, I just assumed that “Ads convert 3X better.

Mind you, this is a highly stupid assumption that favors Google. But I went with it anyway.

So, with that logic, I sold 63*1%*3 = 1.89 Excel School units and 2.3 units of PM Templates.

If I take the sale price of these 2 products ($97 average sale for Excel School and $30 for PMT), we get,
$187 and $72 as revenues.
Now, my Adwords expenses were, $61 and $42 for both the products
That means, I had a notional profit of $126 and $30 on these products.
Mind you, I have not included the actual product cost in this calculation. If I did that, my profits would be even less.

Detailed report of Adwords Performance:

Google Adwords Performance Report
Google Adwords Performance Report

What is the real truth?

I was not satisfied with the above calculations. So I explored my Google Analytics to understand how the visitors from Google Adwords behaved.
Wait for the surprise…

Google Adwords Report from Google Analytics
Google Adwords Report from Google Analytics

(Note: For some strange reason, Google did not track the visitors it sent to my site in the first 4 days. I later enabled the setting in my Adwords account. Only then, I could find the adword visitor details in Google Analytics reports. I suggest you double check these settings to avoid shooting in the dark.)

As per Google Analytics, I had 20 visits to Excel School & 35 visits to PM Templates pages.

Now comes the kicker. Out of the 35 visits PM template received, on an average each person spent 4 seconds on that page.
There is no way anyone could have made a purchase decision in such short time. In other words, I am sure, I did not sell even a single unit of PM Templates to adwords visitors.

The results for Excel School were encouraging. On average, each visit laster 2 and half minutes. I am sure there are 3-4 visitors who spent much more than that. And may be, 1 of them would have joined Excel School.

Bottom line: Conclusions on Google Adwords:

  • Unmatched Exposure to your products: Even though, there are only 120 odd clicks, As per Google’s report, my ads got a whopping 290,000 impressions. Even if only 1% of these impressions were noticed by actual prospects, that is 2,900 people. I am impressed.Google Adwords - Ad Statistics
  • Costs not in favor of small businesses: Again, this is not based on any statistical proofs. Based on the amount I spend, time involved in setting up Google Adwords and managing it, I find that Adwords is not that promising. It might work well, if I can figure out the magical combination of right keywords, targeting, CPC bids and sales page layout. But then, often, start-ups and small businesses are too busy doing other important things, like marketing their products, working on product features etc.
  • Do not advertise if you cannot measure: That is right. If you cannot measure your conversion ratios, there is no point advertising. I am in the process of setting up an online store so that I could track conversion ratios, run split tests and simplify purchasing process for customers. Once it is ready, I can re-run the adwords experiments with more confidence.
  • Mysterious Keyword Quality Score from Adwords
    Mysterious Keyword Quality Score from Adwords
  • Do not target 6Bn people: simple, you will never sell by targeting entire population. Instead, focus on a handful of specific keywords that convert very well. As an aside, Google has some strange mechanism called as Quality Score for your keywords. Again, unlocking the mystery behind this is an art and Google Adwords website is like a maze. You could spend 2-3 hours without doing much there.

If Google Adwords is like this, then what is the best way to sell?

Of course, there are cheaper and more effective ways to sell online. Start with these,

More: 7 ways to sell more while keeping expenses low.

What is your Experience with Adwords?

Do you run adwords campaigns frequently? What is your experience with it? Do you find the returns on investment good enough? What tips and ideas can you share with our readers?

Please comment and share with us

PS: I also ran similar experiments with Facebook Ads. More on this in the next post.

PPS: Also read Patrick’s take on Adwords. His blog is a recommended read if you are running web-based startup.

Should you charge more for your product? [my experience]

A frequent dilemma for many startups. “should we charge more for the product?”

I too face this question often. Here is how I find out the correct (well, almost) answers to the question and profit.

When in doubt, Test

Testing is my favorite way to find the answer. Although I never ran split tests on price, I did test by launching expensive products or adding expensive variants. Both times my intuitions were proved wrong. (I thought no one would buy, but the test proved otherwise).

For example, soon after opening 3rd batch of Excel School training program, I received several requests for adding an option to learn Excel Dashboards. I was in two minds whether to include them or not. So on trail basis, I announced that all Excel School students will get 2 hours of dashboard training as a one time bonus. The response to this was very good. More than 350 students signed up for 3rd batch of Excel School.

So while running that batch of classes (between September – December 2010), I created a lesson plan for an all new module on dashboards. And then, I launched that in Excel School next version in Jan 2011. I priced it almost double ($197 as against $97 for normal excel classes).

Guess what?!?

Now, more than 60% students join under dashboards option. So, even though, I had fewer students (about 300) than earlier batches of Excel School, I have more money in the bank and feeling lot better.

How to test?

  • Sign-up for a free account with Google Website Optimizer. You can very quickly create variations of sales / sign-up / landing pages and then tell google to split incoming traffic to the variations. You can set some goals and observe how well people are converting based on the variation they visit.
  • Just do it already! For a week, switch pricing, options or any other thing you have in mind. See if the responses are more or less in comparison to what you normally get.

When in doubt, Ask

You may worry about the implications of pricing tests or creating costly products. A better and cheaper alternative is to ask. Just run a survey and ask if your prospects would be keen to purchase the product.

For example, just before launching my first excel crash course product on dashboards, I ran a small survey asking if my readers would be interested in such a product line (excel crash courses). I got several enthusiastic responses. Instantly I knew what to do.

How to ask?

  • Write a simple blog post or send a newsletter: When it comes to asking, you should not beat around the bush. Just send an email to your prospects or post in your blog about the idea and gauge the response.
  • Run a survey: Surveys are excellent way to gather feedback or opinions. You can setup a simple google form and post it on your site.
  • Do not ask unqualified customers: This is important. No matter what your idea is, do not ask people who will not be your customers. That means, you should not offer any free gift for completion or send the survey to your grand-mother.

Find the value of your product

Often while creating a product, we find the cost of it and then add margins to arrive at price. This approach may fail you if your company grows and the overhead increases. Also, you might price a product too low (or too high).

Finding the value of your product – an example:

A better approach is to find out how much your product is worth for your customers. Lets say your product is aimed at carpenters to send invoices. And you assume that it saves them about 1 hour every week. If you go by the hourly rate of carpenters that is about $50 per week (or $200 per month). Now you know the value of your product. You can then factor in various things like,

  • how much time your customers need to learn and use your product
  • what additional activities they need to do because they are using your product
  • any switching costs involved

Once you factor in all these things, you will know the true value of your product. Just charge 50% of it as the price (or even less if the competition is huge) and you should be good.

From my experience:

For example, when I created my first e-book, I blindly priced it at $5. After 2 months of selling, I only made a couple of hundred dollars. So I decided to try out a different price. I upgraded the book and changed its price to $10. Suddenly the sales jumped up.  This is because people perceived the product as high value. But when they saw the price at $5, they felt discouraged. Now, after 2 years of releasing it, I make about $200 each month from it.

Give Options to Customers

If you are not sure whether the high price will fly, just create 2-3 variants of your product and give options to your customers. For example, I have 3 variations in Excel School ($67, $97 and $197).

Once you convert a customer, you can always offer them an upgrade if they want to pay you more.

How do you decide how much to charge?

There is as much art to product pricing as there is science to it. I do not have any ground rules for it. I price my products in such a way that they seem excellent value for money to my customers.

What about you? How do you go about pricing? What ideas and techniques do you use? Please share using comments.

How I am saving 180 minutes per day + Free Download

Many startup owners suffer from one disease called as pretending to work. I am no exception. When I started out, life was very very smooth. I suddenly found lots of free time, which I was using to play with my kids & wife, go on drives, read books and workout.

But with in a span of 6 months (by September 2010), my company was growing beyond my imagination. I was flooded with emails, phone calls and opportunities for work. Since I am very bad at saying no, I kept on replying to emails, answering phone calls, saying yes to work requests.

While all this seemed good (as sales & profits were increasing), the truth is more startling.

I was wasting more time on trivial, less bang-for-buck (we call this BfB hence) work!!!

How could that be possible?!?

Well, it seems that is quite natural for entrepreneurs. We as a breed have lots of passion. So much that often, we mistake non-work for work and spend hours on it.

How did I realize that I am wasting time?

As you can guess, the whole realization came from reading a book. I bought Tim Ferris’ Four hour workweek book recently. As I started reading it, the concept of 80/20 principle made more sense. So I thought, let me give it a shot. I listed all the activities and how much time I spend on them on a paper. And I was astounded looking at the stupid mistakes I am making.

Here is what I came up with.

As you can see, I spend 3 hours a day on email, another 45 minutes on trivial activities like social networking and checking stats. I had an inclination that I waste a lot of time on Gmail. Heck, I even wrote a post telling people how to use gmail effectively.

But after listing all these activities and adding a BfB rating to each, I knew that most of my time is spent on least BfB activities.

How am I planning to spend time?

I am planning to not visit my Gmail inbox more than thrice a day – 30 mins in the morning, 20 in the evening and 10 more before going to sleep.

I am also hoping to cut short my time on social networks and stats pages by 30 mins a day.

This is how my proposed time allocation looks

As you can see, I could reduce 180 minutes of time from everyday activities (*ed ones) and add 15 more minutes to occasional activities like financial planning.

I am hoping to stick to this schedule and see how it works out. I will report back in a month about the findings.

Some practical tactics to save time

  • Delegate: Many of us think we should do everything ourselves. It is so wrong. Instead practice delegation and you will realize that you have more time for important stuff. I am learning this myself (read my experiences of outsourcing work)
  • Use technology: Use tools like rescuetime and leechblock to monitor how your time is spent and reduce chances for waste.
  • Take a break: Recently I was away from my home office for 9 days to do some workshops in Maldives (more on this later). Initially I worried how the business would run in my absence. But surprisingly, it made no difference. I did not post anything on my blogs, replied to only a handful of emails, did not answer phone calls (my phone was inactive), did not do any customer support work and still everything kept going. So you can see that many times, we just pretend to work. To test this, just take a break from everything for a week and you will agree.
  • Introspect & Write down: knowing thyself is not only a remedy for inner peace, it also works for business. You can spend 30 minutes listing down all the things you do from waking up till you sleep. Then assign priorities to each of them. You will be surprised at what you discover.

Free Excel Template to Understand your Time

Naturally, I made a simple excel template to understand where my time goes and how I plan to spend it. Feel free to download it and modify as you see fit.

Click here to download excel template for understanding your time.

Tell me how you waste time

I used to think “we should spend time, save money – as if you do not do anything in an hour it is lost, where as if you do not spend a dollar, you still have it”. While my philosophy on money did not change, I now view time in a different perspective. Earlier I had lots of free time and very little to do. But now the situation is reverse and it is important to not waste time.

Tell me how you waste time and what you are doing to change the situation? Share your views on the ideas presented here.

2 Lessons on Wowing your customers – From Kingfisher & Mozy

I am leaving to Maldive in a few hours and I will be away for a week. I am going there to do an Excel Workshop. But I thought, I will quickly share 2 wow experiences I faced in the last week so that we all could learn something.

Kingfisher Puts Sofas in their Airline Shuttle Bus:

Yesterday, we took a Kingfisher flight from Vizag to Chennai. After getting down at Chennai, we boarded a shuttle bus so that we could reach terminal. Everything was usual, except, they have sofas in the bus instead of boring gray-blue chairs. Big, red Sofas that made us feel relaxed, instantly!

I am sure it would not have cost Kingfisher airlines much to put those sofas in place of regular chairs. But think of all the word-of-mouth and wow-experience they created. Just impressive.

[photo of kingfisher bus from dingle-speaks]

Mozy lets go of $2

As some of you know, I use Mozy to keep online backups of my work. Recently, we bought a new desktop computer at home. So I went to Mozy’s site to add this new computer and download the backup software. Mozy is pretty cheap, they charge $5 per month per computer backed-up. So this new computer would be an extra $5 per month. But since I am adding it in the middle of month, they would charge me an $2 or so for the remainder of the current month.

At least, that is what I thought.

But nope, people at Mozy are pretty awesome. So they show me a message that goes like,

Your upgrade costs you $2 for rest of this month. Next month onwards we will bill you $10 per month. But since $2 is such a small amount, we decided to let go. Enjoy unlimited backups with Mozy.

How impressive!

How do you pleasantly surprise your customers, employees, partners?

Surprise is a such a good emotion for marketers. When used in moderation, it can result in lots of word-of-mouth and awesome experiences for everyone around us. What surprises you are going to unleash?

My Experience of Outsourcing Work thru ODesk

As mentioned earlier, I needed an extra hand to help me with some of the customer support & website maintenance work. My first reaction was to take help from friends. But very few of my friends are familiar with the kind of systems I use, plus they were busy with married life, work etc.

The On Demand Global Workforce - oDeskSo naturally I started looking cheap ways to outsource some of the non-critical work. Once I started looking for freelance workers, odesk became an obvious choice.

How I went about finding a freelancer on oDesk:

In September last year, I started my hunt for a virtual assistant, by posting an Ad in oDesk.

Step 1: Post an Ad for my requirement in oDesk

This was simple. I briefly explained my needs and posted an advertisement in oDesk.

Since my company is not a big company, I received only a few applications.

Step 2: Interview the candidate(s)

Out of all the applications I received, I found one person quite eligible. He is also from a near by city where I live. So I scheduled a telephonic interview with him. The interview revolved around these themes,

  • I explained my company & my philosophy towards customers
  • I asked him about his previous experience
  • I asked how familiar he is with gmail & Excel, two tools that he would be using if hired
  • I tested his spoken and written English skills.

I found the answers satisfactory. So I went ahead and hired him for a pilot assignment.

Step 3: Review of the pilot work

I found out that despite a minor mistake, the person I hired (we will call him my VA – virtual assistant from now) was quite productive and efficient.

So I told him that I will be needing his help once in a while, when I have too much on my pate.

Step 4: Look for opportunities to outsource work

Like every entrepreneur, I too am protective about my work. So it was difficult outsourcing parts of it. But I rationalized that,

  • By outsourcing non-critical, repetitive parts of my business, I could focus more on product development, launches, marketing, content creation, idea generation, collaboration and other interesting stuff.

So I started to assign work for him (roughly 2-3 hours per week, often more).

What I quickly found out is that, he is quite responsive, helpful and learns very quickly.

After 4 months, What are my thoughts about oDesk

  • It took me a while to figure out how oDesk web site works. But after first 2 assignments, I could quickly find the right pages to assign work, review it etc.
  • The oDesk people are quite nice too. For eg. when you join oDesk as an employer, you will be asked to confirm your credit card number. First they will charge your card twice with 2 small random amounts. Then you must confirm the amounts by looking at your statement. Usually for Indian cards, this step takes a while. So I was waiting for my card statement. But I was pleasantly surprised when I got an email that said my card is confirmed by one of their employees manually. Great business move by oDesk (they dont want customers to wait…)
  • The payments are automatic. Every week oDesk would send me an email about the charges for work done in previous week. I could login and verify the timesheets if I want to. They will automatically charge my card on next Monday. So no hassle for me.
  • You need to be very clear: Whenever I assign some work to my VA, I found that I have to be very specific & clear about it. Otherwise, he would take more time than usual.

How much should you pay for a Virtual Assistant?

Based on my research, I think an hourly rate of $3-$10 is appropriate for a Virtual Assistant. For this kind of pay, you can expect to get the following types of work done,

  • Sending, processing, following up with emails
  • Doing simple text editing, HTML editing
  • Web search, Google based research work
  • Basic Photoshop work like resizing images, cropping etc.
  • Creation of word, excel or PDF files
  • Using a relatively simple website / software to add users / invoices etc.

Have you hired any Freelancer? What is your experience?

If you have ever worked with freelance workers, share your thoughts and ideas below. Also, feel free to share your views on oDesk. Please leave a comment.

Related: My thoughts on hiring and keeping expenses low.

Disclaimer: If you click on oDesk links in this post & join them as a employer or employee, I will receive a small commission. I recommend oDesk because they are an awesome way to hire help.

What are your Startup Goals in 2011?

New years are great time to set goals and make ambitious plans. As Napolean Hill notes in his beautiful book, Think and Grow Rich,

Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.

That is why it is important for us to make goals and set our sights high. Last year, I did not have a startup. So I just had a few personal goals. But this year, I want to set some clear goals for my business and work towards achieving them.

These goals derive from the startup metrics defined earlier.

Financial Goals:

  • To generate $200,000 in revenues. Last year, I made $135,000 in revenues. This year, I am setting an ambitious goal of crossing 200k mark. I have plans to make my existing products even more awesome and create new products to add extra cash-flows.
  • To keep expenses ridiculously low. The expenses are going to increase in 2011. Mainly because, I have hired one full time employee (more on this later). Nevertheless, I plan to keep my expenses very low.

Marketing Goals:

  • To train 1,000 students. Last year, I have conducted training programs for 800 students. This year, my goal is to reach 1000 students. If I make each of these 1000 really awesome in their work, I will be very very happy at the end of this year.
  • To get 2,500 customers. Last year, we had 700 customers. This year, my goal is to reach at least 2500 customers.
  • To have 25,000 members. We closed the year 2010 with 17,500 members (RSS Subscribers). This year, my aim is to breach the 25,000 mark.  The more people I can reach to and help them, the better I feel.
  • To have a Million Page View Month: Last year, the best month in page views was November with 735,000 views. This year, I am hoping to have at least one month with a million page views.

Operational Goals:

  • To simplify product purchase process: Most of my products use automated purchase process. That is, if a customer buys something, she gets it delivered automatically. But, for my training programs, I use manual process to enroll students. This is quite time consuming and error prone. I plan to make it automated this year.
  • To register a Private Limited Firm: So far, I have been running my business as a proprietorship. I plan to register a private limited company this year so that I can grow my business with ease (ie hire people, set up office etc.)

Long term goals (ie, next 3 years):

For startups, long term is not next decade. It is just a few years down the line. This year, I have decided to aim high and actually document long-term goals for my business. They are,

  • To make 1 million people awesome: This is my first goal. I want to make 1,000,000 people awesome in Excel & PowerPoint. How do I measure this. Simple, if 1 million unique people visit my website(s) in any one month before end of 2013, I consider this goal as achieved. Currently that number is at 210,000 per month.
  • To cross $1 million in profits before tax: The word million feels magical. It is my aim to reach that level in profits before tax by 2014. Getting there requires a lot of imagination, hard work and planning. And I am ready for all that.
  • To train 10,000 people in Excel & PowerPoint
  • To cross 1500 article mark: So far I have authored over 700 articles on Excel. I aim to write more in the coming years and share whatever I learn. By 2014, I want to cross the 1500 mark.
  • To conduct 10 live training workshops: I have been always fascinated by the prospect of doing face to face workshops. So far, I did only 1 workshop. But I aim to do more in this year and next few years.
  • To have a meaningful life: Not that I live a meaningless life now. But I will continue to give back a portion of my fortune to others, help people whenever I can, live frugally, consume little and make people laugh in the coming years. I will do all these even if I fail to achieve any of my other goals.

What about you?

What goals are you setting for your self  and your startup? Please share using comments. It would be fun to know each other and help.

How are you WOWing your customers? – Story of Amazon Date Picker

Amazon.com is one heck of an inspiration for many entrepreneurs. For me Amazon means excellent customer service thru their website. They strive to wow you every time you visit their site.

Today I want to share a simple story with you on how they wow with the date picker (little calendar like thing that you use to select a date on many websites).

Date picker?!? really? What can you do to make the date picking experience wow?

See what Amazon did:

(This is the date picker shown while selecting the date for delivery of a gift)

That is right. They highlight holidays and other special dates. They didn’t choose a standard date picker, instead, they customized it so that customers can be wowed even while picking a date for delivery of a gift item.