Inspirational leaders are all too rare, but I was fortunate to serve under one immediately after graduating from officer training.

As the commanding officer, he was responsible for approximately 600 soldiers. Shortly after assuming his command, he had taken the time and trouble to learn all of their names and something about almost every one of them — not just his officers and senior noncommissioned officers but the individual soldiers themselves. He could walk around his barracks or in the field, address the soldiers by name and inquire after some aspect of their life. The health of a sick mother, the chances of their favorite soccer team winning their next match, a light and humorous reference to some trouble they had recently been in.

He obviously didn’t know everything about them, that would have been impossible, but he took it upon himself to learn enough to show that he valued them as individual people, rather than faceless parts of a military machine. By virtue of his rank, he was automatically an exalted figure, but he made sure he was never a distant one, nor did he ever make the mistake of trying to curry favor by being chummy; he was far too wise a soldier for that.

As a leader, he was the antithesis of the philosophy of “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1854 poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

His soldiers loved him for it and, if been called upon to do so, I am certain would have died for him. He was an outstanding leader and the lessons I was privileged to learn from him I have never had cause to doubt or discard.

But it was a regrettably uncommon sort of leadership. In offices and organizations everywhere owners of companies or their managers pay not the slightest attention to the individual people who work for them. I watch them march into the office without much more than a grunt to the receptionist, silently traversing lines of people, eyes fixed upon their destination, unwilling to stop in seeming fear of being tainted by the lowly status of the cubicle dwellers.

In the course of business, they may well talk to them, but it is more often a distant and impersonal transaction, and they make it obvious they are eager to return to the privileged sanctuary of their office. In company social situations, they do not see it as part of their duty to know more about their staff; instead their staff is expected to be nothing more than an appreciative audience for their views.

A friendly greeting to that receptionist with a genuine inquiry as to how their weekend was, an acknowledgment that you’re glad someone has recovered from a sickness, a thank you or congratulation for a job well done is neither hard nor time-consuming. But it can transform the atmosphere in the company. Not only will it have made their day better, an admirable end in itself, but if the company demonstrates it appreciates the staff as individuals and treats them with the sort of good manners that makes the rest of life more bearable, this appreciation will be passed on to the suppliers and customers.

I do not believe you can have a truly great organization without great people, and I know you cannot attract, motivate and retain great people unless you create an environment where they feel respected and valued. Surely, it is unreasonable to expect that someone whose manager doesn’t value them enough to bother saying “Good morning” to them will value anyone else associated with the company any differently.

Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company's Hotel Management and Distressed Asset Management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry. Reach him at jhutton@merlinhospitality.com.

Published in Philadelphia

To Pierre Noack, a brand is more than a logo or slogan or something by which customers can quickly remember your company in a sea of competitors.

It is your company’s personality. It is the definition of what your company stands for.

When Aerzen USA Corp. outgrew its leased office space in the Philadelphia market recently, Noack — Aerzen USA’s president — was among those who wanted to see the company’s new headquarters make a statement about the Aerzen brand.

“The question was what we wanted the building to represent,” Noack says. “How did we want it to embody the brand? Answering that question, we decided to build a green building, which has been LEED Gold certified, the first in Pennsylvania and one of the first manufacturing buildings in the United States.”

It was an example of Aerzen’s leadership putting its money where its branding mouth is, and doing so in a very tangible way. To set a tone like Noack has set at Aerzen USA, a maker of air and gas moving equipment, compressors, blowers and vacuum pumps, you have to start with your own beliefs and actions.

“It starts really with the head of the company, really to embody what the brand is supposed to be,” Noack says. “If you’re going to build a strong brand, first you have to start with yourself. You have to make sure that the brand you want the organization to embody is also matching the values that you have.”

Get on the ground

To build your brand, you have to know how your customers and would-be customers interpret the brand, and you have to know how the people at the customer interface point are projecting your brand. To gain an accurate picture, you have to stay connected to what is happening at ground level.

Noack relies on his sales force to develop close relationships with customers and often has his leadership team interact with salespeople to get a better idea of what is happening in the world of Aerzen’s customers.

It’s critical for Noack’s approach, because he’s driving Aerzen toward becoming a solutions-focused company. Rather than focus on pushing products, Noack wants his sales and operations staff to collaborate with customers to find the best possible solution for a given situation.

“Our salespeople have close relationships with our customers, and it’s the same on the service side,” Noack says. “It’s a part of the people we hire, because our approach is not to so much impose our brand on other people and organizations, but to produce value. But that approach only works when you listen to customers. You have to seek opportunities to collaborate with customers and find solutions to their problems.”

To continually drive home to employees that solutions will remain an integral part of the company’s brand, Noack gets many of his people involved in creating solutions for customers.

“For example, a plant operator recently called and asked us if we made a machine that would perform a specific task,” he says. “We said, ‘Maybe we can do something, let’s talk about it. What do you need?’ We had some conversations about what they were looking to do, what they were looking to accomplish, and in the end, we worked with them on developing a solution that would work, based on what they were trying to do.”

Explore different strategies

In the modern business world, you have a many different avenues through which you can strengthen your brand. Building relationships on a personal level is still the most effective means. But you need to be able to utilize multiple avenues to develop and maintain your brand.

For Aerzen, that is where Ralph Wilton comes in. Wilton is the marketing manager on Noack’s team, and is in charge of building the company’s brand through a wide variety of avenues. Chief among them is the company’s website, which has become foundational to the branding strategy.

“Basically, for us, the online focus is really the core of our marketing program,” Wilton says. “That is where we have the most horsepower, the most attention. It all revolves around our website, which we try to constantly monitor, and keep fresh and updated. That is the face of our brand and our message to the world.”

In all of Aerzen’s online and offline activities, Wilton’s goal is to drive traffic back to the website and make the company’s brand synonymous with a resource-laden Internet presence. Providing readily available information on product specifications and corporate news helps enhance the brand by keeping customers knowledgeable about the company, what it produces and what it stands for.

“What I’ve found is that companies that provide information readily and make it a proactive approach, those are the companies that win, versus companies that try to hide stuff, where you have to call and jump through hoops to get things. That really doesn’t work so much anymore. We want to provide for them to get them what they need. If it’s a complex sale or engineered product solution, they’ll have to call somebody eventually anyways and talk about their situation. So we want to give them enough on the site to be effective and get them to that point.”

Branding and marketing with a focused purpose is a new frontier for Aerzen. The company used to work with what Wilton calls a “spray and pray” approach, relying on casting seeds to the wind, hoping that at least a few would take root with customers.

“We’d just launch in many different areas,” Wilton says. “Now we have several industry verticals that we target specifically. We want our customers to know who we are very intimately, so we do still have offline approaches like print advertising, trade shows and things like that. But now we combine it with the very robust online approach. We’re not going after everything out there that we think might be a sales lead. I think even if we had a lot of money to approach everything, we’d still take our current route because it’s far more effective.”

Whether your market differentiator is value or service, bulk sales or specialized solutions, the culture surrounding your brand will start with you and your leadership team.

Though terminology like “living the brand” might seem like something of a cliché, the concept still rings true, and it’s still critical to building a successful branding and marketing culture.

“This is a long-term, never-ending endeavor, and it is a commitment that the management team makes to keep building it, every day to live the brand and communicate it through your actions,” Noack says. “Through what you communicate, especially in times of crisis, in times of difficulties and challenges, that is when employees observe you the most and get the most out of your messages. It is driving it by example, constantly reminding everyone of our task to build that brand. You have to communicate that you don’t just fulfill the need we have today, that we all have the potential to build this vessel for the brand, for the personality of the organization.”

How to reach: Aerzen USA Corp., (610) 380-0244 or www.aerzenusa.com

The Aerzen zone

Thoughts on business leadership from President Pierre Noack and Marketing Manager Ralph Wilton of Aerzen USA Corp.

Wilton on finding the best customer service representatives:

There are what we call the touch points. The people who interact with the customer are the living, breathing people of the brand. So if you have a person who is very upbeat and caring, you are going to have a very good brand experience. We have all be in situations where we’ve seen the marketing material, we’ve gotten the feature benefits stuff, we go into a place to buy something, and we’re met by someone who is inept, doesn’t care or has a bad attitude. We might buy in spite of it, but we don’t come back.

Noack on points of customer contact:

We are trying to multiply points of contact. We have project managers, engineers, production planning and so on. We really encourage all of these people to have contact with our customers so there are as many touch points as possible between our customers and us. This way, we build resilience in the experience of the brand, because it is not tied to a single point of contact and it is built into the relationship.

Noack on being a solutions-driven company:

It’s not all about trying to sell, but as businesspeople, we are always there for others, whether it be buyers, people using our equipment, systems, it’s always for others. We have to think about them rather than us, and that’s the reality of it. It’s not real to think that building a brand and pushing it onto people is going to work. The other way around is true and much more rewarding. It takes some courage to get there. It’s not the traditional way of doing things, unfortunately.

Published in Philadelphia

As the CEO of LG Chem Power Inc., which supplies lithium ion batteries to the auto industry, Prabhakar Patil is dealing with constant change. As the auto industry shifts toward more reliance on renewable energy sources for vehicles, Patil must keep his company ready to answer the challenge.

It became particularly evident in 2007, when Patil’s company began rolling out prototype battery packs for GM.

When we got started with GM, the original announcement came out in April of ’07,” Patil says. “The first prototype pack had to be delivered by October of ’07, which was a very short period given that the first time we were doing a battery pack of this size and magnitude, for a plug-in application.”

To address the needs of the evolving auto industry, Patil needed to keep everyone at his $25 million, 150-employee company focused on a well-defined mission and set of goals.

Smart Business spoke with Patil about how you can adapt to change by putting your company’s foundational principles at the forefront.

How do you get people on board with these new ideas and concepts?

People recognize that we are sort of fortunate to be in the position that we are in. There is a fundamental transformation that is taking place in terms of what I call the transportation paradigm, shifting from internal combustion petroleum-based engines to more electrified vehicles. Not that the transportation industry is going to roll over to all hybrid vehicles anytime soon, but there is a basic and fundamental shift that is going on. To be part of that is indeed sort of a privilege and, in some sense, luck that we area in the right place at the right time. We have to do everything to make sure it is successful. What would make the opportunity go bad more than anything else is if it disappoints the customers when these vehicles are on the road, and that is something that none of us want to be responsible for.

What would you tell other business leaders about relating the goals of the company to employees and their individual work?

It is figuring out a way where you personalize the relationship between the job and the person. Sometimes, it can be an intellectual kind of connection but is much better if it becomes a more visceral connection, where people internalize the significance and importance of what it is they’re trying to do, because of the impact that it is going to have either on their own lives or on the family that is going to be using the product or on making a fundamental change in the technology. You have to find a nobility of purpose, something that people can relate to, something that people can say, ‘This is critical, painful though it may be for the hours I have to put in. This is something we have to do and do right.’

How do you find nobility of purpose in a company’s mission?

In our case, it was relatively straightforward to

do. It’s seldom that you get a chance to do something that is good for the environment, for the country, for the community. In many ways, what we do is our opportunity to address the environmental issue as well as the energy security issue.

Does your own visibility and accessibility in the organization help to reinforce the mission?

It is doing it by example. I encourage suggestions and ideas, and I encourage our team leaders down the chain to have that kind of accessibility to their teams. For example, just looking at the subject of quality, once they see the due diligence, time and effort that is put in to not cut corners, I think that communicates the message more than anything else that quality is an important subject for us.

How to reach: LG Chem Power Inc., (248) 307-1800 or www.compactpower.com

Published in Detroit

Jon Yob’s company is filled with talented, capable people. Yet when building a team, he looks for more out of his employees than just, ‘Do they have the right skill set?’

“[It’s] a passion for what we do and a commitment to the company and the ability to be a strong team player, because ultimately you can have the best A player, but if they won’t work as a team, you’re not going to meet your objectives,” says Yob, founder, president and CEO of Tampa-based Creative Recycling Systems Inc.

It’s through strong teamwork that Yob and his 237 employees have grown the company in the midst of a global financial crisis.

Smart Business spoke with Yob about how he fosters a culture of teamwork.

Give people time to fit in. We have a culture where people really like each other … but it’s a process to bring them on board and it’s a very important time; they have to understand and see that this is maybe a little bit different culture than what they were used to. Physically, within six months, you’ve got a pretty good sense, and maybe sooner.

There’s a certain amount that they have to take the initiative for themselves and they have to really care and commit themselves to really doing an excellent job for the company. It’s just a process of bringing them on board and being fair to them, because the first period of time is a significant adjustment.

Be clear about people’s roles. With my employees I’m very forthright. I do not try to sugarcoat because they expect from me what I really think. I think [2008] was a time of uncertainty, and we did not know necessarily all of the issues we would deal with as a result of the financial crisis. What I did know is that we were in a very good position and that with a plan for incremental growth we would be fine.

These people are looking for someone to help them understand where it is going, and that, to me, is the critical role of the leader ? it’s for people to have a sense that ‘I don’t know everything that’s going on, but I believe in the leadership and I’m going to do what I need to do as my part of it, because I believe that we’re going to do what leadership is telling us we can do.’ That tie in is critical for every organization.

Show you care. Any leader in any organization faces challenges in regard to building their team and really making sure that you value and you care for your employees. Those are very important things ? that you are genuine, that you care. People see that. When you care about people, you’re going to get one level of return back to you. You’re going to get one level of dedication. If you cannot care, you will not get it.

I believe that my team really gets it done, and I can’t say enough about how good they are. They are a great group of people, but I think it takes a leadership, and that leadership should really excite, a passion and the sense of what we are capable of accomplishing – they truly believe in that.

Look for team players. I’ve seen people who maybe work better as loners, and that’s OK in maybe some aspects of business, but when it comes to your core team, you really need good team players. And it’s really more about the character and the ability to work as a team really than it is if you have all A-plus people. That’s my opinion. Those are the ones that stick with you, that are loyal.

To me, I know that I have total confidence in my team. Part of that is because we’ve worked together for so long … I think for me what it has really done is allowed me to be the leader and spend a lot more time on the overall plan and on innovation and interacting with people who can really help the company go to the next several levels.

HOW TO REACH: Creative Recycling Systems Inc., (813) 621-2319 or www.crserecycling.com

Published in Florida

It used to take a lot of work for Don Ascione and his sales team to secure new business for his $15 million distribution companies, Continental Steel & Tube Co. and its subsidiary Continental Chemical USA.

“We were calling people up and soliciting their business, trying to find out … who would be buying titanium? – OK aerospace,” says Ascione, president and founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based companies. “Then we’d have to go find all the aerospace companies and say, ‘OK, Boeing, and try to find a buyer in Boeing, and get them to talk to you. It’s daunting.”

Ascione saw he could no longer rely on print advertising to generate leads as more and more buyers of industrial products moved online.

“People get impatient and you are talking to them on the phone and they want to see a picture of something – they’ll send you an e-mail and if it’s not there in 30 seconds they’ll say, ‘Where is it?’… The world has changed to instant gratification,” he says. “There is no waiting anymore.

“We looked at it and said, ‘OK, we’re not going to do print anymore,’ and decided to put all of our eggs in the Internet basket.”

Ascione’s online strategy was to make Continental’s online presence more credible but also more accessible to potential buyers. Without print, the Internet would be his sole sales channel.

With the help of long-time sales partner ThomasNet, Ascione approved a complete website redesign for both Continental businesses, updating the sites’ capabilities to include online product catalogs, SEO-driven language, e-commerce shopping carts and user friendly search functions. Each also developed a web presence on ThomasNet’s online distribution portal.

By utilizing the web effectively to showcase its strengths, a smaller company, such as Continental, built a niche for its specialty products.

“It provides an avenue for people to find us and to know what we do and what we are capable of providing,” Ascione says. “We have always been exporting for a long time, but our Internet strategy has allowed people in other countries to find us.

“It sets us in our niche products so that we can compete with the big guys. We’ve developed a relationship with our sources [so] that when somebody wants those particular items, we can be competitive that we can get the delivery. We can satisfy the end users’ requirements. We know that our price and delivery is going to be just as good as a Ryerson, or an EMJ or Alliance or any one of these billion-dollar companies.”

It also brings the customers to you.

“With the strategy that we have now, what happens is people call us,” Ascione says. “When they call us we’re in a better position. They found us and they’re looking for us to provide something for them. So they are receptive when we call back, when we respond back to them. When they do, we actually put a markup on it and try to make a profit.”

As more customers make purchases through your site, you can use web tracking to monitor which products are most popular with which customers, making changes to your online strategy as customer demands change.

“We’re updating on a regular basis our catalog and our content on our website. … As we develop more sources and better sources, and we have more information, we evaluate what kind of information we are able to provide to the customer and what they want,” Ascione says.

“We want customers to come to our site and find useful information and help them achieve their job and to make them and their company profitable. That will help us become profitable because they’ll find value in what we do.”

How to reach: Continental Steel & Tube Co., (954) 332-2290 or www.continentalsteel.com

Published in Florida

While every business appreciates referral sales, many seem to overlook the usefulness of referral data. Referrals are easier to close and more profitable than leads from most other sources. But more important, referral sales are the most accurate test of whether or not your customers believe that your offering works.

If you think about it, prospects are created primarily by circumstance, not by marketing. When a bee stings your child at the playground, you don’t need Madison Avenue to point out the problem. You immediately want a solution. You know that there are all kinds of pain relievers out there, but this isn’t a muscle cramp or a migraine. In this situation, you need a tailored response.

When you get to the pharmacy, you see a host of products on the shelf — everything from generic ibuprofen to something called, let’s say, Auntie Beth’s Children’s Strength All Natural Bee Sting Be Gone. I’m guessing you’ll go with the product that seems to be designed with exactly this situation and your sobbing toddler in mind. Whichever product you choose, from the business’s point of view what is most important isn’t the fact that you bought its product — it’s what happens next.

Let’s assume you go with Auntie Beth’s bee sting product. You swiftly apply the treatment. Within minutes, you and your child will make a discovery about the product that will stick with you much longer. It will become part of the story you tell the ice cream man when you wander back to the park, that you share with the rest of the family when you get home, that you tell your officemates when they ask about your weekend, and that you pass on to other parents at playgroup.

Auntie Beth’s just took the marketplace equivalent of a final exam, and whether it passes depends on one thing: Does your retelling of the bee sting story create new customers?

If the product was a dud, it gets a zero. If it worked, it becomes a hero. When an offering effectively solves a problem — when it becomes a hero — customers tell others in ways that drive referral sales.

Some businesspeople might think they already know that their products work because they have tested them in the lab. The problem with this thinking is that lab tests are constructed to determine whether the product offering does what the company intends for it to do, not what the customer wants it to do. Furthermore, controlled tests are lousy at discovering whether customer enthusiasm about the offering will be high enough to generate referral business.

You might then ask, ‘What about sales data?’ For one, nonreferral, first-time sales don’t speak to the effectiveness of your offering but rather the effectiveness of your advertising, positioning, distribution, promotions and pricing. Although repeat sales send back a more useful signal — whether customers perceive your offering to be good enough, at least some of the time — only referral sales can tell you whether your offering is really taking off.

For most businesses, referral data should be treated as the most important operating metric. Referral business is the ultimate truth-teller — and sometimes the truth it tells is a harsh one. If your referrals aren’t strong, you need to go back to work on the offering, your marketing or both. But given proper attention, referral data can point the way toward a rapidly growing market share. Once you’re able to secure referrals from referrals, you’re well on your way to market dominance for your offering.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Contact Jerry at JMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Published in Northern California

Abraham Lincoln once observed, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

Implicit in Lincoln’s words is the notion that people who are well informed are well motivated, and therefore, much more likely to work together toward ultimate success.

Effective communications policies not only make for motivated employees, they also help drive results by:

  • Sparking meaningful conversations
  • Driving innovation
  • Building corporate loyalty
  • Fostering employee engagement

Yet in today’s world of increasingly staccato and frenzied communication, the challenge of shaping sentiment and sharing information with employees has never been more challenging.

At NCCI, we’ve devoted considerable time and resources toward identifying effective communication tools and two-way communication vehicles for employees and managers. Among these are traditional methods such as e-mail, meetings, conference calls with video, and individual face-to-face sessions, but we’ve also taken it a step further.

*We host regular town hall meetings, where every NCCI staff member is invited to hear from senior management about our company plans and mission. While the meetings give us an opportunity to speak directly with employees about the vision, employees can also suggest town hall topics and submit questions for discussion.

*We put on “President’s Circle” luncheons where nine employees from across the company are invited to an off-site lunch with just the CEO. These informal gatherings help employees get to know the company head on an authentic, personal level. It’s also a chance to have their questions and concerns addressed directly from the top. In 2010 alone, we hosted six of these luncheons.

*We’ve built and populated our own Intranet site (InfoZone), which holds everything from corporate compliance rules to employee profiles to breaking company news updates. If something is happening at NCCI, there’s an excellent chance that activity is documented here.

*We produce a weekly, all-employee e-mail (InfoMail), offering time-sensitive information about company projects as well as information about new employees, social activities and even the cafeteria menu.

But again, to have effective communication with your employees, it has to go both ways. Developing strategies and tools to better listen to our employees has perhaps been our most effective communications effort in the past several years.

Not only are NCCI’s senior staff and managers accessible to our employees, but we’ve also developed a series of electronic tools to encourage constant employee feedback, including weekly online surveys. We constantly ask employees for their opinions about company news, articles or events, and we’ve put in place an open-door policy for communication between employees and any leader in the organization.

Our continuing emphasis in each of these efforts is to engage managers and employees in transparent and authentic conversation.

So how is our communication effort and emphasis working here at NCCI?

In a recent all-employee communication survey, 87 percent of NCCI employees said they are kept well or fully informed, and 88 percent of employees said the amount of communications they receive about the company is just right.

Perhaps the most rigorous test of our open communication strategy to date occurred last year, when we had to share the difficult message that there would be no merit raises for employees in 2010. Because that message was honestly conveyed ? despite the undeniable hardship it must have caused some ? NCCI employees responded in truly remarkable fashion, breaking their previous record for contributions during our annual United Way drive.

In short, we think Lincoln had it about right. Company leaders may not succeed in every effort, but with informed employees motivated by open, honest, and frequent two-way communication, our failures are not only less severe, they are much less common and far easier to address.

That’s not only an effective communication strategy; that’s an effective business strategy.

Stephen J. Klingel has served as president and CEO of NCCI Holdings Inc. since 2002. Before joining NCCI, Klingel was a leader with the St. Paul Cos. for more than 25 years. You can reach him at Steve_Klingel@ncci.com.

Published in Florida

Charlie Sheen has talked a lot about winning in the past few months. So I couldn’t help but think about the standards of winning in business, and how much they have changed. The truth is this: In this fragile economy, winning is essentially effective risk management. A definitive factor in business success and failure has always been the amount risk one is willing to take. While getting credit or capital is harder these days, that should not stop business owners and entrepreneurs — especially the little guys — from taking risks.

While our company, WDFA Marketing has faced challenges, there have been a few actions that we have taken to help us both manage risk and to take those risks necessary to keep our agency moving in a forward direction. Those actions include the following:

First, increase the level of communication with creditors and vendors.

There is nothing wrong with telling your key partners what’s going on with your company, especially how you plan on growing, when you expect things to get better and what you’re doing in the immediate future to keep things moving. If you’re behind on paying vendors, work with them to create a plan. Chances are you aren’t the only one that’s having cash flow issues.

Second, look at your product and service according to today’s economy.

We live in an on-demand society, so businesses have to be nimble. The consumer wants it and they want it as fast as they can get it. Spend some time looking at your operational processes and figure out ways you can be more efficient. Also, don’t be afraid of incorporating more technology into your day-to-day routines companywide. It’s not as difficult or as expensive as you may think.

Try out different pricing models. This is an economy in which you want to bet on consistent long-term gain rather than monumental short-term gains (though those are nice too).

Don’t be afraid of creating partnerships and be open to revenue-sharing models. You never know when that crazy idea that you drew on a bar napkin flourishes into the next great phenomena.

If you want to test out a new concept or service and can’t find the right amount of funding, downsize your idea and cut costs. Focus on creating a flawless execution that can be easily scaled up. Create results on your own and take those out to help get funding. Note results and numbers that showing potential.

Lastly, spend extra energy and resources on employee morale.

Never forget that the people who should believe in your vision as much as you do are your team. As a leader and visionary, you’re delegating while your team is executing. Without them you would just be talking to yourself.

Buy lunch once a week or bring in snacks and put them in the break room. Happy (and full) people are productive people.

You might not able to distribute the high bonuses or raises that you’re used to, or that your team expects. Instead, talk to them. Discuss your successes and address failures by sharing what you learned. Show them the road that you are walking down and the great potential that it holds.

As challenging as conducting business is today, with a little bit of smarts and effective risk management it’s still possible to move forward, even if it’s just one inch at a time.

Raj Prasad fulfilled a lifelong dream and founded his own agency, WDFA Marketing, at age 25, bringing on his two friends and former co-workers as managing partners. Because of his leadership, WDFA has earned accolades as Inc. magazine’s Fastest-Growing Marketing and Advertising Agency and San Francisco Business Times’ Tenth Fastest-Growing Private Company of 2010. Learn more at www.wdfamarketing.com.

Published in Northern California

Jay Chaudhry knows from experience that there are many considerations involved with bringing a new product or service to market. How you handle matters such as timing can be the difference between success and failure.

“That’s the toughest thing,” says Chaudhry, founder and CEO of Zscaler Inc. “If we had a crystal ball to figure that out, we’d be off doing very good.”

Though he doesn’t have a crystal ball, Chaudhry has managed to grow Zscaler – his sixth company ?  from a startup cloud security provider to 120 employees in four short years. Yet, timing is just one obstacle in capitalizing on new market opportunity.

Smart Business spoke with Chaudhry about how business leaders can set their companies up for growth in new markets by overcoming these initial challenges.

Strike before the iron is hot.

The most important thing I look for in a new opportunity is: ‘Is the timing right?’ The right timing and the right area are the most important stops. Many times people start too early. It’s a little market. It never evolves and that’s tough. Then they get stuck and are swimming upstream. But that’s few. I think the majority of people end up entering in the market that’s too late. They are already in Times Squares with the product. If you enter a market when the market is already that hot, by the time you are able to deliver a reasonable product, it’s a little bit too late. If you look at all the products I’ve done … I look for a new market opportunity. The market is still not there, but feels like it’s going to happen in the next 12 to 24 months.

Go with your gut.

If we are too early in a new market, we could be starving because the market doesn’t take off. If we are a little too late, then it becomes a ‘me too.’ So first, I do my homework. I work in adjacent markets quite often and not in totally different markets, so there’s a feel for the markets … I’d not be accurate if I told you its all spreadsheet driven numbers and that stuff. It’s not.

Is there an easy way to quantify timing? Not really. A lot of gut feel goes into it. I need to listen from the market and from the customers, what and how they take it. But at the same time, I also keep in mind [the] saying, ‘Don’t listen to your customers; otherwise, you’ll never innovate.’

Don’t fear mistakes.

We push people to push the envelope and try to new things and make mistakes. I often say if you don’t make any mistakes, you are playing too safe. If you are playing too safe, you are never going to achieve anything significant.

We are the only company that doesn’t require any hardware and software. It’s because we gave people enough time and freedom, and didn’t really kill any of the ideas to say this is no good. In the process, I realized that some of these things may not work, but that’s part of trying and learning new stuff. You don’t want to kill those ideas up front as if you know the answer, because you don’t.

Look ahead, and behind

There’s a cost or there’s a benefit of getting ahead of the market and becoming significantly large. If you throw too much money and add too many people, are you creating indigestion?  Because it’s not just hiring. How do you really get those people trained to become productive members of the company? If you are a little slow, you’re behind, your sale got ahead, your support function is behind, your other stuff is behind, then your customers suffer. So it’s constantly watching and monitoring and adjusting to make sure you’re putting enough resources in investments.

We’re pretty pleased with where we are, but we’re executing the way [businessman] Andrew Grove said, ‘Only the paranoid will survive.’ As confident, comfortable and less paranoid it makes you it as a leader … they are shooting at you from behind. How do increase the gap between you and the second party out there so they can’t shoot at you, so you are out of the shooting range?

How to reach: Zscaler Inc., (408) 533-0288 or www.zscaler.com

Published in Northern California

In the early days of his business, Carmen DeLeo’s company relied on word of mouth.

CDM Electronics, where DeLeo is the general manager, needed customers to tell other prospective customers about the company’s line of computer components. But as the company grew to $20 million in 2010 revenue, its marketing needs became more complex, and DeLeo needed to carve out a presence on the Internet.

“It was an easier transition for us when we were looking into online, because we felt we were already technically savvy, and the good learning curve would be shorter,” DeLeo says. “That was the impetus for getting that going.”

Smart Business spoke with DeLeo about how to conceptualize the website and online marketing strategy that will fit your business, and how to find the people that can help you make it a reality, and enhance it as the needs of your business grow and change.

Out of all the options, how did you narrow it all down to what would work for your company?

The way we did it was to forget about online for a second. We put ourselves in the position of engineers and technical buyers, who are our main customers. They’re the ones who are going to fit the profile for us. Some of the things they would come to us for include specification of part numbers and drawings. The way we decided to build this was figuring out what our customers need, so let’s try to get as much information on the site as we can, and we can make it a 24-7 part of our customer service.

What would you tell other leaders about formulating an online strategy?

First is, you need to put yourself in the position of your customers, how your customers see it. Number two would be content. If you supply the site with as much content as possible, it is only going to help serve your customers. We’re still very early in that the computers that are doing these rankings of the value of your website are still extremely rudimentary. At sites like Google, it is obvious humans don’t review the results, but they still do a remarkable job of returning what is relevant. Even having an ugly site with content is still better than a website with no content on there. If all you have is an address and a little bit about the company, it’s not going to do you much good.

However, the third thing is the look of the site. Once you do get a human to view the site, you want to make sure it portrays the image that you want for your company.

What would you tell other leaders about finding a technology partner to work with?

For us, what we did was we reviewed the old traditional methods – so industry sources. Probably the best thing to do would be to go to an industry trade show and start talking to some of those. You can get a couple hundred companies in one shot, all in your industry. Most of the time, you can find someone who has been through exactly what you’ve done and is willing to help. It is networking. That is a great way to make it efficient.

How can you make sure your online strategy aligns with and complements your overall business strategy?

Results would be what to look at. After six months’ time, did we achieve the results of what the overall strategy is? Part of our strategy is to hit bigger OEMs and target larger and more technical projects. After a few months, we started to see requests to come in from those types of individuals. Some patience is required, but I’d say in a relatively quick time frame, certainly less than a year. Otherwise, that would be a red flag, because things do seem to happen fairly quickly.

How to reach: CDM Electronics Inc., (949) 250-1525 or www.cdmelectronics.com

Published in Orange County