Friday, February 23, 2018

8 Keys To Migration From A Consultant To A Freelancer

consultant-vs-freelancerBeing a consultant is a role that works with big companies, but I have found that it doesn’t get much traction in small businesses and startups. The image of a self-proclaimed expert who can generate a report, make a great presentation, and leave you to do the implementation, is just not attractive when you don’t have a staff, and you are already overloaded with the crisis of the day.

I learned this the hard way, when I left IBM a few years ago to share what I had learned with the exciting world of startups in Silicon Valley. I found out that they weren’t looking for consultants, and were even a bit leery of anyone who had spent time in the world of big business. Startups need outside experts who can do the work, as well as relate to the challenges of a new business.

Luckily, I had always been a “hands-on” professional, and I had learned the pragmatics of people leadership, marketing, management tools, and funding. Thus I quickly dropped any mention of consulting, and was able to find some challenging roles. Over the years since, I have honed my own list of rules for those of you who wish to migrate from big business to this new world:

  1. Re-focus your efforts from consulting to freelance. Freelance or contract work implies an execution role, versus an advisory role. In startups and small businesses, there is always a need for a hands-on project leader or interim executive. Freelancer is the modern term for someone with expertise who is not seeking a long-term commitment.

  2. Promote yourself with a title to match your expertise. Simply defining yourself as a marketing specialist, designer, or project leader minimizes the stigma of the consultant role. Specialists and certified professionals are already seen as experts who do the work, rather than just make recommendations for others. Use social media for more visibility.

  3. Adopt a project-based revenue model with metrics. Agreements based on projects to be completed, rather than an hourly rate, put the focus on quantifiable business outputs versus time spent. For example, a marketing project would be the number of leads generated or ad impressions, instead of recommendations for improving the process.

  4. Market yourself and work at all organizational levels. Leadership by example works at all levels of a company. It is not limited to the realm of the top executive or board of directors, who could bring in consultants for studies and analysis. Freelancers can justify their cost based on more direct return on investment calculations at all operational levels.

  5. Treat every business as a customer, not a client. A client relationship suggests that the consultant is in charge, whereas the customer designation recognizes the more modern model of the customer in control. It also highlights all aspects of required customer service, satisfaction, testimonials, and referrals to friends in the business.

  6. Be responsive to all modes of modern communication. Many consultants have been hard to contact between scheduled meetings, due to their use of formal communication processes. It’s time to adopt your customer’s favorite mode of communication, whether that be texting, phone calls, or social media, and not limit your responses to office hours.

  7. Adapt your style to the new business work models. If your customer’s dress code or decision process is informal, you should adapt yours to fit in, rather than continue to act and look like an outsider. If the startup team is distributed around the world, your challenge is to meet their process requirements, rather than expect them to meet yours.

  8. Above all, deliver results rather than recommendations. PowerPoint presentations are not business results. If your customer needs service and support procedures, then your deliverables should include customized creation, implementation and training, rather than simply recommendations on what to include.

Remember that as a freelancer, you are the brand, and you can’t rely on your big company name or relationship. You need to use the modern vehicles for promotion and relationship building, including a professional web site, social media, and industry conferences to show your expertise, credentials, and connections. That need to market yourself hasn’t changed since consulting.

Another positive is that the number of small businesses and startups makes your opportunities an order of magnitude larger than the number of big companies, and also includes them. Another positive I found is that it’s more fun to actually do a job, rather than just make recommendations. What could be more satisfying than having fun, and making money at the same time?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/08/2018 ***

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

7 Keys To Leading Your Team And Business To Success

lead-business-and-teamOne of the realities of being an entrepreneur is that you have to keep learning and changing to survive. Everyone on the startup team knows there is no buffer, and no personal isolation from impact based on your job description that can save you. Thus everyone has to make sure they are focusing on what is important, and making leadership decisions to save the business.

That is what business leadership is all about. Unfortunately, in mature companies, a larger and larger percentage of employees forget company survival and customers as the objectives, and focus only on their own personal gain. Risks to the business drift off their radar screen, resulting in poor business decisions, as well as less job satisfaction and declining professional success.

In a classic book exploring these issues, “Lead to Succeed: The Only Leadership Book You Need,” Chris Roebuck, an expert on transformational leadership, highlighted the positive impact of entrepreneurial leadership. I have worked in both large companies as well as startups, and I have observed first-hand the principles that he highlights:

  1. Total focus on delivering to the customer. Every startup team member is close to the customer front lines, so they see how every function does or does not add value to the service they give to the customer. People in larger organizations move away from day-to-day contact with the end customer, and focus becomes company internal and isolated.

  2. Optimizing risk, not minimizing it. Calculated risks must be taken to enable change, to improve, and meet new customer needs. Minimizing risk will eventually cause any company to fail. Mistakes will happen, so the objective should not be to eliminate all mistakes, but to catch them before they create disasters, and become repeatable.

  3. Constantly being creative and innovative to get better. Mature organizations forget that change is an opportunity, not a threat. Yet nothing stands still. Change allows everyone to be push the limits in response, to improve their opportunity for personal growth, improve the company competitive position and odds for long-term success.

  4. Taking personal responsibility for organizational results. The attitude that creeps into big companies is that individual employees have no results responsibility outside their own objectives. This causes company-wide inefficiency, poor communication, and poor alignment, and also tends to reduce the effectiveness of every individual leader.

  5. Understanding the wider picture. To get individual and team performance to the highest level, everyone has to be committed to the organization’s vision, values, and strategy, just as much as their personal objectives. An attitude of no responsibility outside of individual objectives is almost always detrimental to the company.

  6. Keeping things simple. Over time, people in large organizations tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. This may be to impress others with their expertise, or their desire to minimize risk. Entrepreneurial leaders know that complexity actually increases risk, as well as mistakes, and ultimately reduces customer satisfaction.

  7. Inspiring people around you with a clear vision and target. People need a customer-driven vision and some form of end destination to give meaning to why they do things, and engages them beyond their internal view. They also need step-by-step targets to help them visualize the journey to that destination, and see that it’s possible to achieve it.

In fact, large organizations need entrepreneurial leadership and thinking just as much as startups. The challenge to build and maintain this perspective is the same everywhere. It has to start with leadership from the top, hiring people with the right skills, giving them the right training and tools, and motivating them with the right leadership objectives, compensation, and growth opportunities.

I’m convinced that we are entering a new era of the entrepreneur. The cost of starting your own company is at an all-time low, and all the information and tools you need to lead are readily available on the Internet. More and more people are doing their own thing, freelancing, working from home, and starting their own companies.

But this doesn’t mean that everyone should start their own company to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial leadership and thinking like an entrepreneur have just as much value, both to you and to your company, in big organizations as well as small. You can lead to succeed wherever you are. Do it now.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, February 19, 2018

8 Smart Tips To Soliciting Friends And Family Funding

piggy-bank-fundingIt’s great to start with a big dream as you contemplate a new business, but finding the money you need takes more than dreaming. As an advisor to young entrepreneurs, I find that many are a bit naïve about how the investment process really works. For example, I just read an otherwise impressive business plan last week from a first-timer who asked for $10 million to get started.

In my first working session with this entrepreneur, I suggested ways to break this request into stages or tranches, based on showing traction, with the first amount in a more affordable range of $50 thousand or less. Even with that, you should expect your first seed investment from friends, family, or business associates, who know your capabilities and believe in you more than the idea.

In fact, according to a classic article on Fundable, and other statistics, friends and family are still the major funding source for new ventures, investing over $60 billion annually, more than all professional sources combined. Of course, the average beginning amount per startup is low, and usually in the form of a convertible loan, rather than an equity investment.

Large amounts from professional investors come later, when you have proven yourself, and are ready to scale the business. To me, this is a logical step function, and confirmation that the right founders are always more important than the right product. Yet, even with friends and family, as well as professional investors, you need to approach them right to be viewed as the right people:

  1. Ask for a specific amount based on a specific milestone. Shy introverts may be great technologists, but they won’t be entrepreneurs until they learn to respectfully ask for funding, after nurturing relationships, and practicing their elevator pitch. Waiting for someone to offer you a gift with no specific objective is likely to be a long wait.

  2. Be prepared with a formal agreement and a thank you. The vehicle of choice is most often a convertible note, which is really a loan with a specified duration and interest, with an option to convert it to equity when professional investors come in later. Review with an attorney to make sure the terms are fair. This shows respect and professionalism.

  3. Pitch your personal investment and commitment to date. Friends and family are quick to differentiate between a passionate hobby and a sincere effort to change the world. Show them that you have done your homework with industry experts and potential customers, and convince them you are not asking for charity or a donation.

  4. Get started first on your own time and money. We all know people who are good at talking, but never seem to risk anything or find time to get started on the implementation. Every good entrepreneur needs to invest skin in the game, to show credibility and leadership to others. Even family investors want to be followers, not the leaders.

  5. Be sensitive to the limits your friends can afford to lose. In other words, don’t be greedy, and remember that you value relationships with these people even if your startup fails. Ask for the minimum amount you need to reach a significant milestone, with some buffer for the unknown, rather than the maximum amount you can possibly squeeze out.

  6. Communicate your plan and the risks up front. Remember that no investment is a gift, and everyone who buys in deserves to hear what you plan to do with their investment, and expects regular updates from you along the way. Be honest with naïve friends and trusting family members, since more than 50 percent of startups fail in the first five years.

  7. Focus first on friends with relevant business experience. A wealthy uncle may seem like an easy mark, but a less wealthy friend who has connections and experience with startups in your domain can likely help you more than any amount of money. Remember that you are looking for success, not just money to spend.

  8. Tie investment return to revenue rather than a fixed date. Rather than set a date-driven repayment schedule, tie investment returns to a percentage of new product revenue, or a plan to convert the debt to equity. Use the minimum viable product concept to get revenue early, and allow market and product pivots at minimal cost.

In my experience, if you can’t find any friends or family willing to take the plunge with you early, or you have none of your own skin in the game, professional investors will likely take that to mean they shouldn’t be risking any money on you later.

In any case, I’ve never seen a new venture yet that couldn’t be started for less than $10 million. The challenge for every entrepreneur is to come up with creative ideas for financing, to match their innovative solution. Every investor I know believes funding creativity is what separates successful entrepreneurs from the dreamers. First impressions are everything in this business.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/06/2018 ***

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

6 Dream Team Members Will Energize Any Tech Startup

startup-cofounder-dream-teamIn my years of advising startups and occasional investing, I’ve seen many great ideas start and fail, but the right team always seems to make good things happen, even without the ultimate idea. That’s why investors say they invest in people (bet on the jockey, not the horse), rather than the idea. Yet every entrepreneur I meet wants to talk about the idea, and rarely mentions the team.

Thus I was happily surprised when I found the classic book, “The Tech Entrepreneur’s Survival Guide,” by Bernd Schoner, PhD, and cofounder of ThingMagic, which leans heavily on the people side of the equation. He gives a wealth of practical advice on building a successful technical startup, including some specifics that I like on what constitutes a dream team of partners:

  1. The technical guru. You need to have a technical genius on the team to get your startup product off the ground. Outsourcing your core competency does not work. The technical skill can be highly specific, and the person may be a prima donna, but the role is required. If you’re lucky, your guru also brings some commercial contacts to the table.

  2. The trusted leader. Running a new company cannot always be a consensus-driven process, especially when hard decisions need to be made that affect everybody’s lives. Being the leader doesn’t mean more equity, nor does it mean the leader will necessarily be CEO. It just means that the cofounders trust one of their own and are willing to follow.

  3. The industry veteran. It takes a long immersion in the marketplace for someone to be a true insider, understand the subtleties of the competitive landscape, recognize the people who are true assets (independent of titles), and look through the propaganda of technical collateral and PR campaigns. These people also have the credibility to attract investors.

  4. The sales professional. Young high-tech startups are at constant risk of forgetting that they actually need to sell the wonderful technology they invented. A sales fanatic on the founder team helps to contain that risk. The combination of technical insight, founder authority, and sales experience is a hard-to-beat advantage in a competitive market.

  5. The financial suit.  You need a trained CFO to fill the financial gaps on your team. Outside professionals are always available, but they may have their own agenda, such as building a career, making money quickly, or managing up the stock price for a quick exit. If one of your cofounders has the necessary skills, your team will make the tradeoffs.

  6. The operations superstar. In the midst of high-tech development, funding, and selling, someone has to keep the office network running, get processes documented, and manage to keep everyone happy and busy. Fortunately, no combination of eccentricity, nerdiness, and charisma is required. Hard work and attention to detail are the key.

I’m not suggesting that you need all six of these as cofounders initially, but I always recommend a minimum of two founders with different perspectives. The rest can come from early hires (with stock options to assure commitment), equity investors, or even strategic partners. Outsourcing any of these critical roles is very expensive, and usually not very effective.

If you can’t recruit all of these onto your direct team, the next best alternative is to build a first-class Advisory Board of outside people, with the requisite skills and a wealth of experience. These should be hand-picked, come with a proven track record, be willing and able to help, and be completely trustworthy. The best startups have both strong cofounders and strong advisors.

What if you are convinced that your idea is great, but you just can’t seem to pull together the team and advisors you need? It’s time to think about licensing what you have to an existing company already in business, and give up developing and marketing it yourself. Remember the old adage that a small percentage of something is better than a large percentage of nothing.

Their success with your idea will at least give you the connections and the credibility to get the right team together on your next idea. Another alternative is to rely on that famous first tier of support, called friends, family and fools. Or you can always bootstrap the idea yourself, get some traction, and build your first startup organically. It’s a longer road, but may be more satisfying.

We all love the dark horse who comes from the rear to lead the pack and win the race, but very few of these really happen. Schoner and ThingMagic are now part of JADAK within Novanta, a multibillion-dollar public technology company, so success is possible without that initial dream team. My message is that it can be a lot more fun if you engage the right team at the beginning.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

10 Strategies To Isolate Smart Risks In A New Venture

roulette_gambling_gameThere is an old saying that good lawyers run away from risk, while good businessmen run towards risk. Entrepreneurs see “no risk” as meaning “no reward.” In reality, all risks are not the same. Many risks can be managed or calculated to improve growth or provide a competitive edge, while others, like skipping quality checks to save money, are recipes for failure.

The challenge is to avoid the bad risks, while actively seeking and managing the smart risks. There are no guarantees in business, but it pays to learn from the experiences of entrepreneurs and business experts who have gone before you. As a long-time mentor to entrepreneurs, here is my collection of smart risks that investors and I look for in new startups:

  1. Focus on a tough customer problem rather than a fun technology. Investors hate technology solutions looking for a problem, due to the high risk of no customers. If the customer need is obvious and large, the calculated risk is in the quality of your solution, your team, and marketing. These are risks that can be mitigated with the right resources.

  2. Schedule frequent updates to your solution to maintain growth. Assuming that you can quickly recover after competitors kill your cash cow is not a smart risk. You need a plan to regularly obsolete your own offerings, with continuous innovation, before customers send you negative messages. It’s hard to recover from a tarnished image.

  3. Plan to deliver a family of products, rather than a one-trick pony. Even a great initial product, with no follow-on, won’t keep you ahead of competitors very long. A smarter risk is to build a plan, with associated greater resources, that will put you in position to expand your product line and keep one step ahead of competitors.

  4. Implement a modern real business model. Providing everything free, and growing users to the max for years, like Twitter and Facebook, is a high risk approach requiring deep pockets. Risk is more manageable with subscriptions and even freemium pricing. Even non-profits need revenue to cover their costs, and continue to provide services.

  5. Find a strategic partner to accelerate growth. Everyone wants to forge ahead all alone, and kill every competitor in sight. Almost always, risks are more predictable when you use coopetition for access to new customers, economies of scale, and shared resources. Finding win-win deals is a manageable risk, versus a battle with one winner.

  6. Use metrics to measure results of marketing initiatives. Too many entrepreneurs put all their resources in one big make-or-break effort they can’t measure, or they count on word-of-mouth and viral marketing, which are totally unpredictable. I like marketing plans that come from both inside and outside the box, but have milestones and measurements.

  7. Recruit the best team members and provide incentives. Trying to save money by recruiting family members, or hiring only interns, is a bad risk. Great team members may take more time to find, and cost you stock options, but a qualified and highly motivated team that stretches your budget is a good calculated risk.

  8. Build your business with minimum outside funding. More money is not more likely to solve your problems or reduce your risk. Investors know that startups with too much money fail just as often as those with not enough. Strategically, you need a plan to survive through organic growth, with outside funding to effectively accelerate scaling.

  9. Don’t rely on conservative forecasts to reduce risk. Investors don’t fund conservative forecasts, nor wildly optimistic ones, since both imply a lack of commitment or homework. Opportunity and revenue projections based on deep market and customer analysis are a smarter risk. Measurements and business intelligence along the way also mitigate risk.

  10. Be a leader rather than following in the footsteps of another. Many entrepreneurs think they can reduce and predict risk by emulating previous winners like Google and Twitter. But stepping into a crowded space to steal customers is more risky than attracting new customers looking for a solution. Customers like leaders, not followers.

The risks you want to take are the ones that you planned for in your resources, set up metrics to measure, and manage on an ongoing basis. All the rest are bad risks, including problems you didn’t anticipate, competitors you didn’t know about, and customer expectations that you can’t meet.

An age-old measure of startup health is how much time top executives spend on containing bad risks, versus proactively exploring new risk opportunities. If the majority of your time is in recovery mode, your whole startup is likely a bad risk.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, February 16, 2018

7 Strategies For Anticipating Future Customer Trends

technology-future-trendsThe market is changing so fast these days, and if you are not planning a solution today for tomorrow’s customers, you may be setting yourself up for failure and don’t even realize it. There are always new competitors who are planning their arrival tomorrow. As an angel investor, I routinely toss business plans that focus too much on today, and don’t talk about tomorrow.

As an example, I was just reading a plan for a new dating app with a tagline of moving users quickly from the virtual world into the real world of offline dating. That may be a boon to dating today, but if your business is making money from apps, it seems like your success will convince users that they no longer need your product tomorrow. Tomorrow is never mentioned in the pitch.

I was happy to see a real focus on preparing for tomorrow highlighted in a new book, “Start a Successful Business,” by Colleen DeBaise, who has made a career of studying and writing about entrepreneur challenges. She offers seven ways that business owners can identify and evolve with future trends, which I agree with and amplify here:

  1. Take advantage of industry research and trend reports. I often hear entrepreneurs who seem to rely wholly on their own passion, and the view of a few friends. With today’s Internet instant access to all the latest reports and white papers of industry experts, there is no excuse for not staying current with outside perspectives, to temper your own views.

  2. Regularly follow reviews and influencers in your industry. Of course, you may not have the time or desire to read through every document in your space, but it’s not so hard to find and follow some key influencer blogs on social media. These experts will curate the information, point to the best sources, and summarize implications for you.

  3. Use tools and analytics to identify trends and directions. There are many free generalized tools, including Google Trends, which can be used to track customer behavior in looking for things that don’t exist yet. In addition, most advanced CRM systems will help you analyze your specific customers for directional behavior.

  4. Make it a point to surround yourself with smart people. An easy way to connect with people you can learn from, and keep your pulse on where things are heading, is to hire team members who are smarter than you in complementary business areas, including marketing and sales. Spend more time with people who can help, rather than be helpers.

  5. Build and listen to an effective group of advisors. Find mentors and advisors who have more relevant business experience, insist you see things that aren’t on your radar, and spot what’s coming around the corner. A good advisor will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. You don’t need friends and family as business advisors.

  6. Ask the right questions, and listen to your customers. Don’t be afraid to ask current customers what’s on their wish list, and what they see as future needs in their areas. Beware of linear thinking on their part, so it’s your job to expand their scope with ideas outside the box, and ask them for a view of the business several years down the road.

  7. Learn to accept, and even schedule change regularly. The alternative is to be into the mode of playing catch-up, which can cause you to make mistakes in execution, or even get there too late. Sometimes you have to kill the cash cow, or make personnel updates before the crisis, to assure long-term business health.

I once served on the Advisory Board of a technical software executive who refused to believe that his product was no longer competitive, and insisted that sales and marketing were no longer doing their job. Unfortunately, we were unable to convince him to initiate a broad product upgrade, until the damage was severe. Thus no amount of input will help, if you are not listening.

In today’s market, it takes more than listening to stay ahead of the crowd. It takes initiative, a mindset of planned obsolescence and innovation, and a concerted effort to “see around the corner,” to see things that your customers will need, even if they don’t realize it yet. What have you done lately in your business to survive against the next Steve Jobs?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/01/2018 ***

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

8 Strategies For Regularly Reinventing Your Business

Eastman-Kodak-cameraSometimes entrepreneurs are so focused on making change happen for customers that they forget that continually changing themselves and their company is equally important. Some get stuck in a rut and get run over by competitors with new technology, like Eastman Kodak, and others get pushed into a crisis, like Apple did, before they reinvent themselves into a new market.

Everyone and every company needs to continually learn from their experience and adapt to a changing world to thrive. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” is an old adage that really doesn’t work in today’s business world. If you don’t plan to reinvent yourself regularly, your competitors will make you obsolete, and any success to-date will likely be short-lived.

In his classic book “Invent, Reinvent, Thrive,” Lloyd E. Shefsky, Entrepreneurship Professor at the Kellogg School, highlights this message, and provides some expert insight on how entrepreneurs can apply the principles to their own career and company. Here are the key recommendations from both of us, based on my own business mentoring insights:

  1. Re-launch using your enhanced core competency. Use that same technical and business expertise that served you well on this startup to find the next opportunity. I’m sure you have seen many new ones, and now understand even better the due diligence required to validate the opportunity, and the executions steps required to make it happen.

  2. Ignore the voices of dissent again. Negative advice on an unknown is easy and safe to give, so every entrepreneur hears it over and over. As an entrepreneur with some success, you had the confidence to prove them wrong once, so don’t lose your nerve and try to play it safe now. Proven problem solvers only get better with practice.

  3. Listen and act on the ideas of others around you. Take advantage of the fact that you have surrounded yourself with key people who have good ideas, but may lack the skills or confidence to act on them. Skip the arrogance of “not invented here,” and re-invent your current company, or start a new one, before a crisis occurs.

  4. Move to a higher platform. Many entrepreneurs get their first taste of success running their own consultancy or practice. A few are able to move to higher platform, like moving from a sole practitioner physician to create and run a much larger medical organization. That’s a type of re-invention that can give you a major advantage over competitors.

  5. Changing times call for a new skill set. Smart entrepreneurs in any given industry, like publishing, recognize the appearance of new technologies which threaten their survival, including digital publishing and print-on-demand. The best immerse themselves in these technologies, and invent new businesses, rather than fight in the old one to the death.

  6. Seek out customer trends before they become an avalanche. Don’t stop doing the in-depth communication with customers that brought you initial success. Plan an annual set of customer sessions that you don’t delegate to subordinates. If customers don’t convince you to re-invent a part of your business each year, you probably aren’t listening.

  7. Find mentors who have the skills you lack. Proactively seek out mentors who will tell you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear. Work on the new skills you acquire from your mentor, and test incrementally what you have learned. With each new skill you acquire, your likelihood of long-term success is improved.

  8. Expand your investment alternatives. If your business success so far is based on family and Angel investors, perhaps it’s time to start working with institutional investors and external business partners. Their expectations and insights will broaden your view, and may incent you to upgrade your strategy, or re-invent a portion of your business.

Entrepreneurship is not a one-time transformation that qualifies you long-term success. It is a lifestyle, like many others, which requires constant effort to keep you ahead of the crowd in a rapidly changing business environment. Standing still is falling behind. What is your action plan to continually re-invent yourself and thrive?

Marty Zwilling

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