Monday, April 27, 2015

5 Ways To Improve Startup Founder Team Productivity

bar-graph-meeting If you are like most entrepreneurs I know, there just aren’t enough hours in a day to get all your own work done, as well as run the many one-hour meetings each team member seems to demand for decisions and mentoring. I have found it to be more productive and effective to lead with the model that no meetings will take an hour, and may be done in as little as five minutes.

Of course, this requires some discipline and focus on your part, as well as the willingness to trust team members and allow them to do their jobs. For example, you must forego the traditional meeting approach, where a team member presents a slide deck with all the background and multiple solution options on an issue, and asks you for a decision.

I recommend the elevator pitch-approach instead, which you probably learned in dealing with busy investors, where the person calling the meeting is asked to summarize the purpose, value and recommended solution in the first minute or two. That leaves three minutes, or maybe a few more, for you to clarify your understanding, approve their approach or suggest additional work.

Meetings at this level should never be seen as “working sessions” for actually solving the problem, but as mentoring and direction setting for team members. I have personally used this approach in leading startups as well as large organizations, in highly technical roles as well as business development and marketing. But it only works if you observe the following principles:

  1. Never hide from your team. If you are always hard to find, too busy or unavailable behind closed doors, no leadership or mentoring relationship can work effectively. The old principle of managing by walking around will give the background, and people always having to wait makes them talk longer when they get your precious attention.

  2. Listen and adapt your style to theirs. You rarely learn anything by talking. Practice active listening and respond with a simple affirmation, step-by-step instructions or an anecdotal story, depending on the style and experience of the team member. Five-minute meetings cannot be five minutes of anyone talking.

  3. What is said in a meeting must stay in the meeting. Of course, decisions and action items must be communicated immediately, but individual disagreements, comments and recommendations must never surface around the water cooler or in later reviews. You want team members to provide input openly, honestly and without fear of retribution.

  4. Provide immediate direct and constructive feedback. Team members need your critique of their work to learn, but attacking the person is never productive. Use every opportunity to clarify your goals and set the context for follow-on discussions. If you must provide negative feedback, make every attempt to highlight the positives first.

  5. Make it clear that team members are accountable and responsible. Your most valuable team members wouldn’t want to work any other way. Encourage them to come in with solutions, not problems, and empower them to drive their recommendations to success. Everyone learns best from failures, so failure should never be a feared option.

For one-on-one coaching from the startup founder, I call this approach five-minute mentoring. The goal is not to use your time doing the job for less-experienced team members, but instead quickly identifying their barrier to progress, and providing guidance on a next step. Even if multiple cycles are required to reach the goal, you will spend less time, and they will learn infinitely more.

I fully understand that the best entrepreneurs are problem solvers by nature, so this approach requires a mindset change from solving to a specific answer, to coaching on the process, which will pay big dividends for both of you as the company grows. You can be a problem solver and build a product alone, but you can’t build a successful business alone.

Your primary responsibility as a startup founder is to provide vision, leadership and communication to all internal and external team members. Long meetings behind closed doors are draining for you and not productive for the company toward these objectives.

Start today with five-minute meetings and mentoring to get the fun and productivity back.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 4/17/2015 ***


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Sunday, April 26, 2015

6 Ways To Drive Success Through Customer Experience

customer-experience-quote Not so long ago, every business assumed that the keys to success were the highest quality product, the best value for the buck, and the best customer service. Now all we hear about is providing the best “customer experience.” Exactly what is that customer experience that every modern marketer is talking about, and how do you measure it?

A classic article in the Harvard Business Review “The Truth About Customer Experience” defines it as your customer’s end-to-end journey with you, not just the key touchpoints or critical moments when customers interact with your organization. Customer experience is the cumulative impact of multiple touchpoints over time, which result in a real relationship feeling, or lack of it.

The advent of social media and real-time interactive feedback via the Internet allows every customer to build and expect a relationship with your business, rather than just touchpoints. Yet we are all still learning what that means, in terms of hard business practices.

I like the insights outlined in a recent book “Summit,” by F. Scott Addis, who is an experienced business executive and recent Inc. “Entrepreneur of the Year” finalist. He ties business success and your personal summit to elevating your customers’ experience with the following specific recommendations and key differentiators:

  1. Listen to the individual customer. Every relationship requires listening, as well as talking. You have to hear your customer’s dreams, goals, passions, and aspirations. That opportunity for your customers to talk and be heard is pleasurable and memorable, and defines their customer experience, more so than just satisfying business touchpoints.

  2. Exploit your product and service differences. A memorable experience has to have something different from the norm. You must be able to highlight these differences between your products and services, and those of your competitors. If not, you are part of the crowd, and no relationship can be built.

  3. Demonstrate the value of your offering. The first step in being able to demonstrate your value is being willing to find out what your customers want or need. This will create a connection with them, which demonstrates more value than price or quality. You create a loyal customer that wants to buy from you, and will recommend you to others.

  4. Show your passion and creativity in every solution. This active discovery mindset searching for new questions drives real innovators away from more of the same. They fundamentally become value seekers; they look for value in every experience, in every conversation. They don’t seek prescriptions, they seek possibilities.

  5. Demonstrate your personal commitment. When in contact with customers, focus 100 percent on them, and do all you can to determine and meet their needs. Remember, customers are the reason you do what you do. Give them the respect and results they deserve and they will tell others about your good work and your business.

  6. Shoot for the customers’ hearts. Engagement and an emotional connection will make a customer relationship the driving force for loyalty and differentiation. Move from customer friendliness to customer charisma. A business with charisma gives the customer something very special, and they want to tell others about it.

Once you know how to improve your customers’ experience, you need to also know how to benchmark it. Remember the old adage, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” So how do you measure customer loyalty and relationships? One metric now commonly used is called the Net Promoter® Score (NPS).

This works by asking your customers for feedback, and dividing them into three categories:

  • Promoters. Loyal enthusiasts who keep buying from you and urge their friends to do the same.
  • Passive. Satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who can be easily wooed by the competition.
  • Detractors. Unhappy customers who feel trapped in a bad relationship.

The formula for the Net Promoter® Score is the percentage of customers who are detractors, subtracted from the percentage who are promoters (NPS=P-D). Legendary companies like Amazon and Costco operate with an NPS between 50 to 80 percent. But the average venture sputters along at an NPS of only 5 percent to 10 percent, or even negative.

Maybe it time for all of us to focus more on the customer experience. There is ongoing evidence that companies with the highest customer experience typically grow at more than double the rate of their competitors. The inverse case is that you can lose you competitive lead very quickly by focusing on the wrong things. Have you checked your customers’ experience lately?

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, April 25, 2015

8 Reasons To Initiate A Startup While Job Searching

looking-for-a-job If you are one of the many professionals still trapped between jobs by circumstances outside your control, or are about to dump the loser job you have now, you should be actively defining and starting your own business, in parallel with looking for that ideal job. Let me explain why this is a win-win deal, no matter what the outcome.

You have probably secretly always wanted to run your own show, but with an existing job, never took the time to consider a startup. Then there was always the risk of failure, which of course doesn’t apply once your real job is gone. Also, for most of us, not having done it before, we have no idea where or how to start.

Here are my top recommendations on how and why initiating a startup while looking, or about to be looking for a job is the right thing to do:

  1. No gap in your resume. Instead of an embarrassing gap in your resume for your period out of work, you have an entry for your startup business, showing initiative, leadership, and breadth of experience.

  2. Fun learning experience. It’s more fun tackling the challenges of a startup in between job search activities, than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for status callbacks on interviews (which seem to have gone out of style).

  3. Explore finding a partner. Unless you are a true loner, you need someone like-minded but complementary in skills to help you with the startup plans. It’s always good to have someone to test your ideas, keep your spirits up, and hone your business skills. Now you have a reason for talking to people who may become lifelong friends.

  4. Learn how to incorporate a business. First, pick a name for your company and do the paperwork on starting a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). Almost anyone can handle this without professional help, and the cost is less than $100 in many states. It shows everyone you are serious, and limits your liability on any mistakes.

  5. Practice developing a business plan. Pick a startup business that you can do for minimal cost, like a services business with the skills you have. With simple software available today, find a domain name and implement your own website. Use social networking and blogging to get your message out. You don’t even need an investor.

  6. Get business cards made. Nothing says you are serious about a business like handing out professional business cards at local events and Chamber of Commerce meetings. Do them on your home computer for a few dollars. Offer to help a couple of customers free, just to get your act together and your presence known.

  7. Have startup efforts to highlight in job interviews. Work your startup efforts into every job interview and application. It will definitely show off your energy and vision, and will make you a more competitive candidate for any role.

  8. Give yourself a choice – job or your own business. Obviously, at some point you will need to decide whether your startup business is better than the job opportunities. That’s good because it’s always nice to have an alternative, rather than feeling that you just have to take the first dead-end job offered.

There are other startup related points I could make here, like joining an existing startup as a “volunteer” for a time, just to learn more about what is required. Also, in most geographies, there are organizations springing up, and university workshops, to mentor people out of work and contemplating a startup. Get some help from them if you need it.

Just remember that problems are really just opportunities in disguise. Don’t miss out on what may be the best opportunity you will have in your lifetime for a new career. Start up now.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, April 24, 2015

Why Investors Rank New Businesses By Leader Quality

Warren_Buffett As an Angel investor in early-stage startups, I’ve long noticed my peers’ apparent bias toward the strength and character of the founding entrepreneurs, often overriding a strong solution to a painful problem with a big opportunity. In other words, the entrepreneur quality is more important than the idea -- in investor jargon, people invest in the jockey, and not the horse.

I’ve often wondered if anyone has quantified the implied assumption that leadership character is indeed a critical element of the success equation for startups, so I was pleased to see a new book “Return On Character,” by Fred Kiel, a renowned leadership consultant. He just completed a study of more than 100 CEOs, with feedback from over 8,000 of their employees on this topic.

His research concluded that CEOs who received high scores for character also achieved much higher business results – nearly five times the average return on assets (ROA) during the two-year period covered. On the other hand, those CEOs with the lowest character scores (self-focused) were distrusted and suspected of telling the truth only slightly more than half the time.

Through interviews, Kiel identified eight common traits and habits exhibited by all the CEOs with a top character ranking (deemed virtuoso CEOs – masters of the skills and art of leadership):

  1. Displayed and demanded high moral principles. These are summarized as the four keystone character habits of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion. The authors found these to be achievable through self-training and practice, rather than requiring a genetic endowment. That means all of us have a chance.

  2. Embraced a worldview of positive beliefs. The scope of the positive leadership views included human nature, organization life, and personal purpose. The lower character leaders were consistently more negative and pessimistic in their worldview. In both cases, the beliefs tended to become realities.

  3. Developed a higher level of mental complexity. A leader judged high on cognitive complexity tends to perceive nuances and subtle differences that a person with a lower measure does not. High leaders continually challenged their own ideas and were quicker to adapt them to encompass new information, experiences, and meaning.

  4. Sought out and listened to critical feedback from others. High scoring leaders seek and positively respond to feedback from three critical groups: peers, customers, and direct reporting team members. Self-focused leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to resort to denial when faced with unpleasant feedback.

  5. Find and enjoy the company of one or more mentors. The leadership benefits of mentoring start in childhood, but are just as important at the mature CEO level. Virtuoso leaders recognize and seek three types of mentoring – career mentoring for the longer term, peer mentoring for tactical guidance, and life mentoring for quality of life balancing.

  6. Demonstrate the ideas and behaviors of self-determination. Leaders with a high level of self-determination continually seek more competence in their chosen domain, relatedness and connectivity to other stakeholders, and the autonomy to act in harmony with an integrated view of themselves.

  7. Virtuoso leaders know their life story. By crafting a coherent narrative of their life, they are better able to understand the major events and influences that have shaped their personal development and use that understanding to assess and improve their response to new situations as they arise.

  8. Sought and accepted help from many supportive people since childhood. Leaders who have sought help from natural helpers since childhood, including parents, teachers, and business influencers, usually feel more accepted, respected, and affirmed, and pass that feeling on to followers.

While Kiel’s focus was not specifically on startups, I believe the insights and conclusions apply equally well, if not more so, to startup environments. Every entrepreneur needs to understand the importance of character and leadership is to their growth and success, as well as their ability to attract investors. The return on character in business is well worth the investment.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

10 Principles Define Your Startup As Open Vs Closed

open-business-whole-foods Too many customers have long felt distanced from many successful brands, seeing them as closed and mysterious environments, focused only on profits and killing competitors. They may not have noticed the wave of “open businesses,” spawned by the Internet and social media. These are responding to the demands of this new world for collaboration, trust, and transparency.

In a recent book by David Cushman with Jamie Burke, “The 10 Principles of Open Business,” the authors contend that many recent success stories in business, including Google, Apple, and Amazon, were built on at least one open business principle. In fact, according to McKinsey, open businesses are 50% more likely to outperform their rivals today and grow sustainable profits.

I especially like Cushman’s outline of the ten principles which distinguish the organization and operation of an open business from the more traditional closed model. Here is my interpretation of the key focus points and requirements to be categorized as open:

  1. Shared beliefs (purpose). Your stakeholders all need to understand and agree to the “why” of your organization. As the business owner, you need to have a higher level purpose (beyond making money), and be willing and able to continually clarify and communicate this to your team and your customers.

  2. Shared risks (open capital). Share the costs and risks, and therefore the ownership and the passion with your constituents. In the idea stage, get customers involved with an engaging contest. If you are at the funding stage, try the new crowd-funding platforms or micro-capital investments. Offer equity in future projects to people outside your business.

  3. Shared clients and objectives (networked organization). Support and enable mutually beneficial activities inside and outside the organization. Bring focus on your core competencies and expertise by educating and helping others, who can then return the favor by helping you or buying from you.

  4. Shared knowledge packaging (shareability). Establish vehicles, like a formal customer satisfaction program, to recognize and reward staff and customers for sharing what they can do to help you. Use and contribute to shared resources, like Wikipedia and Creative Commons, rather than relying totally on proprietary and internal tools.

  5. Shared and collaborative activity (connectedness). Enable people within the organization to find what (or who) they need when they need it. Set an example by being visibly connected to the people and information you need through social media. Encourage collaboration by providing the platform, and setting best practices.

  6. Shared ideas and rewards (open innovation). Bring customers and stakeholders into the innovation process to share the risk and reward of development. Consider setting up a new idea forum on your website, with rewards and motivational offers, to facilitate involvement from customers and business partners.

  7. Shared intelligence and opportunities (open data). Make data available to those inside or outside of your organization who can make best use of it. Contribute and give talks to local business organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, to establish your expertise, and contribute information as well as gather it.

  8. Shared decision process (transparency). Make decisions openly and be honest about the criteria on which they are based. Ramp up transparency by making people the boss of what they do. Respond openly and in a timely fashion to requests for information about the business.

  9. Shared leadership (member and customer led). Make sure your organization is structured around the formal co-operation of employees, customers, and partners, for their mutual social, economic, and cultural benefit. Do things with your customers and staff, rather than to them. Strive to treat them as genuine partners.

  10. Shared goodwill (trust). Foster a mutually assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of the partnership between your company and customers. Earn trust through your consistent actions over time. Review your current investment in “creating goodwill.” Compare this to how highly you value trust. Adjust accordingly.

In the last couple of years, I have seen a tremendous upswing in “open business” movements, especially by entrepreneurs and startups. Examples include Conscious Capitalism®, led by John Mackey of Whole Foods, The B Team, led by serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, and the Benefit Corporation (B Corp) form of business now available in 28 states.

We seem to have a rare convergence between demands from the marketplace, driven by the real-time collaborative Internet culture, and a desire by entrepreneurs to define success as something more than making money. I think it’s really happening, and it’s time to take a reality check on your own business, and your own shopping habits, to capitalize on this trend.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, April 20, 2015

6 Keys To Proving A Viable Startup Business Model

valid-business-model How do you convince investors that your business model will really work, before you have a revenue stream that exceeds your expenses? Even if you are bootstrapping your business, and you are the only investor, you should be asking yourself the same question. Too many founders have learned that passion and free beta products do not imply a sustainable business.

Proof of any business model starts with a finished product or solution, sold to a new customer for full price, with high satisfaction for the value received. Of course, that has be a repeatable event, with enough revenue to sustain the business. The conundrum is that once you have really proven the business model, you no longer need the investor money you asked for to start the business.

So what should an entrepreneur do to convince themselves, as well as potential investors, that they have a viable business model before it is totally proven? Here are some basic principles from my own experience that will improve your odds and keep you on the right track:

  1. Recognize that you are not the market. No matter how passionate you are about your solution, it doesn’t mean that if you build it, they will come. Don’t skip the market research, input from influencers, analysis of competitors, and the simple act of really listening to potential customers via social media, before quantifying your opportunity.

  2. Start selling it before you build it. Marketing is everything these days. On the average, it takes as long to build marketing momentum as it does to build the solution. If you wait to begin marketing until your product is final, you will find it very expensive to pivot to meet real world input, or the whole opportunity may have moved on without you.

  3. Plan for a real revenue model. The free model, with a loose intent to monetize later, made popular during the tech bubble, doesn’t work anymore. No matter how good your cause, it takes real money to sustain a business. Decide early where and when money will come from, set some milestones and metrics, and work to a plan, or be caught short.

  4. Word of mouth is not adequate for marketing and sales. Even though the Internet is pervasive and free, you should not assume that a website is all you need for sales and marketing. To get the visibility and distribution you need will likely require one or two levels of partner relationships and a real model for marketing, events and promotions.

  5. Customer support is more than handling exceptions. Customers expect to be delighted in all phases of the product life cycle -- understanding features, pricing alternatives, returns and problem resolution. A detailed process, with empowered employees and adequate budget, are mandatory to any viable business model.

  6. Everyone must be part of the sales process. Don’t assume that only customer-facing employees need to understand sales, and that these people can be hired and trained at the last minute. Everyone on your team must maintain the mindset that customers are the key to your business model, rather than technology or accounting.

I’m not suggesting that all these business model elements need to be perfect before you ask for funding or open doors for business. As an active angel investor, I do expect founders to be able to communicate a plan to implement all key business model elements, just as I expect them to understand and plan for all the elements of their technology and their solution.

In my experience, every great product is not a great business, and every great business model involves far more than a great product. Your challenge is to present a total business solution to the right customer set to build your credibility and momentum. Without these, your dreams and your business model may never get the fuel they need, and will burn out quickly.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 4/10/2015 ***


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Sunday, April 19, 2015

6 Entrepreneur Mindsets That Lead To Real Innovation

shield-innovation Real innovation in the business world is still rare. As I’ve said before, everyone talks about innovation, but the majority of new business plans I see still reflect linear thinking – one more social network with more features, another smartphone app for marketing, or one more platform for faster e-commerce. Historic changes and great successes don’t come from linear thinking.

What does it take for more dynamic transformations? I like the recommendations in a recent book “Orbit Shifting Innovation,” by Rajiv Narang and Devika Devaiah. They summarize twenty years of breakthrough research initiatives and innovation strategy they have led with many of the most dynamic global organizations large and small, including Unilever, Walt Disney, Intel, and Savola.

They define ‘orbit-shifting’ innovation as something that happens when an area that is ripe for transformation meets an innovator with the will and the desire to create history, not follow it. The breakthrough innovation creates a new orbit. Beginning with the Macintosh, Apple succeeded in doing this time and time again, transforming the lives of millions, with Steve Jobs at the helm.

Every entrepreneur and every company I know has orbit-shifting intentions. But there is a big difference between orbit-shifting intentions and orbit shifting results. According to Narang and Devaiah, the people who accomplish real innovation results seem to exhibit a higher set of attitudes and motivation:

  1. Personal growth relates to the size of the challenge, not the size of the kingdom. What motivates real innovators is the more exciting challenge, not the number of people reporting to them. The ‘size of the difference’ they will make is more inspiring than the ‘size of the business.’ They relish getting out of their comfort zone, and into the unknown.

  2. The new direction is the challenge, not the destination. The challenge is the transformation vehicle for true innovators, and not a performance goal. They focus on legacy creation, not legacy protection. They ignore failures and are constantly looking at the progress made. They treat innovations reviews like performance reviews.

  3. Be an attacker of forces holding people back, not a defender. Real innovators start by questioning the world order rather than conforming to it. They begin by confronting the forces holding everyone back, rather than living with it. The forces include mindset gravity, organization gravity, industry gravity, country gravity, and cultural gravity.

  4. New insights come from a quest for questions, not a quest for answers. This discovery mindset searching for new questions drives real innovators away from more of the same. They fundamentally become value seekers; they look for value in every experience, in every conversation. They don’t seek prescriptions, they seek possibilities.

  5. Stakeholders must be connected into the new reality, not convinced. True innovators tip stakeholders into adopting and even co-owning the orbit-shifting idea. They go about tipping the heart first, assuming the mind will follow. They seek smart people, who openly express their doubts, and then collaborate to overcome them.

  6. Work from the challenge backward, rather than capability forward. Overcoming execution obstacles is combating dilution, not compromising, for these innovators. Their mindset is not ‘if-then’ but ‘how and how else?’ They convert problems to opportunities, and often the original idea grows far bigger than the starting promise.

Overall, what is different about these innovators is their mental model of romanticism in vision and realism in execution. They expect challenges, and when problems do arise, they are not surprised or let down or disappointed. They face them head on, handle them and move on. Most of the rest of us are the reverse; realistic about the vision and romantic about execution.

Entrepreneurs and startups are in the best position to find and run with orbit-shifting rather than linear innovations. They don’t have to start by overcoming the choking gravities of an existing organization and product set. That’s why most large business and government entities are resigned to buying innovation, rather than birthing it. Is your best startup idea and mindset really orbit-shifting, or just linear thinking that stakeholders won’t buy?

Marty Zwilling


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