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 BLOG >> March 2020

Blazing New Trails [Entrepreneurship
Posted on March 27, 2020 @ 10:15:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I started working on this blog before the corona virus pandemic took over the news cycle. The irony of discussing trail blazing when we are supposed to self-isolate in our homes prevented me from posting this blog. As time has gone on, however, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we are blazing new trails at an astounding rate to deal with covid.

I have retained elements of the original blog and made some updates to address the current situation.

When I go for a walk I like to walk beside a river. Since I've known this walking area there has been a lightly used ATV trail running the length of the forested part of the trail. I recently created a short detour off this ATV trail into a grove of 5 mature apple trees that I am calling the Apple River Loop. Today I created the Riverside Loop by clearing a few small trees to make it easier to access the river from the Apple River Loop.


Clearing away dead branches and alders to access the river.

My experiences with blazing physical trails has inspired me to examine the ways in which starting and growing a business is like "trail blazing" which it has often been compared to.

Trail Systems

When building a trail you are not starting from scratch. At the very least, there is usually some trail that got you to the place and some destination you would like to hook up to, which might be another trail. So building a trail involves first appreciating that the trail exists within a larger trail system, and an awareness of how the proposed trail fits into the system of trails. Blazing new trails consists of creating linkages between existing trails.

If a big industrial business shuts down, we see the ripple effects through the various small businesses that supported that industrial business. There are business trails running between the large industrial player and various smaller players that were part of a business ecosystem. Part of starting and building a business is developing business trails between your business and other businesses (b2b) and to consumers (b2c). The paths are not always as direct as we would like them to be and may involve alot of business to government (b2g) interactions before you can blaze b2c or b2b trails.

Community is another type of linkage. Because we are already using c for consumer, we will use the letter o to stand for community, or more generally, an organization. So b2o linkages are another type of linkage a business can blaze.

A business might be conceptualized as the sum of its b2b, b2c, b2g, and b2o linkages.

Starting and growing a business involves blazing b2b, b2c, b2g, b2o linkages. Revenue growth may be a proxy for the number and/or quality of linkages a business is able to create. In contrast, we see revenue decline when the number and/or quality of linkages decreases.

Virtual Trails

Up until a few weeks ago, I was immersed in walking the physical trail. That changed when I purchased a used Garmin GPS unit last weekend. Now I observe my progress along the virtual trail appearing on my GPS screen as I walk the physical trail. This virtual trail exists within a different space than my physical trail as it incorporates different information about my surroundings than my immediate senses alone can tell me (e.g., location of roads, train tracks, water, elevations, contours, etc..).

When our business goes online it is a new process of trail blazing to get your online business noticed as a point of interest. New online trails need to be blazed to get traffic to your online business. If you are an existing physical business, online trails to your offline b2b, b2c, b2g and b2o contacts are probably the first virtual trails to forge. If you want your online business to contribute to ongoing growth you will need to formulate a strategy to get beyond your current offline network. There are many techniques that marketers have proposed to do this but one technique relevant to this trail blazing discussion is the use of mapping technologies.

Mapping Technologies

Ubiquitous GPS enabled smart phones and other devices are changing the face of what mapping is and what it can do. Mapping technologies are evolving at a rapid rate and it may be a good use of time to study what is out there, what might be happening next, and how you might take advantage of it for your business. One way of taking advantage of mapping is to ensure that your business is a point of interest on maps that are widely used to navigate your local area - google maps, openstreetmap, here.com, etc... Another way to take advantage of mapping technology is to use it to offer a new service. For example, one of the reasons I purchased the GPS unit was to create trail maps for walkers and cyclists around our farm property and beyond. In this case, mapping allows me to offer a potentially useful service to guests wanting to experience the local area by foot or bicycle. At the same time, maps can be used as a marketing tool online if it proves to be of value to local and online audiences. Ultimately, my hope is these maps create some economic activity on the farm (e.g., sell wine, rent bikes).

As your startup or existing business blazes new trails, you may want to utilize mapping technologies to develop new understandings, to offer new services, to connect in new ways, and to create instructional, marketing, and management assets for your business.

Basecamp

The idea of a basecamp is popular in the GPS world. Basecamp is the location from which you venture out to explore new trails. As we plan how we will re-emerge from the situation we currently find ourselves in, it might be useful to imagine that your startup or business as a basecamp from which you need to (re)blaze trails to the consumer (b2c), other businesses (b2b), other organizations (b2o), and the government (b2g). Some of those new trails will be in the offline world, but increasingly we are having to create new trails in the online world. For example, many musicians have taken to instagram live to stay connected to their audiences. Many businesses have turned to using zoom stay in touch with remote workers and to manage the business. Navigating the business landscape is going to be challenging for awhile as the current trail system is dominated by temporary b2g linkages (i.e., government supports). There needs to be a plan, however, to open up existing trails with new precautions and forge ahead in promising new directions. I wish you and your businesses well as you venture out again from basecamp along existing and newly blazed trails.

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Text File Book Keeping [Finance
Posted on March 20, 2020 @ 08:41:00 AM by Paul Meagher

How do you manage your books? Many people use accounting programs like Quicken that offer a broad array of useful accounting functionality. Some people like to use a spreadsheet to manage their books. Me, I generally use a text file to manage my personal, sole proprietorship, and partnership books.

Every year I try to improve my book keeping systems. Last year I tried to get into the habit of using an accounting program for the farm partnership which never really got traction. In part it is because there was quite a bit of learning to setup the company and then I needed to log in regularly to keep the books updated and that just never happened.

This year I thought I would move to using a spreadsheet program and take advantage of some of the calculation and reporting capabilities of the program. My corporate accountant likes to put all the transactions of my corporation into a spreadsheet to model the company and generate reports from this model. This inspired me to think about doing the same for the farming venture.

I got my spreadsheets and categories setup to be able to efficiently enter all my bills and started entering some bills. Not being a regular spreadsheet user I found it cumbersome to do data entry compared to updating a text file. My accountant exports transaction data into his business spreadsheets which is not the same as having to enter each transaction individually into your books. Ultimately, I got hung up on the spreadsheet approach because it seemed like there were extra steps involved in moving dated entries around when you found a dated entry that fit between existing dates. This happens all the time with the sorted monthly lists of paper receipts that I have to enter.

Yesterday it occurred to me that I am going back to my old text file accounting approach because I believe there are still ways to improve upon this basic approach. I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on how I intend to do so. I am not advocating this particular approach for everyone as everyone has their own skills and preferences. Because I have programming skills and regularly use a powerful text editor (Ultraedit), this approach seems the most natural to me. Also, this approach is for personal, sole proprietorship and a 2 partner business ventures (the farm). For firms with more employees and more volume, it is likely not feasible.

In a nutshell, what I realized is that if I pay more attention to how I structure my accounting text files that this opens up the possibility of developing programs to read the file and display the contents of those files in organized, editable lists with nice reports. I could potentially have the best of both worlds: easy to update text files of expenses and income and programs I can incrementally develop to read and display them in various ways including adding, deleting and updating entries though a web interface.

Am I recreating the wheel here? Yes, but the job doesn't appear to be that difficult compared to the time I would have to invest in mastering somebody elses software or approach. Opening and parsing through text files is not a big deal when the text file contents adhere to a structure, which they already do, but I realize now it could be better if I want programs to read them. If you are a programmer it is not a big deal to develop a program that reads through structured data and visualizes the data as, say, lists of expenses by category with tax and cost totals for each category of expense.

What about all the nice data entry features that a spreadsheet or accounting program has? Alot of these features are unnecessary for the main task that I have to accomplish which is to fill out a Statement of Farming Activities form with numbers in the various provided slots - how much on was spent on fencing, how much on plants, how much on machinery repair, how much on fuel, how much on small tools, how much on office supplies, how much on legal, etc...

A text file editor like Ultraedit has alot of powerful features that spreadsheet programs and accounting programs do not have. I can, for example, have visually aligned columns of numbers and can use my cursor to create a selection around that column of numbers. I can then select a column function to compute a sum from the selected numbers. I then enter that number below the column as the sales tax or cost total for that expense category. Alot of what you do in a spreadsheet is column processing. Ultraedit also has good column editing features that allow you to select and sum a set of vertically aligned numbers.

Accounting can get pretty complicated and text file accounting might be one approach to manage this complexity. One area where things can get complicated is the Revenue Recognition Model that different accounting standards use. The Revenue Recognition Model for one accounting standard may allow you to mark everything paid as revenue. If that payment is for a contractual obligation over a term then the IRFS standard would require you to only record part of that payment as revenue and allocate parts of the payment to, say, different months of the contract. The argument is that you don't inflate revenues by doing things this way. The redistribution of a payment as earnings over several months is the type of job a programming language is made for. Text file accounting can be a very simple and a very powerful approach to accounting.

Most people who are not accountants do their accounting by creating lists of numbers representing their income and expenses. They might categorize those lists if there are many invoices to deal with. If you want to continue doing your books in this way while making ongoing improvements, then I believe you can do so by keeping these 2 steps in mind:

Step 1) Make sure your lists are entered in a structured way that a computer program might be easily able to read.

Step 2) Use a computer programming language to read these lists and display them. As you gain experience doing this, you may find better ways to structure your lists (i.e., go back to Step 1).

I still hire accountants to review my corporate books but I do my own accounting for my personal, sole proprietorship and partnership businesses (the farm is a partnership with my wife). Every year I devote a blog to how I intend to improving my accounting system and this year it involves Step 1 and Step 2 above. If you are a larger business with multiple employees then I wouldn't recommend this approach but if you are small startup looking to save some dollars by managing your own books then this approach might work for you as well until such time as you have funds to invest in accounting software and expertise.

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