How listening to jazz helps you communicate your ideas

Last month, I was on a jazz course in France. I’m a pianist – I can play rhythm and accompany a singer, but soloing has always eluded me. Jazz solos seem so complex and dynamic – where to start?? How to play something meaningful (or even just pleasant)?? I felt like I was looking at the top of the mountain without a clue of how to get there.

I sat with the piano tutor – the fantastic Zoe Rahman – and she showed me how putting together simple phrases – working from a basic theme and using repetition – is more engaging, giving the listener a narrative that links it all together and guides the journey.

As I was thinking about this later that evening, it occurred to me how many parallels there are between jazz in general and communication in business. Here are my top 4:

  1. It's important to have a clear and compelling central theme, reiterating it in different ways
  2. It’s easy to lose your audience when you get technical: the technical bits should always link back to the narrative so that they feel relevant
  3. The best jazz players are great listeners. They don’t play a fixed message on autopilot – they’re highly responsive and, as a result, what they play is crafted to the moment
  4. The value of ‘space between the notes’ – how silence can frame a message and make it more powerful. (I’ll be doing it right when I no longer need to be told “don’t play so much!”)

What does this mean, for example, in a sales presentation?  Well, if you’re going to use Powerpoint slides, make sure there’s a strong story running throughout. The story should be clear and flow well enough that you can deliver it without looking at the slides, which should be uncluttered and favour graphics over text. When you present, don’t offload on the audience and don’t be afraid of pauses – they give more weight to what comes next.

If you want to hear what this sounds like in music, listen to this beautiful track, Do It The Hard Way, by Chet Baker. Pay attention especially to his vocal solo – it’s the perfect illustration. It's also on the album Chet Baker Sings.

A Tale of Two Clients: Making the best use of relationships to grow your service company

Over the past two years since I joined RIG, I have worked with two service clients. In each case, the brief was the same: “we have plateaued in terms of growth, please help us go out and win new customers.”

Both had been in business for more than 10 years. They had reached what they thought was the limit of growth with their current clients and had been spending time trying, without success, to break into new organisations through sales teams and cold calling.

The similarities were striking. We found that:

  • the companies’ service offerings on paper had little differentiation
  • their current and past customers rave about their work – how competent, innovative, knowledgeable, and proactive they are
  • most of their customers and projects had come from the founders’ networks
  • they were so busy that they had lost touch with many old contacts
  • they had foisted responsibility for ‘selling’ onto junior team members
  • both companies had a core offering for which they were known but were afraid to take a focused message to the market in case they missed out on opportunistic non-core work

Where a product or service is hard to differentiate (because all vendors make the same claims) and only appreciated once used, then it falls into the category of ‘experience goods.’  In the B2B world, the best way to sell an experience good is via referrals.

First we sat down with companies’ principals and took stock of everyone they had worked with, and looked to see where they were currently working and where they used to work. In one case, we then gave each person two scores – one for how useful they are in terms of their job position and their networks; and one for how likely they were to want to help. The second prong was looking at how each of these people was networked into the individuals and organisations that we wanted to access.

We had our clients re-connect with their contacts, talk through their focused business objectives and find out what was important to them. Our aim was to be able to build a nurturing programme, and also to put together events and marketing collateral to address the needs and interests that would speak to our companies’ audiences.

The amount of goodwill, recommendations, and willingness to make introductions that we found was astounding. Just making contact was enough to put our clients front of mind and led to some immediate project enquiries.  Going forward, these networks provide the best way to leverage the goodwill that our clients enjoy.


When is an elephant worth forgetting??

Continuing on the theme of elephants….

I was lucky enough to be at GeeknRolla – the excellent TechCrunch Europe startup event – a couple of weeks back, and two very similar conversations I had during the day with online-software entrepreneurs stayed with me.

The conversations with the went something like this:

“We have started to gain good traction in the SME market, we have secured a good channel partner / we are proving that we can scale…now we just need to win a {blue chip / really big} customer to get the next round of funding”

There’s something about winning an elephant customer that seems irresistible: while the idea of having large annual recurring contracts is attractive, for a new company that has worked hard to get its model working and scaling in the SME space, winning an ‘elephant deal’ is almost certainly a double-edged sword.

One of RIG’s former clients had an online enterprise software offering and it was making good progress winning large companies. Then it had the chance to bid for an enormous global customer. In the process of preparing the tender it had become clear that a lot of customization and special support would be needed, but it was such a prestigious account that the client pressed ahead and ended up winning it. 

The strain from having to service the new customer was evident – development resources were insufficient to cover the new customer, continue core development and keep the existing customer base happy. Funds that might have been put into marketing to drive the critical transition from predominantly out-bound to predominantly in-bound lead generation were diverted to providing customized support. It is very hard, even as a growth-stage technology company, to serve multiple masters, and even harder as a start-up. 

If you have worked out how to acquire, deliver to, service, and retain SME customers in a scalable way, then you are already doing very well. SME customers are often under-rated: they can be very dependable, and as a service provider, you don’t have the risks associated with revenue concentration.

Think carefully before you go elephant hunting. Scalability is a key driver of the valuations that SaaS companies can receive. At the point where a company is having to customize and maintain customer-specific resources, it can still call itself ‘SaaS’ but it starts to look more and more ‘old economy’. Savvy buyers and investors increasingly recognise this. So, as ever, if you do choose to try to break into the enterprise market, make sure your assumptions stand up to heavy scrutiny.

Preparing for an important negotiation

There are most likely a small number of negotiations that you will conduct in your life as an entrepreneur which, looking back, will have really been critical to the ability of you and your business to flourish and make money. When you know (or have a sense that) you are in one of these negotiations, it is generally worth going the extra mile in your preparation.

The biggest negotiations are the ones that have a multiplier effect on your valuation. It could be a negotiation with a key client. But more likely, it’s going to be a shareholder or investor negotiation (which affects the incentives to grow value and the share of the value that you get); negotiation for an exclusivity (which could affect many deals); or a licensing or royalty deal over your core IP.

Many of the entrepreneurs that we work with are driven by a strong sense of instinct and have a good degree of belief in their ability to negotiate. However, particularly in negotiations with many moving parts (a number of different objectives which may conflict, different stakeholders with a subtle or large diversion of interests, or multiple potential items of negotiation), stepping back and looking at all the issues sequentially can yield important insights.

Ahead of a key negotiation, you would do well to understand:

  • Who are all the stakeholders in the negotiation, and what are their agendas?
  • What is the full extent of the value that is being negotiated?
  • How has the whole negotiation been framed?
  • What are your alternatives?

The aim is to go into the negotiation with a clear strategy and to have decided on the tactics and gambits to achieve that strategy. Over following blogs, we will look at some of these elements in more detail.