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Beware the Ides of March? Beware superstition in business.

Your average Roman wouldn’t be particularly troubled by the Ides of March. The phrase certainly wouldn’t fill them with a sense of foreboding or impending doom. It was just a date; one of the three named Roman days: Kalends, Nones and Ides. The Ides of March was therefore merely one of a dozen Ides which occurred in every month of the year – nothing to be afraid of.

Shakespeare’s soothsayer created the sense of menace surrounding the date with his warning to Caesar and it has since become a metaphor for looming disaster. Should this date affect us in any way, shape or form? No – it’s just superstition. However, superstition can affect you and your business… if you let it.

I could explore a range of examples of how superstitions do indeed have a real impact: Hotels losing money due to guests’ refusal to stay on the thirteenth floor, pricing in China playing on people’s preference for the ‘lucky’ number eight, and the lower house prices for those properties which are number thirteen on a street. However, such quirks are covered extensively elsewhere.

Instead, I’m looking at personal superstitions. People well aware that the fifteenth of March is just another day may still own a ‘lucky tie’. Whether it’s dressing a certain way or performing a certain action, we often attribute our success at work to behaviours we adopt. This is not necessarily bad – having a routine or ritual can be positive. But ritual can easily slide into superstition, which is unhelpful.

Consider golfers and their practice swings or fly-halves and their pre-kick shuffling. Both behaviours began as rational triggers designed to initiate muscle memory and achieve metronomic performance. They loosen the muscles, focus the mind and subconsciously channel the hours of practice put in previously. The problem arises when this helpful ritual becomes superstitious and the golfer or player no longer believes they are capable of hitting a good shot or bisecting the posts without their ritual.

It is important to remember that rituals, behaviours or even lucky items are triggers for something else – chemicals altering your mood, making you more relaxed or more positive. If you wore a certain outfit to a successful interview or meeting where you secured a valuable contract, wearing it again will bring back memories and feeling of success. This positive mood may well improve your performance in the next meeting.

But the outfit is not magic. If it becomes lost or ruined you are no less of a performer than before. If you let superstition take hold you will feel that you are somehow diminished without your ‘charm’. As long as you remember that it was the feelings and mind-set induced by the ‘charm’ which gave you a boost, you can find other methods of channelling those feelings.

Psychology makes luck real. More bad news is reported on Friday the thirteenth because people are more inclined to share negative stories on an ‘unlucky’ day. Use this to your advantage if you like – wear clothes with a history of success, look at a treasured photo before a meeting or carry a pebble from a special holiday if they trigger positive thinking. Just remember not to credit clothes, photos or rocks with your own achievements. Remember that these are behaviours designed to induce a psychological result and that there are other ways to achieve that result too. One day the soles will fall off your ‘lucky’ shoes, but you’ll walk just as well without them.

Posted in: Newsletter

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The rollercoaster ride to high team performance

Those who play or follow sport are aware of the complexities of team dynamics. Individual skills and abilities are one thing, but creating a winning team involves more than just selecting a group of talented athletes and expecting them to meld into a single, all-conquering unit overnight. A team can consist of outstanding individuals, but the team’s initial overall value and ability can be considerably less than the sum of its constituent parts. Teams develop though.

Understanding how this occurs is important – even for a sole practitioner. In much the same was as we cannot avoid interacting with other humans, and therefore benefit from displaying courtesy and empathy, even those of us not part of or responsible for leading a team will encounter teams of workers at some point, and will benefit from a better understanding of team dynamics. In 1965 Bruce Tuckman provided a model for team development in business known as ‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’. This provides a framework for the way in which teams evolve and may well be familiar to you.

Initially, as teams are ‘Forming’, individuals’ roles and responsibilities are unclear. The team leader faces an important directing challenge to define and maintain the team’s objectives and purpose, whilst keeping an eye out for any individuals using this early opportunity to test the tolerance of the system and their superior.

Teams begin ‘Storming’ as their members start vying for position and attempt to establish themselves in relation to both their fellow team members and the leader. Clarity of purpose increases but plenty of uncertainties persist. Cliques and factions can form and there may be power struggles. The team needs to be focused on its goals to avoid becoming distracted by relationships and emotional issues.

With individual responsibilities defined and accepted, and a general consensus of how to operate agreed upon, teams begin ‘Norming’. The team discusses and develops its processes and working style. There is general respect for the leader and some of the responsibility of leadership is shared by the team, such as smaller decisions being delegated to individuals or sub-groups within the team.

By the ‘Performing’ phase, the team is more strategically aware. The team knows clearly why it is doing what it is doing. The team has a shared vision and is able to stand on its own feet with no interference or participation from the leader – the team has a high degree of autonomy. The team requires delegated tasks and projects from the leader and while they do not need to be instructed or assisted, team members might ask for assistance from the leader and not feel uncomfortable about doing so.

This is all well and good, but rarely does the process of team development occur this smoothly. Change is the biggest factor that can throw things off. Change is a good thing. Businesses not changing can become obsolete very quickly, but changes, especially changes in personnel, can affect a team and potentially throw them backwards in terms of progression. Even your arrival into a team environment (either as a team member, leader or external factor) could result in the team having to form again.

The effects of gaining and losing team members can be seen by returning to the sport analogy. Very occasionally, the arrival of a new player can produce remarkable results almost overnight. More often, a period of adjustment is needed. A new player needs to find their feet, understand their role within the team and, however considerable their ability may be, adapt and adjust their skills to operate at their full potential in a new environment. Most people understand that a new team member will require an acclimatisation period, which may stall or reverse the development process temporarily. Sometimes overlooked is the effect of change on the team members who have remained constant.

Organisational change to a team can have various effects. After a recent departure, some can feel threatened that they may be next; overall team cohesion can be damaged if a new member is not integrated or accepted due to them being perceived as too skilled and therefore intimidating, or not skilled enough and a liability; it may come to light that a recently departed team member did an awful lot more work behind the scenes than anyone ever realised and the remaining members are struggling to cope. Whatever the effects of change, the reaction from employees tends to be the age old ‘fight or flight’ response.

Those who ‘fight’ or use control coping will try to shut out the change going on around them. Essentially, they get their head down and carry on, focussing on making their own cog in the machine run as smoothly as possible and ignoring the other cogs. Potentially more damaging are those who react to change by ‘flight’ or escape coping. With uncertainty all around them they choose to opt out of work. Thoughts such as ‘everything’s changing around here, so why bother devoting my time to this when, by the end of the week, it could be someone else’s responsibility’ or ‘if I’m next in line to be replaced I’ve no reason to be working hard on this’ are not good for individual performance or a team atmosphere. They do whatever they can to avoid the challenges that change has brought about.

Communication is key to addressing these responses and getting a team moving forward again. The impact of change is lessened the further along the development model a team is, as delegated decision making and increasingly shared leadership responsibility means that team members may well have been involved in orchestrating the change in the first place. However, people will still react to change and a leader needs to communicate with the team members; to offer support to those who are control coping and integrate them back into a group mentality, and provide direction to those who are escape coping to re-focus them on the task at hand. Regardless of what the change is, it is people’s perceptions of what that change means that are important. Communicating and sharing the positive outcomes of change before, during and after help to foster positive perceptions. A change to a team will stall their development, but a team that understands the change will react and recover far more effectively.

Posted in: High Performance Teams

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Remembering to reward yourself and the value of hard work

Winning is good. Winning decisively, rapidly, with style, against the odds, or all of the above is great. A big win really deserves a reward above and beyond the victory itself. Is this reflected in how you run your business?

This year’s Six Nations is currently underway and has introduced bonus points into the scoring for the first time. An extra point is awarded to a team for scoring four or more tries or for losing by less than seven points. Wining the Grand Slam earns another three points. John Feehan, The Chief Executive of the Six Nations explained that ‘we must reward try scoring and an attacking style of play that will deliver more tries and greater rewards for fans and players alike’.

Teams and players will push themselves further for greater rewards. When you walk away from a large business or corporation in order to start up on your own, you often leave behind a reward, incentive or bonus scheme – whatever form that may have taken. You may have an abundance of drive and motivation to succeed in your endeavour, but what about the extra incentive to win big?

Of course, there is a great incentive to survive. Many new business owners will not even pay themselves a salary let alone award themselves a bonus. The continued existence of the business is a reward in itself. Except that it’s a hollow, psychologically draining reward. Working for yourself, there’s not even the chance of a symbolic ‘well done’ and a pat on the back from a boss. Yes, cash is very tight in the early days and there are good reasons behind people’s decisions not to reward themselves with a salary or a bonus. However, it is important to motivate yourself to thrive, not just to survive. Though paying yourself is eventually vital – as your business grows you will need to accurately assess its value and factor in your worth – specific rewards for specific wins are an easier place to begin.

You’re probably setting yourself targets already. SMART targets that are Specific, Measurable, Agreed-Upon, Realistic and Time-Based. When a target is measurable you know when you have just crept over the line with a last minute kick at goal and when you have thrashed the opposition and scored four or more tries in the process. You can decide beforehand what deserves a reward and, assuming you’re honest with yourself, reward yourself accordingly when you meet the criteria.

Unlike a salary, which has to reflect market value, rewards themselves can be flexible and scalable to the size of your business and the target you’ve set. If you’re not running a multinational bank, you don’t need to offer yourself a banker’s bonus. A meal out, a day at a spa or a new set of golf clubs are equally valid rewards. If that still sounds too decadent for a start-up, your reward for a contract won or yearly profit could easily be turned back to the business itself – meet your target and upgrade that laptop you’ve been longing to replace.

Very few people actually feel any joy upon viewing figures in a bank account increase. The joy comes from what that money could be used for – whether it’s growing your business or taking your family on holiday. When it comes to your earnings, you need to feel a sense of relativism – that more effort will bring more eventual joy. Hard work needs to be worth something to you and an incentive gives your work more value. Rugby players are willing to burn their lungs for a bonus point, what could drive you that extra mile?

Posted in: Growing Businesses

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How flexible is your structure?

When it comes to structuring your business, the forces of continuity and change require you to perform a balancing act. You need to balance your effort between making today’s structure work and ensuring you can develop the structure you will need going forward. In short, you need to be flexible.

It’s no use having your head in the clouds and building your structure around the world of tomorrow. If you’re operating inefficiently today, you may never reach that tomorrow. At the same time, establishing a rigid structure today might bring short-term success but how will it cope with change?

And there will be change. Some change will be on your terms. Hopefully you have plans for growth and a long-term vision. There will also be change that is beyond your control – the economy, technology and your client base all present a level of unpredictability to varying degrees.

External changes are not necessarily negative – a technological breakthrough may present your business with a huge opportunity, if adopted and leveraged correctly. However, it will change your plans. It is therefore better to ensure that your structure is based less around your plans and more around your goals.

A band’s goal might be to have their music listened to by people the world over. The plan to achieve this may have involved selling a lot of CDs. Now that more music is downloaded than physically purchased, the goal remains the same but the plan may change, the structure will have to adapt.

Sticking with the band scenario – processes and structures need to be in place to create the music, let people hear it and provide opportunities to buy it. Aspects such as format, pricing or medium might change but the structure can adapt. Structure based around minutiae cannot.

As a start-up or growing business, you’re at a marked advantage. You’re arriving into a world we all know changes very rapidly. You’re able to build a flexible structure from the very beginning. Many established companies are now undergoing a tortuous process of unravelling their structure, trying to make their entrenched systems more adaptable and compatible with the way the world moves.

You’re able to create something appropriate from scratch – a method of operating that performs the balancing act. You cannot ignore the short term but it is healthy to remain focused on the longer term. You can do this by creating structure based around what your goals.

Posted in: Managing Change

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How resourceful are you?

We can all be resourceful when we’re in a fix. Our success may vary, but when we see problems we tend to try and overcome them. People who bury their heads in the sand and do nothing when confronted with problems have usually made an active decision to do so – they could have tried something. Most of us do try.

But do we need to wait for a problem?

The modern, online, free-to-browse dictionaries define resourcefulness as the ability to overcome difficulties. This is how we tend to see it, but older definitions speak of resourcefulness as an ability to deal with new (not necessarily bad) situations and to make sound decisions.

Yes, resourceful business owners are able to deal with problems. For example, developing and nurturing a solid network is a vital part of the job. When a difficulty arises, a trusted network ensures you can reach out to the right individuals to help with that difficulty.

But what about positive new situations – could you reach out to people from that same network who might be able to make a good turn of events even better? Remember the broader definition of resourcefulness and that you can leverage a positive situation too.

Resourcefulness is about making good decisions with your resources. Take Human Resources as an example. Imagine you’ve taken on a new hire who excels at sales. That’s one good decision made, but what more could a resourceful leader do?

There might be a case for outsourcing some of this individual’s other work. Would the revenue they could generate by spending more time reaching out to new leads and closing sales outweigh the cost of this? If so, you’d be making a better use of your resource – making a positive situation even better.

Think about technology – do you adopt new tools and resources when they become available or only when you feel you’re lagging behind? Consider time management – do you track how efficient your days are and look to improve, or do wait until you feel overworked and struggling for time before you address your timetable?

We can all be incredibly resourceful when we’re up against it, but we needn’t reserve that talent for the bad times. Resourcefulness is about making good decisions in new situations. Each day is a new situation – what good decision could you make today?

Posted in: Personal Development

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Helping yourself and others cope with change

Individuals with high emotional intelligence may be more effective in managing change than individuals with low emotional intelligence is a key suggestion taken from Goleman’s 1998 Working With Emotional Intelligence. This makes a lot of sense.

Change of any sort provokes emotions. You’re not the emotionless business robot you might like to think you are and neither are the people around you. It is difficult to separate change management from emotional intelligence.

Organisational change will affect your mood, your mood will affect your behaviour and your behaviour will affect your performance. It’s far better to be aware of your emotions and the emotions of those around you rather than trying to pretend you’re detached if you intend to maintain or improve your performance.

There is a general belief that the emotional reaction to change is resistance. Continuity is safe and people are happy. Change means something new and new can be scary. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s slightly more complex than this.

Death is an extreme form of change, but the Kubler-Ross grief cycle has been successfully applied to many other forms of change – especially organisational changes within a business. Plotting morale and competence against time, those undergoing change pass through several stages:

Shock, Denial, Frustration, Depression, Excitement, Decision and Integration.

Whether you’re adjusting to change yourself or helping others adjust to the change process, it’s clear that the same approach won’t work for someone in denial and someone full of excitement. Emotional intelligence and empathy allow you to understand where someone is on this change curve and therefore how best to support them.

This model captures an individual’s reaction to change rather well and allows you to form the basis of an effective communication strategy with them. The model has its limitations – it is, after all, only a model. Each individual’s journey is different, passing through stages at different rates, even in a different order or perhaps skipping some altogether. It certainly can’t be applied to a group.

However, while no models are perfect, all models are useful. The change curve provides a starting point – an aide-memoire to your own emotional intelligence. You might not know quite how someone is reacting to change, but you can look for tell-tale signs that indicate where they may be on this journey.

Understanding where you are, or where someone else is during the change process is only the first part of the story. But it’s a good start. Your knowledge of yourself and your staff will have to inform what you do with this information and help you form an effective strategy for change based on where people currently sit on the change curve.

Further emotional intelligence, empathy and communications skills will be required to successfully manage the change for your whole team, but knowing where to start is a huge help.

Posted in: Managing Change

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Reviewing Your Business: The Three Stages

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”

Luke (2:1-5)

The Christmas story wouldn’t be the same if it took place in Nazareth General Hospital. The stable, the manger, the shepherds and the wise men all enter into the drama because the census transports the lead characters to Bethlehem. It’s an important feature of the story, but often overlooked. Christmas is likely to be a busy and hectic time for you too, but taking a moment to conduct your own review of your business is an important process.

  • You can recognise what you’ve achieved
  • You can discover how exactly you spent your time
  • You can set yourself goals for next year

Quirinius’ census confuses biblical historians. He was appointed governor in 6AD which was ten years after the end of the reign of Herod – who also features in the story. It could be that the author was confused too. However, it has also been suggested that Quintinius may have been in a senior position before his governorship and may have conducted many censuses prior to the great census passed down from Augustus in Rome. The lesson for us? You don’t have to wait for an external prompt to take stock of where you are.

Obviously the purpose of a Roman census was to register people for tax purposes. That and to monitor public morality (from which we derive censorship). Your own tax register is provided each April by the HMRC. Morality hopefully comes into play when completing this. However, the point is that you don’t need to rerun this in December and whilst profit may well feature, it needn’t be the sole concern – your end of year review can be as broad ranging as you desire it to be.

Your end of year review should be covering two key questions: How did this year go and what can I do better next year? The factors you choose to measure this are entirely up to you. Different criteria will be more relevant to those who set out in order to build a lifestyle business than those building a value business. However, there is as much value in the exercise as can be found in the answers.

A review is psychologically important. Taking a moment to recognise all that you’ve achieved in the last twelve months can bring a real sense of achievement. Big wins can sometimes pass you by because the next challenge has already begun. Taking the time to celebrate your accomplishments is healthy – both for you and your business. Appreciated your achievements will help drive you forward in the future.

A review also allows you to see what you have been doing. Is it what you expected; what you wanted? You can pore over data and metrics as much or as little as you like to discern how successful this work was and how you performed – that’s up to you. The key question for someone who has set up their own business is ‘are you doing the right sort of work’? If you set up your business in order to work from home more often, are you at home? If your business is growing, has your role changed accordingly? Again, this should give you ideas for next year.

Next year is where your review concludes. Based on how this year has gone what do you want to change? If you’re the sort of person who sets New Year’s business resolutions your review is a helpful guide as to what you can change to make your business more profitable, make yourself happier or, hopefully, both.

Thank you for reading these articles throughout the year. I hope they’ve been helpful, or at least entertaining. I wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy (and successful) New Year.



Posted in: Newsletter

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How far can you see?

Can you imagine a better world? A vision is not a sales target or set of positive statistics, it’s a long-term, big-picture imagining of the future. There’s no harm in thinking big. The giant tech companies set themselves goals they admit are beyond their own capabilities to push themselves and their innovators as far as they can. How big can you dream?

  • Do you have a vision for your business? Can you picture what success will look like?

A vision is important. We like to focus on the here and now, we like quick wins because the achievement is tangible and we like collecting small victories because of the morale boost. But what’s it all for though? Where is it going?

Without a vision to tie together all your efforts, any victory can seem rather empty. All the small victory morale boosts in the world won’t counteract the morale drain of feeling directionless. Get thinking – where would you like to be, what world would you like to see?

Deciding upon your own vision is also one of the key perks of starting your own business. In the corporate world, very few people get to decide on a vision and they tend to be sat very high up. At best you might control the destiny of the silo you’re responsible for. With your own company comes the freedom to think and dream for yourself.

  • Can you back up your vision with the belief that you can turn it into a reality?

A key part of backing up your vision with belief is reminding yourself that you are making progress – reassuring yourself that your vision is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but a reality that grows more possible all the time. Ask yourself each day what you are doing that day to realise your vision.

The answer might be a tenuous link. You might be earning money to pay your bills today so that you can address your vision directly tomorrow, or the day after that. Hopefully your answer is more direct, but even the ‘cop-out answer’ means you’ve taken time out of your day to link your activities with a bigger goal, keeps you on track and helps build belief.

  • Are you determined to give your business idea your best shot? You may not realise the vision if you don’t.

Realising a vision is not something which happens easily or quickly. It requires determination to stay on track, not just when times get tough but in the good times too. It’s easy to envisage someone losing sight of their objectives whilst being overwhelmed with firefighting duties and emergencies. However, opportunities can lead you away as well.

An opportunity can seem great – and may well be so – but might be leading you away from the vision. It’s never easy to turn down work but it’s always important to consider if a project might compromise or hinder your long-term goals. Keep yourself the question from point two – what have you done today to realise your vision? Does this opportunity take you a step closer?

We all need Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound objectives to keep us moving forward and ensure day-to-day success, but don’t neglect drawing up and filling in the overall picture of success. Think big, create a vision, believe you can do it and stick with it.

Posted in: Business Tips

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Managing People Risk

Successful owners know how to recruit and retain people. Failing to recruit, recruiting the wrong individual or failing to retain the best talent are situations which can set a new business back for months, stifle or even end its growth.

For a new business, recruiting new people is a challenge as you are not necessarily known, represent something of a risk on the employee’s part and are unlikely to have a huge purse to tempt people on-board.

This challenge can also be something of a blessing in disguise, though. If you’re not offering prospective employees fame and fortune (at least, not immediately) you’re effectively ‘weeding out’ some of those who might be self-seeking ‘wrong’ types.

Creating a company that does something interesting is a realistic and successful incentive that new businesses can employ to attract the ‘right’ sort. If you’re doing something new, big, different, exciting or all of the above, other people should want to be a part of it.

Creating an incentive for them to want to join is an incentive for you to think about the nature of your business – not just what you do but how you do it. In order to recruit the ‘right’ people for you, you have to be clear about the values and culture of your business from day one.

This focus on culture should be retained throughout the recruitment process. Some businesses conduct ‘blind’ interviews, assessing the person before looking at their CV. Great if you’re looking for a flexible, adaptable new pair of hands’; less useful if your culture is built around subject matter experts.

As for retaining talent, it is important to provide employees with ownership, engagement and opportunities. Some feel that it’s something of a catch-22, as by investing in employees you may bolster their CV and increase the chances of them looing to work elsewhere, but not involving them can be equally likely to lead to their departure. There is also the third possibility, summed up by the maxim – what if we invest in employees and they leave – what if we don’t and they stay?

Open communication is essential for integrating employees into a business and helping them to ‘buy in’ to the culture and framework, as is providing them with opportunities for growth and development. Training is another expense, but it’s less expensive than ignorance or the empty space left should they choose to depart.

There is no universal approach to recruiting and retaining people, but successful owners achieve it by being absolutely clear about their own approach and communicating this approach right from the start. When it comes to finding and keeping people, clarity, openness and honesty are the best policies.

What if we train them and they leave? What if we don’t train them and they stay?

Training is Expensive – How much more expensive is ignorance?


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Mind the gap

One of the surveys I have conducted revealed that the top three motivators for people starting their own business were flexibility, fulfilment and exploiting a gap in the market. Having looked at the first two motivators before, I thought I’d turn my attention to the third.

Exploiting a gap in the market is a top motivator for people who have seen an opportunity. However, it is an important factor even if you have different motives.

For some it’s a starting point – they’ve seen a gap and want to build a business which fills it. Others are motivated to start their own business by a desire for freedom, flexibility and more control over their future – they know they want to start out on their own but need to find a gap for them.

For those in the second group, patience is required as genuine gaps don’t arise often. For those in the first group, urgency is the order of the day – the need to act on the gap you’ve identified may well dictate the timing of your transition.

It is worth remembering that a gap in the market is exactly that – an opportunity in a current market, usually doing something existing either better or differently. Rarely is an entirely new market created.

Innovation is a word that gets banded around frequently these days, but not many businesses are truly innovative. That being so, research is key. Though you have seen a gap, the more research into potential competitors (the people doing what you intend to do better or differently) the more you can exploit it.

You’re not looking to mimic or copy other businesses, but to investigate their systems and processes. You’re looking to see what they do well and, if appropriate, to adopt it but also to fill gaps they have left. Can you take their starting point, improve on their patterns and create better systems?

You also need to have one eye on the future. The market moves and some gaps can be fleeting. The best way to ensure that you’re still doing things better or differently is to invest in people and training as your business grows.

New knowledge and skills plug gaps in your own company, prevent others capitalising on your shortcomings the way you may have on those of others. Finding and hiring the right people allows you to continue to move in the right direction, alert to new gaps when and where they appear.

With initial inspiration, thorough research and analysis, sufficient confidence to do things differently, and a willingness to continue seeking out the gaps and opportunities, exploiting a gap in the market can not only be a motivator for starting a business but an achievable reality.

Posted in: Entrepreneurship

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