Category Archives: Best Business Books

The books that have added the most value to my life.

100,000 half-book giveaway…

10 years ago I wrote the first edition of Crashproof your Business. I’m giving half of it away to 100,000 people gratis. This is the first 70 pages that describe the problems we small business owners face, the ownership stuff that nobody tells you about until it is too late.

Our businesses efforts all have three components:

  • what it is that we sell to earn an income, which most of us do pretty well;
  • the management of the business, which many of us struggle with;
  • the ownership stuff where you stand surety for everything, which is what this book looks at, and which almost nobody knows about until it is too late.

It’s all about how tiny mistakes cause many small businesses to close, and what happens to the owners when that firm closes. What happens to their families, their homes, and even the family pets. It’s about the things that we sign when we are in business for ourselves, often with little understanding. It’s about the way we trust banks, and how that trust is broken. It’s also the bestselling book on the subject in South Africa.

The problem is that I don’t know 100,000 small-business owners or people who want to go into business for themselves. I’m hoping that you know a few.

My publisher won’t allow me to give away the entire book, so I’m giving half of it away. That half contains everything you need to know to understand the ownership risks and problems. If I’d known that stuff just six months before my business closed, I wouldn’t have lost my home, car, bike, and all the furniture. I wouldn’t have taken judgements way over R2million  (for rented premises that were soon filled with other tenants).

Why am I giving it away? Well, 20 years after my business closed in 1992, there are 25,000 small-business owners who have used the ideas in the book (and the seminar that preceded the book).

Every week I get an e-mail from one of them telling me how happy he was to give the Sheriff the finger when he (the Sheriff) visited to collect the furniture after his (the seminar attendee) business closed recently. But that leaves about 200,000 small-business owners in South Africa who have no idea what’s really going on behind-the-scenes. 180,000 of those are not going to survive 10 years. Which means it’s just a matter of time before they too transfer all of their personal assets to their business creditors.

This means that these ideas work, and work very well. But I am the only person talking about them. (That is because I think they are so crucial.)

So, if you are planning to go into business, or you know anybody who runs their own business, especially newbies, could you please point them at this book giveaway? The book is practical and written in easy-to-read English.

I used to charge more than R1500 per seminar seat, and the book costs about R160. (Which means that this free giveaway is worth somewhere between R80 and R750 per book.) But, when it saves your house, and your marriage, the knowledge is worth much, much more.

I would deeply appreciate you forwarding this to anybody you know that might be interested. (Although I cannot imagine a business owner that would not be.) They can get their copy here.

Assessing 2012…

The end of each year is a fine time to look back and assess whether one is on the right track. Or, in my case, not. Lest I sound like a self-focused ego maniac, let me explain why this might be relevant to you as a reader of this twelve year old weekly.

Twenty years ago I saw my gat, as Afrikaners say when they do not want to beat about the bush. There was no help in sight for a person closing a business, or fighting with the questions that lead to closure.

Twenty years is a lifetime ago. Since then the Internet has appeared. Steve Jobs has made Apple cool again. Mobile phones are no longer large, large bricks that only do expensive calls. A library was still filled with paper, unlike a Kindle. And Windows was still only 3.

But, two decades hence, you will still struggle to find a specialist therapist to help you through the worst experience of your life. You will struggle to avoid signing a personal surety. And you will still struggle to find any business advisor that thinks about you and your family BEFORE thinking about your business.

We (I)  have dropped the ball in looking after the interests of the millions of self employed folk around the globe. Officialdom is only interested in how many employees we will enrol, and how much tax we can pay. Nary an accolade for those fine people that have paid their own bills since leaving school, even if they have not employed anyone, or made enough profit to warrant a personal tax specialist.

And, no matter how pristine your record, it does not seem fair that a single mistake (like selling anything to any govt dept) can wipe out all that you own three years before retirement, as well as wiping out every penny of of the superlative financial credibility you once held.

I recently read Richard Branson’s unofficial biography a few weeks ago. Mr Branson really does not like the author who has looked past the superb Branson PR to reveal what has really/maybe happened behind the scenes. It is not as pretty as Mr Branson would like.

But I am heartened. Mr Branson has had so many near misses that he makes slaloming the Alps blind look easy by comparison. Much like the mistakes the rest of us try to hide, I think.

Search the web and the only references you will easily find to the concept of business owner risk refer to the the risk inside the business – adequate capital, marketing, staffing, and so on. There is no shortage of advice on the subject. But look for help on closing down without parting with your home, or building a business without your wife and kids needing to lose everything when things go wrong, and there are lean pickings.

When we first start a firm we think that this first effort will be our only one: Our road to glory and fame. (This is that first effort in which we know nothing about running a business.) We do not see this first “project” for what it is: Our first and biggest learning curve.

And when that venture fails to turn into next weeks huge win, we deem ourselves failures. And we crawl back into a safe job because it is what our family wants. We hide our dreams. Well, stuff that.

I want to help folk rise above the challenges of this first learning curve so that they look forward to the second. And the third. Until they get usto where we want to be. (Or an acceptable facsimile.) The joy is not in the destination. It is in the pathways that take us there. It is in following those dreams as best we can. We work to become, not to acquire. (I wish those last words were mine, but they belong to Elbert Hubbard..)

I have about 15 years of useful working life ahead, and I want to devote that time to help at least one million people like you and me build robust entrepreneurial castles from which we can sally forth without fear that our families are ever on the line. My vehicle will be Business Warriors. See you there next year.

In the meantime, no matter how the year turned out, 2013 will still be there after Christmas, so don’t waste the break worrying about it. Enjoy! And do not underestimate your awesomeness., even if you have 10kg more of it than you really want.

Sales Funnel Spiders

I spent three years selling life insurance in the 90s. It was the toughest time of my life. But as a learning experience it remains unbeaten.

About 100 years ago Frank Bettger started selling life insurance in the United States. Some time later he wrote about his experiences in a book that was translated into more than one dozen languages. It’s called How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, and you can download it right now for your Kindle or iPad. I read it for the first time in 1992, and I think it is one of the best sales books ever written.

In short, Frank started selling life insurance at a low ebb in his life. I seem to recall that he started without socks, although that might have been my brother. In my case, I had socks but no car.

After 10 months of pain Frank realised something very simple: no matter how good or bad he was at selling, as long as he was able to tell his story to enough people, someone would buy.

Think about that. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at selling, if enough people hear what you have to say, someone will buy. And that’s the secret to selling. (I have been selling since 1984 so I have a touch of history in this field.)

Insurance salespeople are amongst the best sellers in the world. And they get taught well. They know that selling is a numbers game. Allow me to explain.

They know, for instance, that for every 20 cold calls they make, they will get 10 appointments. For every 10 meetings they arrange, they will actually meet eight people. (Two people will cancel or just not arrive or set the dogs on them.) They know that for every eight people they meet, they will get four requests for a complete financial report. For each of those four reports they will present three (another no-show). And for each of those three final meetings they will sell one policy.

Let’s work that backwards in terms of money.

The commission on the policy is, shall we say, $10,000. That income is the result of making 20 phone calls, making each of those calls worth $500. That income is also the result of meeting eight people, making each of those meetings worth $1250. And, they had to put in three final meetings to arrive at their income, making each of those worth $3333. (Your own numbers will depend on your process, what you sell, how good you are, the season, and a few other factors.)

Sales is a numbers game. This is easy to measure. And once you are measuring it, it’s easy to improve each facet because you can see where the problem is.

Effort Activity Effect Value
20 Prospects Phoned 100% 500
8 Generates 8 Meetings 40% 1250
3 Which Generate 3 Presentations 37.5% 3333
1 Which Generates 1 Sale 33% 10000

It’s easy to motivate yourself to make each phone call, because each very short phone call is worth a lot of money because 20 of them are going to result in a sale.

And it’s easy to notice when things change, or to focus on improving each facet of your process.

But here’s the thing. In speaking to a whole bunch of business owners this past week, many of whom were their own salespeople, very few had any real idea about just one number: how much their average sale was worth.

And if you don’t know what the average sale is worth, it means you don’t know any of the numbers that are important to your business. You cannot work out the value of a lead, which means you cannot work out how much you can spend on marketing. (Marketing is the process of finding enough leads to get to that one sale).

It means that you don’t have a sales funnel. Your process is more like a funnel spider, and they are fugly boisonous pastards. Maybe that’s why about 96% of small firms fail in the first ten years.

Business Owner Guilt

There’s no shortage of people who want to tell us how to live our lives. I think this is most true for those of us who run our own shows. It does not build much confidence when almost all of us are, to say the least, flying by the seat of our pants.

As a newly minted 53 year old I realise more than ever how much I don’t know. Which gets me to the point of ‘guilt’ as it relates to us self-employed folk. (That’s about 85% of all businesses).

A young boy watches a painter for a few minutes before asking if he can try. The painter gives him a roller and a few tips. The kid’s older brother arrives and after a moment says “That looks terrible. You’re doing a terrible job” Without a pause, the eight-year-old responds “Well, of course, I’m just learning. This is the first time I’ve ever done this.” (Adapted from Blind Spots: Why Smart People do Dumb Things by Madeleine van Hecke.)

Wouldn’t it be great if we could approach life with that sort of attitude? It’s an approach where there are no mistakes, only learning experiences. I’ve had my fair share of those, and a few were world-class. The learning part we carry with us for life. The guilt part we should lose quickly.

All of this bubbled up this week. On Monday night my tummy began to effervesce. By Tuesday I had lost a kilogram (good) and slept for 20 hours. By the time I woke up the kids had started fighting about who would get the Apple laptop.

They’d also started a contest to see who could hear Dad’s tummy the furthest away. I am told that Dani won when she ran outside and into the garden of No. 43. (We live in 39.) And, I understand I achieved some immortality when she yelled out, in Norwegian, that she could still hear Dad exploding. I am now known locally as Krakatoa (bad).

But the worst part? I felt guilty about missing a day off work. Ignore all the weekends, and the 20 hour days worked over the past 30 years. Isn’t that really silly?

Yet I see this in almost all the folk I talk to. We’re quietly getting on with paving our own way. Paying the bills most months is a pretty good record. (Paying them every month is an astounding one.) And throughout this we’re guilty that we’re not doing better, or working harder.

If it helps any, I deeply admire anyone who is in business for herself or himself. It’s frightening, and exciting. And the score doesn’t really matter. The fact that you played the game does.

The Invisible Touch by Harry Beckwith

The Invisible Touch landed on my desk in 2000.

In a world that publishes millions of words every minute, there is an amazing amount of noise. Harry Beckwith’s words are an oasis of common sense that looks at small business marketing. (Actually, it looks at marketing reality for all businesses, but I see that through small business eyes.)

He offers key insights in short sentences, and wraps these insights in fascinating stories about the fallacies and stupidities of modern business. In other words, he makes it simple.

I have used these ideas for the past decade in my off-line (seminars) business as well as my online businesses. An online service is about as intangible as you can get, and his ideas help my clients better understand what we do, and how we do it.

At the time of this writing, the book is not available for Kindle. Check it out at Amazon here.

Getting Things Done

The last few weeks of each year are traditionally occupied with looking ahead, getting direction, and setting yourself up for failure as you break all those resolutions (and plans for a better you) by yelling at the kids, deliberately stomping on the cats tail, and (my personal favourite) giving some digital direction to some fellow on the road who is disturbing your equanimity.

So I guess you’ve heard that old story about getting focused on the important things in your life?

Anyway, the story is about a professor who holds up a bucket in front of his class while talking about filling your life with the important things before bothering with the minutiae. He fills the bucket with a few big stones until no more can fit, and he asks the class if it is full. The innocent pupils declare that, indeed, it is.

Then he starts to dribble gravel between the big stones. When he can fit no more gravel in, he asks them if it is now full. Most of the kids agree that it is, except for a few smart alecks.

Of course, because he is the professor and is never wrong, he then starts to dribble sand between the gravel and the big stones. And, of course, he manages to deposit a fair amount of sand in the bucket. He asks them if it is now full, and a few die hard optimists agree that it seems so, while wondering what else the crafty old codger has up his sleeve.

Finally, he starts to soak the bucket with water, which seeps between the sand and the gravel and the big stones.

And the conclusion, even though most of us do not have rocks ion our heads, is that the bucket is a little like our lives. If we fill them with the dross, the unimportant stuff, then there will be no space for the important issues – the big rocks, metaphorically speaking.

Unfortunately, the professor was not around the day we fell out of the womb. Between that time and today life has kind of filled up with a lot of sand, gravel and water, along with a few unidentifiable chunks that we don’t really want to look at too hard, just in case.

This is the traditional way we learn to prioritise and it sure leads to a lot of anxiety before we head right back into our old ways. It’s called a top-down approach where you take time to identify the big things in your life, and then try and align the little things. It doesn’t work too well. At least – not with me. And I’ve read a Congolese rain forest on the subject.

But, today I find myself absolutely confident that I am on top of everything that is important to me. My email tray (200 items/day) ends each day empty. Every project is on track. My accountant assured me yesterday that he cannot recall seeing anyone quite so in touch with his business and his life. I think he felt I was a little obsessive-compulsive. I am not. But, I do have a new system, and time on my hands once again.

And so can you. It’s based on an exceptional book by David Allen – Getting Things Done. And it is based on the reality that most of us are already overloaded and buried below tons of gravel. David follows a bottom-up approach of getting you out of that hole and into a functional state – which is pretty useful for us business owners.

Read the book, and within a week you will have a filing system where you can put your hand on anything within a minute. (My biggest frustration used to be the amount of time I spent searching for stuff that wasn’t where I knew it was.)

You will have a simple mechanism for never forgetting anything. Amazing how well you sleep at night knowing that nothing is going to slip between your fingers. No more late night sweats!

You will have identified all the major projects that are important to you, and will have a mechanism for dealing with each of them so that they stay on track.

Unfortunately you will never again be able to say that you don’t have time, but you will be able to substitute with a simple and gentle “No, that is not in line with my goals.”

If you read nothing else this year, this book is critical.

Peter Carruthers
January 9th, 2007

Niches and Riches

So you meet the woman of your dreams, and in the course of the discussion she asks you what you’d like to see in your ideal partner. And you answer “Actually, I don’t mind. As long as she’s female.” Wrong! You go home alone. Again!

And that’s what it’s like talking to folk about marketing. A sample of the daily flow:

“So, Dave, what kind of people are going to be interested in this new ambidextrometer that you’ve spent R1 million developing?”
“Hey Pete, that’s just the thing. EVERYONE needs one of these, so the market is HUGE!”
Wrong! You go broke.

Life is all about niches – preferences. What appeals to one of us, doesn’t appeal to all of us.

For example, I grew up listening to a band called Strawbs. (Back then bands had names you could identify with.) And they had a few really good albums, and on each were a few exceptional tracks – at least to a young, impressionable, and often deeply intoxicated mind. (Don’t ever criticise your kids. I am just scared that mine are going to try and do some of the stuff I did.)

The Strawbs produced some really cool music, which I used to have on LPs, which I vaguely recall an ex girlfriend testing her discus hurling skills on from the window of the 18th floor apartment we shared in 1979 overlooking the Goodwood air force base.

But once you’re hooked, no matter how weird the obsession, you stay hooked. So it was onto the Internet a few weeks ago to find some Strawbs music, and into the iTunes music store – and voila': every album and single the Strawbs had ever produced was there for the downloading at a ridiculously reasonable price. That’s the beauty behind the Internet. No matter how esoteric your taste, no matter how narrow the niche – there are enough people, interested enough to buy, to make someone very rich.

If you doubt this, Chris Anderson, in his exceptionally powerful book The Long Tail quotes an example that I find truly astounding. Ecast is a digital jukebox service. (Their physical jukebox looks like a regular one, but instead of CDs it has a broadband connection, and in 2004 they had about 10,000 albums available in their selection. (This is huge compared to the average jukebox, which only holds about 100 CDs.)

The Ecast CEO asked Chris to guess what percentage of their 10,000 albums sold at least one track per quarter. The normal answer – based on our understanding of economics and business – would be about 20% because of the 80/20 rule, which seems to apply almost everywhere.

Chris took a flyer at 50% – absurdly high because in a typical bookstore nowhere near half of the top 10,000 books will sell more than once a quarter. (Only 25,000 of the 1.2 million books tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold more than 5000 copies in 2004 – once of the reasons guys like Charles Dickens were so poor.)

The answer: 98% of the albums in Ecast sell at least one track per quarter. No matter how many new titles Ecast adds, niching deeper and deeper, they continue to find that just 2% of the titles don’t sell. The reason?

In the words of the Ecast CEO, “In a world of almost zero packaging cost and instant access to almost all content in this format, consumers exhibit consistent behaviour: They look at almost everything.”

Given that 940 million people or so have access to the Internet (a startlingly large number of people) and even if just 1/1000 of a percent of them are interested in Strawbs – that’s still 9,400 of us loyal (although aging) fans – and that’s 20 years later. Which means, in my simple mind, that no matter what your poison is there are a bunch of other folk who share the same passion (even though many of us might be a tad embarrassed to broadcast it widely).

Now if it should happen that the Strawbs return in some weird hip-hop latino-afro-asian dj blend – yet another niche within this niche, it would bring in a completely new audience, although I doubt it would appeal to an old fudster like me.

Internet ‘economics’ is about abundance, whereas the stuff we learnt at school and Varsity is all about scarcity. They are poles apart. And if we want to stay in business, we’d better atart catching up. Do yourself a favour and get the book. It’s very enlightening.

The Banking Miracle

In every bank manager’s office is a piece of furniture that bears a startling resemblance to a chair. When you visit your bank manager wanting to borrow money, your bank manager points to this piece of furniture and says “Won’t you bend over my barrel?”

You see, he knows that 9 out of 10 small-business owners wait until it’s almost too late before they look for the working capital that their business needs.

If you are one of the 10% who are ahead of this game, then you are under no pressure because you will only be needing money at some future point — not at the end of this month!

If, on the other hand, you DO need the money at the end of this month you certainly are going to bend over the barrel. And if you have already written out the cheques, you are going to really bend over. And if you have already posted those cheques, you are going to hug that barrel!

I will probably repeat this point often during this book. That’s because it’s worth repeating. Your bank manager conducts between 10 and 20 negotiations about money every single day. You will typically meet with a bank manager to borrow money once or twice each year. Honestly, who is going to be better at this game?

I am glad we agree on that.

Now that you are fully extended over this barrel, your bank manager reaches into his desk drawer and takes out a large Queen pineapple. He grasps it firmly on the green part, holding the large spiky orange fruit aloft. He vaults over his desk and inserts the pineapple into a portion of your anatomy that doesn’t often see sunlight.

It is called the banking miracle. It isn’t a miracle that it is totally painless — even though it seems that way at first. And it isn’t a miracle that you can still walk. The miracle is that you have just signed away every single thing you own; every single thing you have acquired over your lifetime; and every penny you will ever earn in the future — in return for a small business overdraft. And the miracle is that you feel so good about it!

Honestly, tell me that when you walked out of the banker’s office you weren’t relieved that you had managed to buy another few months? You didn’t feel great because you were such a fine negotiator?

(I might be going out on a limb on this one, but I was there as well — signing every piece of paper I could — and feeling good about every one as well.)

The above excerpt is from the CrashProof your Business book, and I took the shortcut of sharing it this week after spending a few minutes with an ex-Luxembourg banker, and having the harsh reality of SA banking reinforced. If you can survive your bank, you’re already an entrepreneur my friend!

If you want to read the entire book, you can buy it here.