Monday, May 30, 2016

Test Startup Urges As An Intrapreneur, With Caution

intrapreneur-light-bulbBelieve it or not, even large and mature companies often initiate entrepreneurial efforts inside their own companies, and they look for employees who have the right attributes to make this happen. If you want to explore the world of an entrepreneur, without jumping ship, this would be the way to do it. Entrepreneurs working inside big companies are called “intrapreneurs.”

Many companies do this to explore opportunities for growth outside their normal domain, and compete with conventional startups, to penetrate new markets and profit from the next big thing. A reason on the other end of the spectrum would be to de-consolidate non-core functions to live or die on their own merits. A third reason would be to mingle and learn from the startup culture.

Most often, corporate entrepreneurial efforts are destined to be spun-off, or disconnected from the base company, very early in their cycle, to give them all the advantages (and challenges) of a real startup. Since initial funding and staffing is usually provided by the parent company, one would assume they have a real survival advantage over other startups.

Yet, through some first-hand company experience that I won’t detail here, to protect the guilty, I am convinced that spin-offs often fail to launch or compete in the real world, for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Employees selected to run the spin-off don’t think like entrepreneurs. All too often, corporate top performers, or ones who have scaled the ladder of time, are put in charge, regardless of whether they have a passion to run a startup, the broad range of skills, required or the required relationships with industry players and outside partners.

  2. The parent company never really relinquishes control. Like startup investors who demand board control positions, parent company executives too often exert their power, without understanding that starting a business is far different from running an established one. The result is an under-funded and under-staffed clone of the parent organization.

  3. Incentives based on internal objectives, rather than market-driven. In enterprise environments, performance objectives and bonuses are often tied to internal processes and targets, rather than product revenue, customer acquisition and market penetration. This technique, when applied to a startup, can actually inhibit progress and scalability.

  4. Salaries and support services carry corporate overhead. Legally and culturally, benefits and facilities provided to an intrapreneur under the auspices of the parent company have to be driven by the corporate burden rate. Thus the spin-off carries a heavy overhead, or faces a disconnect from the parent with no visible return path.

  5. Mission is set in stone, so required pivots are not allowed. The corporate mandate of a spin-off usually lacks the flexibility and creativity of an outside startup. Every startup I know has found the need to pivot multiple times, before finding their best fit in the market, no matter how strong their initial vision. Intrapreneurial missions are more hard-coded.

Your challenge as a corporate entrepreneur, or intrapreneur, is thus actually tougher than starting your own business on the outside. It looks more attractive, considering the guaranteed funding up front, access to pre-trained internal team members and professional analysis of the financial considerations, but the challenges listed above can override all of these.

The answer for spin-offs, I believe, is for the parent to apply tough love -- limited financial support, with no do-overs and no golden parachutes. With this approach, Sony’s intrapreneurial venture into the PlayStation game market succeeded wildly, and has since grown into an ownership of over 70 percent of the home-video-game-console market share.

On the other hand, Hewlett-Packard applied resources to all these issues a few years ago in an attempt to spin off the personal computer business, but quickly backed out as they saw losses mounting toward $1 billion a year. The low margins of the PC business just could not be overcome by resources and value unlocked by splitting the business into two more focused entities.

For aspiring entrepreneurs, there are a couple of lessons here. First, entrepreneurship (or intrapreneurship) is a mindset that team members can apply for value in corporations, as well as startups. Huge resources, even with this mindset, won’t make a startup or a spin-off successful. The magic is figuring out how to do more with less. So why are you waiting for that big investor?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 05/20/2016 ***

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Best Entrepreneurs Learn To Stay Ahead Of Change

change-business-anticipateAspiring entrepreneurs who rely only on traditional learning vehicles (teachers, classrooms, and risk-free practice) are doomed to failure in anticipating change today. Either they are never really ready to commit, study an opportunity until it has passed, or fail with tools and techniques from a bygone business era. The Internet and the current information wave have changed everything.

Being a successful entrepreneur these days requires a current insight to a myriad of changes, including many that haven’t yet been integrated into the traditional academic learning vehicles of textbooks and professors. The Internet is the problem, by facilitating constant change, and it’s the solution, by providing an absolutely current view of customers, trends, and best practices.

The challenge is to find the time and initiative to keep up with the information wave, and be able to curate the data into knowledge that must be learned, unlearned, or relearned. It requires an attitude of self-education, versus an assumption that someone else will provide the education. For entrepreneurs, change is the norm, so you have to relish it before you can make it happen.

This required ability is aided by some supportive personal attributes, such as confidence, initiative, problem solving, and determination, but the basic learning principles must include the following:

  1. Satisfaction will come from learning something new every day. This goes hand-in-hand with every entrepreneur’s desire to do things better, and make a real impact on the world. This is a key part of enjoying the journey, as well as the destination. It doesn’t imply any sense of superiority or weakness, but often provides motivation beyond money.

  2. Success requires challenging assumptions and status quo. With this principle, real entrepreneurs start with a conviction that new learning will reveal flaws in existing models, leading to new opportunities. The Internet is the source of data for alternative views, and social media allows direct customer interactions to test these views.

  3. Learning means understanding, far beyond memorization. Great entrepreneurs strive to understand the depth of a customer need, rather than just the ability to recite a longer list of features. Technologies are not solutions, but understanding a technology, in the context of a customer need, will result in more competitive and long-lasting solutions.

  4. The act of communicating and writing enhances learning. The process of documenting what you think you know in a business plan, for the team and for investors, solidifies your own understanding of your new business. With that learning, you are able to more effectively share and market your solution to customers and business partners.

  5. Building a new business is not rocket science. Growing a business is understanding the needs and thoughts of regular people and simple financial transactions, not some complex technology that you might assume you can never learn. With the Internet, you can see all you need explained in a dozen ways in text, videos, pictures, and podcasts.

  6. Learning is nothing more than looking outside the box. Extending your knowledge is like dealing with competitors – if you aren’t extending your comfort zone, you are losing ground. With the Internet, you can quickly test your new business concepts, with crowd funding and social media, and get quick feedback from around the world at low cost.

  7. Relationships are a test of your learning readiness. Building a new business today is all about building relationships with your customers and your team. As an entrepreneur with a new startup, you are the brand, and customers today expect a relationship. In addition, you always need relationships with advisors, investors, influencers, and peers.

  8. Proactively ask for help and anticipate the need to pivot. With the Internet, you can ask for help from normally inaccessible experts, with minimum personal exposure and cost. It’s easy to see how often others have made changes, so your own learning and associated pivots should never be an embarrassment. Avoid the arrogance trap.

No one is too old to learn new things as an entrepreneur, whether you are just out of school at twenty, or just finished your first career at sixty. If you follow the principles outlined here, and take advantage of the pervasiveness of the Internet, you too can be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. A failed startup is the harshest learning lesson of all, and we need to change that approach.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

How To Take Your Idea From A Hobby To A Business

handmade-hobby-versus-businessAs a startup investor, I often see business proposals looking for funding that really look like expensive hobbies looking for donations. I recognize that entrepreneurs tend to substitute vision and passion for formal processes, but no discipline or process in building something new is a sure way to spend money, rather than see any return and build a self-sustaining business.

I’m not suggesting that you model your startup after the complex corporate organizations you hated in your last job, but there are at least eight key functions and activities that every investor expects to find in a startup proposal with any real potential to change the world. Each of these requires some ongoing effort, so I expect at least a rudimentary process associated with each:

  1. Record of spending and business assets. I still see entrepreneurs who spend money and time for months on a new business idea without any separation of personal and business funds, and any formal accounting system for their new business. This is the first business process that every startup needs, that I wouldn’t expect to find for a hobby.

  2. Managing to specific goals, priorities, and a plan. Technologists building cool new platforms, just because they can, won’t find investor interest. Entrepreneurs need to document a process of responding to a market need, sizing opportunity, assigning a specific business model, and planning for marketing, sales, and customer satisfaction.

  3. Solution development and delivery. Products and services for a business need to be attuned to customer requirements, cost and quality tradeoffs, with milestones for pricing and completion. Typically some production and delivery is outsourced, requiring formal contracts and documentation. Hobbies are developed ad-hoc, driven by personal needs.

  4. Preparation and management of funding. Even if you are not requesting outside funding, I would expect a clear process for sourcing and managing the investment you plan to apply. External investors expect a documented business plan, with clear targets on funding needed, use of funds, revenue projections, return potential, and exit strategy.

  5. Team building status and plan. Solo entrepreneurs, with a team of helpers, will be assumed to be a hobby rather than a business. I recommend every startup plan for at least two or three decision level team members, and at least a couple of highly-qualified external advisors. Show that you have a process to hire, fire, and train others as required.

  6. Formalize the use of tools and information technology. Productivity and repeatability is the hallmark of a good business, whereas a hobby usually assumes everything is custom built and personal. I look for business startups to already have their website up and running, administrative tools purchased, and basic procedures automated.

  7. Customer receivables collection and vendor payments. These are critical processes for any business, so they need to be implemented even before investor requests are sized or solicited. For progress and success assessment, each of these needs some metrics defined, a training plan, and responsibility assignments within your team.

  8. Marketing, sales, support, and service operations. I’m assuming that most of you will see these as intuitively obvious elements of a business, but not needed for a hobby. Yet I continue to get funding requests that never mention any specific plans or costs to be associated with these elements. No mention usually means no plan and not competitive.

For all of these, your objective should always be a minimum viable process to start, with the expectation that each will be enhanced and pivoted as you learn from customers and competition that works and what doesn’t. The key is to be proactive, rather than assuming that you can react to each crisis as it happens. Customers today are easy to lose, and expensive to replace.

It’s a myth in the startup world that not having processes makes you more competitive. In my experience, no defined process means unable to respond in a timely fashion, unpredictable quality, and high operating costs. None of these are attractive to investors, and jeopardize the success of even the best initial idea. A hobby may take your idea to a product, but a startup has to take the idea to a business.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, May 27, 2016

7 Team Attributes That Can Make Any Idea Come Alive

Playing_mafia_gameThere is an old saying in the startup investor community, “Smart investors invest in the team, not the idea.” As an angel investor, I’ve learned to believe in this approach, since I have seen great ideas go astray, due to poor execution and I have seen apparently marginal ideas make millions, managed by a savvy entrepreneur. Giving the wrong people money doesn’t help at the idea level.

Who would have forecast that entrepreneur Gary Ross Dahl would make millions by starting a “pet rock” business way back in 1975? Some business successes can be attributed to luck, timing, or available funding, but in this case most agree that Gary was simply a marketing genius and he created his own market through creative advertising, emotional appeal and exclusivity.

That may be an extreme case, but I’ve found that even with the proposals that include compelling paradigm shifts in technology, a hard look at the entrepreneur is often the most significant due-diligence that an investor can undertake. Beyond basic business and technical credentials, here are some of the key startup team attributes that every investor is looking for:

  1. Team shows an appreciation and plan for marketing. The days are gone when an inventor can get credibility by saying “if we build it, they will come.” Similarly, mentioning viral marketing without specifics won’t assure fundability. Everyone on the founding team needs marketing awareness, and a marketing plan with content.

  2. Leader pitches the plan, not the product. Investors look for entrepreneurs who talk about building a sustainable business, rather than highlighting the breakthrough elegance of the technology or the need for social change. Even social entrepreneurs need milestones, quantifiable results, and revenue to sustain their value.

  3. Focus on customer needs. Some founders are so passionate about their solution that they forget to lead with an explanation of the customer value equation. Investors assume that entrepreneurs are experts on their solution, but they want to see the same depth on customer and market dynamics.

  4. Startup presents a plan to expand and lead the market. Every investor I know has seen multiple plans to add more features to Facebook, or add yet another dating site. I’m looking for teams who are exploiting a new market niche, or adding real innovation to an existing domain. Investors like to see new intellectual property as a barrier to entry.

  5. Plan includes a business model with good margins. Counting on sustaining the business through more free users and growth in eyeballs for advertisers is a naïve and risky approach and it implies investors with very deep pockets. Investors expect to hear annual revenues, average margins, customer acquisition costs and sales pipelines.

  6. Founding team has business and domain experience. An entrepreneur needs a depth of business experience on the team, as well as technical expertise. This should include financial, marketing, sales, and operations, all with a record of working together in setting milestones, managing results, and focusing on the market opportunity.

  7. Business objective is clear and laser focused. If the entrepreneur is pitching a plan that sounds like this is a solution for everyone, it’s likely that resource constraints will not allow any customer segment to be served well. The best startups are highly focused in the initial rollout, but can present an evolving strategy for broadening the market later.

It’s always likely that one or more of the team members are young or inexperienced, but every entrepreneur can attract a strong and balanced team, with the proper networking and the willingness to share equity early. Building the team later, with money from investors, is a losing strategy, since team members paid cash are less committed and investors want the team first.

Thus I would assert that build a great solution is only half the task faced by every entrepreneur. The other half is building a great team and plan for making a great business out of the solution. With both of these, you can make any idea come alive. Otherwise you will likely feel like you are working hard with one arm tied behind your back. You need both for maximum impact.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 05/18/2016 ***

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Find Your Sweet Spot To Excel As An Entrepreneur

the-purpose-effect-etsyFinding your sweet spot as an entrepreneur needs to start with a meaningful personal purpose that is also a business opportunity. Some people are so passionate about a cause that they forget to consider the lack of business potential, while others are so enamored with profit that they jeopardize their ethics. Both ends of this spectrum fail to bring long-term satisfaction or success.

Many entrepreneurs are finding their “secret sauce” these days by combining a strong purpose with a good business opportunity. For example, the handmade-item platform Etsy sponsors free entrepreneurship courses for underemployed and unemployed people, including assistance in setting up a store on Etsy, thus adding more artists and artisan sellers to their platform.

Patagonia, a successful outdoor products company, combines building safe high-quality products with philanthropic efforts to help the environment. In the name of this cause, the company donates time, services, and at least one percent of their sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups around the world. Purpose must not be perceived as just a gimmick.

So the question is how do you find a personal purpose and a business purpose that are in sync, to be the driver of business success, as well as your own happiness? I just finished a new book, “The Purpose Effect,” by renowned author Dan Pontefract, that provides a good framework and background or doing just that. I recommend his tips for creating and maintaining that sweet spot:

  1. Define a personal declaration of purpose. Deciphering one’s personal purpose should be priority one. Keys to this must include how you want to operate your life, and how you incorporate your strengths, interests, and core attributes. Write it down, make it specific, expressive, yet succinct and jargon-free. Then take ownership and make it happen.

  2. Don’t stop believing, learning, and developing. If one stops growing and experiencing, personal purpose will be inhibited. We all change as we mature, and we all need to keep changing. To find new work you love, it helps to do job shadowing or short term rotation. Outside of work, it’s important to join a club, do volunteer work, and help at local events.

  3. Establish a team-defined declaration of purpose. By constructing with the team a purpose-first strategic direction with a role-based mindset, a business will have far greater buy-in from its team to achieve its mission and objectives. When every team member sees purpose in their role, the benefits begin to accrue quickly for all.

  4. Set specific targets for serving all stakeholders. The challenge of every business is to create a win-win relationship between business owners, partners, team members, customers, and the community at large. By setting specific targets, you can apply measurements to chart progress and be able to celebrate successes along the way.

  5. Delight and deliver value to your customers. Without customers, there is no business. Thus even purpose-driven entrepreneurs need to maintain a “customer-first” perspective. When the customer is put first, the team will rally around that focus. When the customers are delighted, they become your best advocates of your purpose and your business.

  6. Create an engaging and ethical workplace. Prioritizing an ethical culture is a critical step to gaining the respect of customers, team members, and the community in the pursuit of becoming a purpose-based organization. Factors which increase engagement include more manager face-time, flexible work rules, and better recognition opportunities.

In the long run, both purpose and business are all about people. Neither of these can be static, and still stay vital. Both should be thought of as in perpetual motion, so finding your sweet spot is not a one-time event. You and your business are on a journey, by way of new experiences, insights, and knowledge, requiring constant attention, or the sweet spot will be lost.

That should convince you that finding and maintaining your sweet spot in business will not be easy. It takes hard work and requires hard choices be made, which can be painful. In the difficult early stages of any business, it can also seem like you are leaving some things for others that should be in your pocket. But you will soon find that the joys of giving far outweigh the taking.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, May 23, 2016

6 Principles For Overcoming Entrepreneurial Adversity

entrepreneurial-adversityEvery entrepreneur knows what it’s like to face adversity. It comes with the territory, and includes cash-flow challenges, fickle customers, belligerent investors and unpredictable economic downturns. The best entrepreneurs tackle these one at a time without losing their stride or their passion and many secretly get their highest satisfaction from overcoming an impossible problem.

For example, you probably didn’t know that the world’s richest entrepreneur, Bill Gates, found that his first venture, Traf-O-Data, failed to make money because he couldn’t solve the technical problems quickly enough and selling to municipalities was a nightmare. Instead of making excuses, he credited his later success with Microsoft to the lessons he learned with Traf-O-Data.

Also, most people don’t realize that Richard Branson has dyslexia, which made him a poor student, so he faced adversity well before his first startup effort. Yet he was able to use his dynamic and powerful personality to drive him to success. Today, Branson is known for over 400 companies, many very technologically advanced and he is the fourth richest person in the United Kingdom.

I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that adversity energizes some people, almost to the super-human level, while others are driven to despair. I suspect it starts with a strong survivor instinct, rather than reverting to a victim mentality. Beyond this, I have extracted from my own work with entrepreneurs a set of principles that I recommend for every founder in the face of adversity:

  1. Maintain a positive attitude, learning from failure. Thomas Edison called every failure an experiment (now it would be a pivot). He made no excuses for 10,000 light filament failures. Challenged by his contemporaries, Edison soberly responded: “I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He then succeeded.

  2. Build relationships with others, communicate. An isolated position is hard to defend in the face of adversity. Successful entrepreneurs are not afraid to reach out and ask for help from peers and advisors. They communicate their goals, fears, and challenges, without excuses and actively listen to feedback and guidance.

  3. Surround yourself with smarter people. The best entrepreneurs get past the need to control every aspect of their business, and make every decision. They actively solicit people who are strong, have more expertise in a specific area and trust them to make decisions there. Adversity will melt away.

  4. Prioritize your health and activities balance. In the natural world of survival, unhealthy and unbalanced people most easily succumb to adversity. Smart entrepreneurs always find time for rest, outside physical activities or even meditation. Working 20 hours a day, seven days a week does not solve all problems.

  5. Accept adversity as a norm rather than an exception. Some adversity in inevitable in every business, so it must be treated as any other unknown, rather than a crisis or the end of the world. Many entrepreneurs thrive in adversity and get satisfaction from the solving challenges, compared to the relative boredom of business-as-usual.

  6. Practice resilience by refocusing on your strengths. Researchers have concluded that human beings are born with an innate self-righting ability or resilience, which can be helped or hindered. Obsessing about problems and weaknesses hinders resilience, while identifying and building on individual strengths increases resilience and leads to success.

One of the biggest myths that aspiring entrepreneurs tend to believe is that they can be successful doing only fun things. In reality, experienced leaders and entrepreneurs will tell you that it’s how you anticipate and handle the inevitable tough challenges that determines long-term happiness. If you try to avoid any risk and competition, you won’t be happy with the outcome.

I don’t recommend the entrepreneur lifestyle to those who can’t deal with risk and adversity. If you are ready to give it a shot, or are already committed, I do recommend the principles outlined here for solidifying your natural strengths. We can all benefit from the experiences of others. The best entrepreneurs don’t succeed by dodging challenges, but because of how they handle them.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 05/13/2016 ***

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

8 Ways To Prevent Burnout While Running A Startup

burnout-businessNew entrepreneurs routinely jump into a startup with a full charge of passion and energy, but often find themselves drained of both after a few months by the workload and challenges. As a result, burnout and loss of passion are consistently listed among the top causes of startup failure, according to many studies. The challenge is find ways to continually recharge along the way.

Of course, this same challenge extends well beyond the entrepreneur, into all walks of life and work. I just reviewed a recent book, “Are You Fully Charged?” by human relations expert and bestselling author, Tom Rath, which explains well the three keys to energizing all your life pursuits. These keys are meaning, interactions, and energy.

Based on my experience working with early-stage startups, I agree with Guy Kawasaki, that those entrepreneurs who set out to make meaning in the world (a positive change) create the companies that will most likely be successful. I have extrapolated Rath’s eight insights on making meaning as key focus principles that every new entrepreneur should take to heart:

  1. Create meaning with small wins. Celebrate small wins by asking yourself what can you do today to make a difference? Real meaning is made up of many small differences, such as a design breakthrough, new business model, a truly satisfied customer, or an excited team member. Take a moment to enjoy each of these and get recharged.

  2. Pursue life and meaning, as well as a solution. Finding meaning is driven from within, through new learning and overcoming challenges. Every startup has a wealth of these opportunities. Successful entrepreneurs often admit that they enjoyed the journey more than the destination. Meaning does not happen to you – you create it. Don’t wait.

  3. Make your startup a purpose, not just a business. Strive to see the work you do to build a business as the way to make a difference in the world. Make sure your team understands your shared mission, meaning, and purpose. Making meaning is making your life, and the lives of others, stronger as a product of your efforts.

  4. Find a higher calling than cash. Happiness does not scale up with income. Studies show that doubling your income might increase happiness by 10 percent. In addition, focusing first on money will kill meaning. The more you focus your efforts on others, the easier it is to do great work without being dependent on money, power, or fame.

  5. Ask what the world needs. You create meaning when your strengths and interests meet the needs of the world. One of the rightful critiques of all the “follow your passion” advice is that it presumes you are the center of universe. A better way is to explore the most pressing needs in your social circles, organization, and the worldwide community.

  6. Don’t fall into the dreams of others. If you walk only in the path of others, your own image disappears. Be sure you create your own shadow, spending some time each day engaging in activities that energize and recharge you. Also plan to spend more time around specific people who energize your work and less around those who don’t.

  7. Take the initiative to shape the future. If you want to make meaning in the world, your ability to do so will be almost directly proportional to the amount of time you spend initiating instead of responding. Being busy is often the antithesis of working on what matters most. Usually you have to focus on less to do more.

  8. Work in bursts, paired with time to recharge. This can mean focus for 45 minutes, followed by a break for 15 minutes. Short breaks allow you to refresh yourself and work with purpose. Try to remind yourself daily why you do what you do, and if you don’t like what you hear, it’s time to change to something that has more meaning for you.

In an author survey of 10,000 people, only 20 percent admitted to spending much time doing meaningful work yesterday. Only 11 percent reported having a great deal of energy at work. Clearly, most entrepreneurs are operating well below their capacity, and could be more effective in building their business or making new meaning in the world. If you are one of these, then it’s time for you to change before you burnout and disappoint everyone, including yourself.

Marty Zwilling

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