Monday, October 29

‘It's Your Business’: Getting your company off the ground

As the host of MSNBC’s “Your Business” and a seasoned entrepreneur, JJ Ramberg provides the tools to lift your business to the next level in “It’s Your Business.” Here's an excerpt.


My name is JJ Ramberg, and I am an entrepreneur. I was born into a family of entrepreneurs. I'm married to an entrepreneur. I host a national television show about entrepreneurs for an audience of entrepreneurs. And, when I'm not doing that, I help run my own business which I co-founded with my brother Ken Ramberg, called Even many of my closest friends are entrepreneurs. And my guess is, if you just picked up this book, you've got a good streak of entrepreneurship running through your veins too.

This book is a collection of some of the smartest, most practical, and easy to understand business advice out there. It’s straightforward information that you don't need a business school degree to understand, and you don't need to be a Fortune 500 company to use. And believe me, thanks to these past six years of hosting Your Business on MSNBC, I've heard it all and seen it all — in action. This stuff works. Period. It’s worked for the people who figured it out, and in many cases, it’s worked for me at my own company. And while some of it is just plain common sense, much of it is highly original and extremely clever.

Since I started hosting MSNBC’s Your Business in 2006, my colleagues and I have interviewed thousands of entrepreneurs to find out what they've learned about running their own companies. And honestly, no two individuals are alike. I've spoken with sole proprietors working out of their own basements to people who pay the salaries of hundreds of employees working in large industrial facilities. I've met people funded by venture capitalists risking millions, angel investors risking hundreds of thousands and plenty more who have funded their own ventures with nothing more than their life savings or a second mortgage on their home. And when you look at the industries they represent, they are all over the map. A random sample might include a dry-cleaner in Pittsburgh, a tech startup in Seattle, a restaurant in Manhattan, a real estate firm in Phoenix, a head-hunter in New Orleans, a hot air balloon operator in Napa, a dog sled ride company in Aspen, a bank in Boston, a wedding planner in Chicago... the list is very, very long. But the common denominator is that each of these small business owners has had to confront and solve many different kinds of problems in all areas of business in order to survive and grow.

No matter where we are or what business we are in, I have found that there is one true quality which all of us entrepreneurs share — we are a very determined bunch! Even in the heart of the 2008 recession, I met people who simply did not have the words "I give up" in their vocabulary. We are people who, when you tell us "No!” we think "No for now." Tell us "Impossible!" and what we hear is "Impossible for now." We are go-getters who make things happen for ourselves, for our employees, and for our communities.

We are a very practical group and we generally don't settle. We are always on the lookout for the fastest, simplest, least wasteful and efficient way to get the best results for the least effort, money and resources. We also don't spend a lot of time regretting our mistakes. In fact, many of our best ideas have come to us as lessons learned from huge mistakes. And those ideas, those tips, those hard-earned insights are what we've collected and organized into this book.

As both a reporter/writer of this book, and a self-employed entrepreneur, I find myself in the position of both receiving and then using much of the advice collected here. Receiving it -- as a journalist with a national audience of small business owners -- and then using it in the day-to-day operation of my own business, I cannot tell you how often I've come away from one of my interviews with scribbles on the side of my notebook, reminding me to try out what that person is doing when I get back home to GoodSearch. These scribbles run the gamut from how to change someone’s “no” into a “yes” (see Tip #102 and #103) to how to stand (literally – where to exactly put my feet!) when I’m giving a presentation when I want to impress (see Tip #40).

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That’s where this book comes in. This book is basically a detailed look into these scribbles. It’s filled with all of those “tricks of the trade” that people who are in the trenches every day – who are doing the things all small business owners do such as hire people, develop pricing schedules, negotiate deals -- have created to help them with these tasks. Many are things that we’re not doing because we just didn’t think of them before. Many are things we know we should be doing, but haven’t had the time to figure out how. We’ll tell you how.

Indeed, I’ve learned a great deal from the advice we’ve collected. For example, in Tip 116, Josh Brookhart of TZG Partners provides insight on getting your customers to give you feedback on a product launch. As you’ll see, I fortuitously spoke to Josh a week before a new GoodSearch launch and it totally changed the way we handled the introduction with our users. Other times I didn’t get the advice before doing something, but immediately changed my practices once I heard it. For example, Katherine Corp’s Tip #110 has completely informed the way I talk to customers and potential partners.

This book is written with two of the producers of Your Business – Lisa Everson and Frank Silverstein. You can imagine, with thousands of interviews under our belt, we had an enormous pool of tips and advice to choose from. But we were picky in deciding which ones to include. Every single tip in this book is practical, actionable, easy to implement and will help your business succeed. You can read one and make the change in your business that very day! We ran each tip by our informal focus group of small business owners to make sure their reaction was, “Wow, that’s so smart, I have to start doing that in my company.” Or, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m not doing that already!”

Keep in mind, this not a comprehensive how-to-start-and-grow-your-business kind of book. If you’re looking for that, there are plenty of books out there that fill that need. We clearly do not cover every single thing you need to know to run a business and we didn’t try.

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What we did set out to do is put together a collection of “ah ha” moments – those magical discoveries in your business where you think, “Oh, that’s a much better way to do it!’ Most of these tips are not big picture – they’re very focused and very actionable. And, they’re all easy to digest and quick to read.

Using myself as the prime example, most entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of time. My co-authors are always making fun of me saying that I’m usually in such a hurry that when I call them, I simply say “Hi, it’s J” instead of “JJ,” saving exactly one second. To that end, we decided not to spend 10 pages on a piece of advice when we could get the point across in one paragraph.

You don’t need to read this book in the order it was written – and as a matter of fact, you probably shouldn’t. Poke around. Flip open to a page and see what you find. Or, if you’re focusing on an area of your business right now, head over to that section. If you have a meeting with your sales team coming up, go straight to Chapter Six on “Closing the Sale”; if you’re wondering about your management style, go to Chapter Three -- “Being The Leader.” Or, if you’re just starting your company, you may want to begin with Chapter Two and read on to see how others are getting things right.

I started my company, in 2005. It was a typical start-up, founded out of my one-bedroom apartment in New York City. GoodSearch is a portal which gives people the tools to transform everyday actions like searching the internet, shopping online and dining out, into ways to support your favorite charity or school. More than 15 million people have used GoodSearch and we've raised around $10 million dollars for good causes. Together with my brother and co-founder Ken, I’ve dealt with all of the issues we touch on in this book. I’ve had to contemplate what kind of funding to get; how to fire someone; how to find office space; how to get potential partners who had never heard of us to take a meeting. After five years of running the company ourselves, we hired Scott Garell, the former president of, to be our CEO, at which time we dealt with issues of how to grow at the right speed. You’ll hear a lot about my experiences as an entrepreneur in the following pages. Throughout our research and writing, I have used many, many of the tips in my own business. I’m quite sure you will do the same!

JJ Ramberg

TIP #40

Improve self-confidence by standing differently

The Problem: You’re about to attend a high-pressure meeting or make an important presentation. There are a lot of touchy issues -- and a tough audience. You need to be calm and confident and you are feeling anything but….

The Solution: Prepare for your presentation by spending five minutes before the meeting standing in certain positions and moving your body in certain simple exercises.

Yes, we get it, to many of you, this sounds ridiculous. How could holding your body in certain poses help make you more confident? Well, it does. Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and Dana Carney who is at UC Berkeley have studied this extensively and they found that positioning yourself in specific ways releases testosterone into your body (for both men and women) which in turn makes you more confident. Their tests also show that the stances they describe lower the level of cortisol in your system which reduces stress.

So, here are some exercises to do before going into an important meeting.

1. Stand in a pose which “takes up a lot of space” with your legs spread and with your arms out wide (illustration below)

2. Sit with your hands behind your head and your legs up on the desk “CEO style” (illustration below)

Amy told us that you should also resist the urge to do what you’d normally do before a stressful meeting: hunch over your cell phone while you’re sitting in the waiting room. If you do that, you lower your testosterone and increase your cortisol which increases stress – the exact opposite of what you want!

Tip: To see Amy teaching me these and other poses, click here.

TIP #147

Be the first one at every event

Problem: You’re invited to an event where there will be a lot of potential investors (or customers or marketing partners…), but you are a little shy and terrible at networking. Your instinct may be to arrive late so you’re not the first awkward person there.

Solution: Arrive exactly on time.

While, it may seem a bit uncomfortable to be one of the first people at a party, in reality, being one of those early birds makes it much easier to break the ice with the other early birds before everyone settles into little groups. Colleen DeBaise, the special projects editor for Entrepreneur Magazine who pointed this out to us, says it’s hard to break into a group of strangers who are already mid-conversation. It’s much easier when there are just a few people all feeling a bit awkward and you’re almost forced into a conversation with the other early arrivers.

How I use this: Though most people wouldn’t assume that I’m shy, I do have my moments…and I’ve certainly spent a lot of time pretending to write a very important email on the side of the room while really I’m just covering up for the fact that I can’t find anyone to talk to. What a waste of time! I’m much better starting a conversation with someone standing alone than navigating my way into a group of people I don’t know.

Suggestion: For people who are not very good at starting conversations, Eric Kaufman, a partner at Premier Sports & Entertainment, Inc. who has made a career out of being outgoing, told us that the best “pick up line” at a networking event is the “no pick-up, pick-up line.” He says, simply go up to someone and say “Hi, I’m <>.” Eric says you shouldn’t over think it. Just walk up and say hello. While you may get a few cold shoulders, most people are nice and just introducing yourself is the best icebreaker.

Suggestion Number Two: If you are shy or just don’t feel comfortable walking into a place where you don’t know anyone, make it easy on yourself. Call ahead and talk to the president or membership person. Tell them you are new to the event and ask if they would have someone meet you at the registration table and take you around to meet a few of the key members to get you started.

TIP #136

Create a personal story to connect with customers

How do you make your company stand out in a saturated market where everyone is providing a similar service or product? For example, there may be five nail salons within a couple of blocks of the one you just opened and most customers don’t know what differentiates one from another.

Often a real, personal connection or shared values with the owner of the business will bring the customer back. Charlena Miller, a marketing consultant from Portland, OR, says sharing your authentic story is a good vehicle for making that connection. But for your story to be most effective, it should have two key elements:

Part A: What inspired you to start this company?

The first part of the story should talk about your passion for your work. Why did you pick this business? Is it a family business? A hobby? A talent? Something you came to in order to answer a personal problem? Why does what you are doing mean something special to you?

Part B: What difference do you hope to make in other people's lives?

The second part of the story should talk about your customers. What do you want them to experience? Are you saving them time? Are you making them feel better about themselves and helping them enjoy life more? What are the customers’ needs that you are meeting?

Once you have answered those questions, you can craft your story by mixing the best parts of each. One note of caution – while people are interested in your short story, they may not be interested in your novel. So, try your story out on a couple of friends, as well as potential or current customers, to make sure it’s compelling before putting it out there for the world!

Case Study: Mark Bitterman and Jennifer Turner Bitterman opened a small shop in Portland, OR, featuring hundreds of different hand-made varieties of local and imported salt sold at prices many times the cost of salt sold in supermarkets. One of the key factors in their success is that they created a story that distinguishes their products from everything else on the market. Mark tells how he discovered his first artisanal salt at a roadside cafe while motorcycling through northern France at the age of 20. He had a steak seasoned with traditional French hand-made course sea salt, and the flavor was so personally life-changing that it prompted him to begin seeking out and collecting regionally made salts from around the world. When he opened his shop, his goal was share these exotic flavors gathered in places a remote as Tibet, Morocco, Hawaii, Peru, Djibouti, and Bali. He even wrote a book on salt explaining its history and offering regional recipes featuring these unusual salts.

Mark’s story transformed an ordinary kitchen staple into a romantic adventure. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Watch the video

This is an excerpt from IT’S YOUR BUSINESS Copyright (c) 2012 by Jennifer Ramberg, Lisa Everson, and Frank Silverstein.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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