How to create your own opportunities
2016 so far has been a year of surprises. Comfortable assumptions have been sharply called into question and as a result we are all looking for clarity to navigate this landscape of uncertainty.
This is certainly a theme with event organisers who have contacted me recently: they can’t quite put their finger on what they want me to speak about, but I get questions along the lines of “Can you tell people something that they haven’t heard before? Where could they find something that they’re not seeing? What could they do that they haven’t tried before? Something that will make a difference, given them a new insight and perspective? Maybe something they could do to finish the year with a bang or strategise for 2017?”
Other people, particularly in Northern Ireland, are saying to me “We have to think really differently now given new uncertainties and blurred parameters. What do you suggest?”
Create your own opportunities by taking action
When calculating a course of action, we often wait to see in which direction the wind is blowing, and we weigh up our options and our risks. In the face of uncertainty however, you can’t wait for outside events to follow their accustomed course. That’s why the earlier you act, the better.
So here are eleven action steps that spell new O.P.P.O.R.T.U.N.I.T.Y!
O – Observe trends
Creating your own opportunities has a lot to do with keeping your eyes open for new developments in the world and in your industry.
Mary Bradley from Pat’s Pizza once told me that she and her husband went on a 25 year wedding anniversary trip to Rome. There, they noticed that the Italians were selling pizza by the slice. As soon as they were back, they tried this out in their shop in Letterkenny. It proved to be a highly profitable move!
A very long time ago I was a member of the NUI Galway Bizsoc (the “Business Society”). Brody Sweeney came to speak to us and mentioned that he had observed people in America walking down the street with cups of coffee. Who would ever have thought such a thing? The trend hadn’t caught on in Ireland yet. He introduced the concept of take-away coffee into O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars to great effect.
In New York a few years ago, while participating in the IIBN New York conference, I noticed new brands of fast food restaurants offering healthy convenience meals. Now, in the middle of continuing concerns about fast food and junk food leading to obesity, I notice CHOPPED and Lovin’ Salads are enjoying huge popularity at the moment, by offering gorgeous salads.
Take every opportunity you can to look around what other countries, industries and companies are doing: it can reveal simple, novel insights that could turn out to be most profitable. Magazines are always reporting on the latest trends: find inspiration by downloading free copies of business-oriented in-flight magazines like British Airways’ Business Life magazine, or reading up on the Harvard Business Review website for high quality, in-depth articles; podcasts like the Guardian’s are also a great source of innovative ideas.
P – Put Yourself Forward for a Board Position
Many people who have been in their careers for a while wonder how they can compete against younger counterparts who have more energy and time than they do. Yet they have a growing asset on their side: experience. If you want to gain exposure to new places, people, processes, ideas and opportunities, consider putting yourself forward for a board position.
There are several types of boards, including voluntary organisations (like government agencies – IIBN Irish International Business Network (Join Us) – I have sat on their board for the past four years) . Government agencies in particular hold paying positions across the country that require well-rounded experience. Boards often struggle with a dearth of women: if as a woman you’re wondering how to progress and remain relevant, joining a board could be the way forward.
To prepare for your new role and take this to another level, you could take the Chartered Director programme at Institute of Directors and/or you could apply to be on the board in another jurisdiction, like Northern Ireland.
P – Purchase a Business – Your Business!
Many people look at me in surprise when I say this, but let me clarify! If a super opportunity came along and somebody was to walk up to you and offer you €100,000 more than you would have asked for your business, would it be ready to sell? If you run your business as if you were preparing for a sale, you would create processes and procedures that would make it run more smoothly, you would build in retainers with your best clients, you would document important information, protect your intellectual property and so on. Create your own opportunities by thinking about your business from the perspective of a potential buyer: it could be just what you need to think bigger and better.
Look at sites like irishinvestmentnetwork.ie, businessesforsale.ie and sellthebusiness.ie to see how other people position their companies so that buyers might be interested in buying them outright, taking a franchise or investing in some equity. Then, call a business broker and ask them what you would need to do to prepare to sell your business (this has a significant lead time) and put the practices they recommend into effect. At the minimum, you will have a better functioning business and at a maximum, you could greatly increase the number on the cheque when you are finally ready to sell your polished asset.
O – Offer to Write
I’ve been very fortunate to participate in a plethora of radio and TV interviews. They offer huge exposure, superb networking and give you immense experience. However, they are usually a few minutes long at the most: if you make a mistake or don’t deliver to your full potential, you can’t wind back the clock. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Writing for an audience is a totally different experience. You can brainstorm ideas, think through what you’re going to say, write freeform, edit and then, once you have honed your message, convey it to an audience in your, and their, own time. You are not beholden to the programme’s running time.
Writing will create even more opportunities when you can do it for a new audience and engage with a whole new set of people. For example, I’ve recently written for CPA Ireland on the future of accountancy and was able to interact with readers on the social media platforms of the organisations I wrote for. Think about a new group of people that you want to reach out to: consider in detail what they read and who publishes it. Find the contact details of the editor at a relevant publication and send a short, concise e-mail offering to put together an article that would add value to their print or online publication. Remember that they often have space to fill and they might welcome your e-mail with open arms. On the other hand, the worst they can say is no and then you simply move on to another.
You can then take these pieces and use them as ways to follow up with people in your network by reminding them of conversations you’ve had recently, you can include the articles in a newsletter and use them to boost your own social media profile. It’s a win/win all round!
R – Read a Biography
I’m fortunate that I travel a huge amount for the company; as a result I often find myself staying in foreign hotels with few TV channels I can understand. To wind down after a busy day, I watch documentaries on YouTube: there is a seemingly infinite supply of very good productions, giving insights into different historical characters, geographic cultures, business successes and failures. As the saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes”: viewing original footage of a historical event or seeing an event that made the news, or even an event of your own country’s history, through the lens of a film director’s special sensibility can yield amazing insights. It often makes me question my own assumptions, highlighting the biased lens that we all wear when getting second or third-hand information.
At the moment, I’m reading My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It’s fascinating to spend some time in the mind of one of the world’s most respected visionaries. As the Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know the road ahead, ask those coming back”. Reading biographies and watching documentaries have certainly made me a better economist, trainer and business person. They give me case studies, they show me how people created their own opportunities, they give me nuggets of knowledge and a rich benchmark when looking at the world today.
T – Trade Missions
At the time of writing, HayesCulleton is six years old and I have attended a trade mission every year since the creation of the business. I have participated in inbound and outbound missions to Malta, Manchester, London, Brussels, San Jose and now the United Arab Emirates. I have gone for several reasons: to open up new trading paths, to make connections all over the world, to gain an inside track on the local economic situation and financial markets developments, to network with the other participants, but always in a spirit of being open to serendipity and new opportunities.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in September with London Chamber of Commerce. It certainly gave me all of the above and lots more. Dubai is fascinatingly complex under the surface; by going right into the heart of the business community I was able to experience the “real deal”. The business environment is so different from Europe: there are zero corporation taxes, the working week begins on a Sunday, the Emirati population comprises only 15% of the general population, and so many more mind-boggling insights. If you’re interested in going abroad on a mission of this nature, reach out to Enterprise Ireland, Enterprise Europe Network, your local larger Chamber of Commerce, etc.
Because it is in the interest of governments to develop international trade links, many of these events are heavily subsidized and can be very cost-effective, so check out some opportunities and launch right in!
U – Understand the world of your client
Sometimes, we sit in our offices trying to brainstorm new products and services for our customers, writing marketing copy and only then testing these out on the market. This approach is good, but the opposite one is just as effective, if not more. I have often sat opposite a client and simply been interested to hear about how their business is going. I’ve gleaned the most interesting observations as I was simultaneously thinking of ways my company could help my client solve their business problems.
It has happened more than once that I discovered during such an open-ended conversation that the reason they buy from us is not what I thought it was. For example I used to think that people hired me because of my strong technical knowledge of financial markets. But very often that’s only part of the picture: the client actually needs somebody who can facilitate a panel discussion, manage the energy in the room or bring out the best in interviewees.
Listening to my clients has also provided me with ideas for totally new products and service offerings to match a rising interest in a specific area, like Exchange Trading Funds (ETFs). As a direct result of that I developed an intensive training on the subject.
On one such occasion, I found out that a business contact wanted to partner with somebody to finally manifest an idea that had been in their mind for years: that’s how #SavvyTeenAcademy came about!
Set a goal of regularly meeting with a client or with a vocal representative of your customer group, simply with a view to learning what’s going on in their world. If you don’t end up increasing new business, brainstorming a new product or service or retaining that customer, then at least you will have an enjoyable hour over a scone!
N – Newsletter
Sending out a newsletter enables you to keep in touch with clients and remind your customers, leads and contacts of what you do and how you do it. There are a number of things that you need to do to boost your chances of success with a newsletter, and the return on investment is phenomenal: my newsletter is my marketing channel of choice.
I send out my newsletter once a month and it often prompts people to get in touch and say “I was just thinking of you the other day and meant to contact you. Your newsletter made me actually go and do it.”
In the intro to the newsletter, I always mention where I deliver training and the locations of my speaking events. As a result people will often contact me, saying “I believe that you’re in (specific city) next week – it would be great to catch up while you’re there”.
It is also an effective direct marketing strategy: it has happened that a company or organization has called us to deliver speaking or training on a subject that they read about in the newsletter.
As you can see sending out a newsletter makes a lot of business sense. I also treasure those responses that people wrote simply to say “I was having a tough day and your article about recovering from failure or the fear of success was just what I needed to read.”
I – International Conferences
I have had some of the best experiences at international conferences: from learning about next generation technology, to becoming familiar with new apps (like Trello and Slack), to intensifying my learning curve, developing relationships with different organisations, meeting amazing people, seeing wonderful cities, buying truly innovative business solutions – and thoroughly opening my mind.
At the Money Show in New York in 2011, I met our biggest client, VectorVest. After the Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando, we developed our webinar offering. After DevLearn in Las Vegas, we developed our eLearning offering. Following a visit to Boston College, I met Barbara Messing, CMO, TripAdvisor and I subsequently interviewed her for the Savvy Women podcast series. After the IIBN Conference in London in 2012, we soft-launched into the UK. I could go on and on!
If you have the right strategies to maximise the ROI of such events and you want to look for new ideas, check out the Financial Times Live events, Eventbrite and if you’re part of an industry organization, check out their international conferences.
T – Toastmasters
According to an oft-quoted statistic, more people are afraid of speaking in public than are afraid of death. If you’re one of them, there are many ways that you can overcome your fear of public speaking to unlock a myriad of new business opportunities.
Check out the superb organization that is Toastmasters. You will be able to cultivate your public speaking skills (everybody has them!) in an encouraging, constructive, supportive environment. Their credo is that “by regularly giving speeches, gaining feedback, leading teams and guiding others to achieve their goals in a supportive atmosphere, leaders emerge from the Toastmasters program”. They have local chapters and events in towns and villages all over the country and you can find a group near you very quickly.
If you’re willing to step onto the stage, there is a whole host of industry, commerce, local, regional and national events looking for speakers on various topics. I recently met the person behind Speakific, “Where event organisers and speakers connect”. You might consider putting yourself forward on that platform – who knows what opportunity might come knocking!
Y – Yes!
Say yes! Follow the lead of Richard Branson: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” All the previous steps were about creating the environment to foster and welcome opportunity. When your own opportunity comes knocking, don’t be shy! You need to accept it. Say Yes!
One day five years ago I got a call from Penguin Ireland asking whether I would write a book. This marked the beginning of The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom. Even though I hadn’t a very clear idea about how to write a book, I said yes immediately. I was fired up to share what I knew about personal finance with my future readers, and I decided that what I didn’t know, I could learn. I have countless examples of saying yes and figuring it out later and I hope you will have more and more as time goes on!
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