Sunday, September 21, 2014

How To Pick A Lifestyle Consistent With Your Passion

Karen_Brady_WolverhamptonToo many people, young and older, let their career and their lifestyle happen to them, rather than proactively making things happen based on their personal passions, skills, and interests. Others make decisions based on someone else’s interests, such as the father who wants his son to take over the family business, or dreams openly of having a doctor in the family. Neither of these approaches is likely to lead to a satisfying career or personal happiness for you.

These days, with the instant access to information and experts in every field around the world, and the wealth of personal assessment tools available on the Internet, there is no excuse for not exploring and evaluating the alternatives before you make a step forward. I just finished reading another recently updated resource “Promote Yourself. The New Rules For Career Success” by Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm.

Among other things, he outlines some of the popular assessment tools that I also often recommend as a mentor to entrepreneurs, including the following:

  • MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Myers Briggs is one of the most widely used and recognized career assessments in existence, and does an excellent job of identifying your personality type so you can connect it to the right career and lifestyle. It can also help you better relate to others and become more self-aware.

  • Gallup's Clifton Strength Finder. The focus of this tool is to help you discover your top five strengths and learn how you can use them to excel and perform at a higher level. The creator, Dr. Donald O. Clifton, is widely recognized as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, and has helped millions of people around the world discover their strengths.

  • Marcus Buckingham StandOut Assessment. This one builds on the positive premise that the most effective method for improving people is to build on their strengths, rather than correcting their weaknesses. It’s the one to use if you have tried other assessments that claim to tell you who you are, but don't tell you what you can do with that information.

  • Career Key. This one helps you identify careers and even college majors that match your set of interests, traits, skills, and abilities. It was developed by Lawrence K. Jones, a professor Emeritus in the College of Education at North Carolina State University, who specializes in the areas of school counseling and career counseling and development.

  • MAPP™ Career Assessment. The MAPP career assessment is perfect for students, graduates and working adults. You'll get a wealth of information to help find the right career that matches your unique assessment profile. The MAPP career test was one of the first comprehensive career tests online for consumers, with over 7 million customers.

  • Leadership Motivation Assessment. This one tells you how motivated you are to be a leader. After all, it takes hard work to become an effective business leader; and if you are not prepared to put this work in, or if, deep down, you're not sure whether you want to lead or not, you'll struggle to lead people effectively, and not be happy doing it as well.

If after taking one or more of these, you are still stuck on what domain you fit best into, whether you should be an entrepreneur, and how to get started, the following questions should help get those introspective juices flowing into action:

  • When have you been the most committed and passionate toward something in your life?
  • What talents do you use the most and what are your strengths?
  • Which roles and activities did you like and dislike in the past?
  • What aspect of those roles did you like the most and least?

After you get your own thoughts and assessment results together, it helps to get some feedback from people you respect, including parents, industry experts, and mentors. An outside perspective can be incredibly valuable as well, and help you narrow down what may seem like a long list, and relate that to the real world. Something you feel passionate about that doesn’t put food on the table, for example, may not be sustainable.

But the time to start is now. The most important point is to plot your own path, rather than be a victim of unpredictable circumstances and someone else’s whims. Don’t let other people be winners at your expense.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Startups Need To Build Solutions, Not Technology

Anybots_robot_montyTechnical entrepreneurs love their technology, and often are driven to launch a startup on the assumption that everyone will buy any solution which highlights this technology. Instead, they need to validate a customer problem and real market need first. Don’t create solutions looking for a problem, since investors ignore these, and customers other than early adopters are hard to find.

Exciting new technologies these days range from the easier to use social media software platforms I see almost every week, to new transportation models, like consumer space travel and hydrogen fuel autos. These founders all seem to be pushing their technology, rather than highlighting their solution to a painful need. Customers buy solutions, not technology.

In fact, outside of those few early adopters, technology by itself has negative value to the majority of potential customers. Most people are wary of change, and know that new technologies take time to learn and stabilize, so customers prefer solutions based on tried and tested proven technologies. Smart entrepreneurs build market-driven solutions, per the following principles:

  1. Size the opportunity and customer interest first. Your passion isn’t enough to create a market. If there is a growing opportunity, an accredited market-research group such as Forrester or Gartner will already have data to quantify your excitement, and help make your case.

  2. Look for customer willingness and ability to pay. Just because users support your free trial doesn’t mean they will pay for the solution. Nice to have does not motivate a revenue stream. Creators of technologies that cure world hunger may find that hungry people don’t have money, but government agencies as customers are a very long sales cycle.

  3. Limit the features and complexity. Technologists tend to add more features, just because they can. More features usually means more complexity in operation and support. The best solutions, from a customer perspective, are able to mask the technology with a very simple and usable interface that focuses on their problem only.

  4. Take a hard look at alternatives and competitors. New technology does not necessarily make better solutions. If you claim no competition, investors may perceive that you have no market, or you haven’t looked. Neither is positive. Customers may be perfectly happy with existing alternatives and competitors.

  5. Work in a familiar domain, on a problem you have experienced. The most successful entrepreneurs tackle problems that have caused them personal pain, in an area they know well. Every business domain looks simpler to outsiders who have no insights into the complexities that increase your risk.

None of these principles is meant to imply that technology is not important in building new solutions. In fact, some technology leaps are so great that they enable a whole new class of products, or a whole new market. These are called disruptive technologies or the next big thing, in the sense that existing markets or economies of scale are disrupted by the scope of change.

Examples of solutions from disruptive technologies include personal computers, smartphones, the Internet and the first social-media platforms. Even for these, which can indeed change the world, the aforementioned principles still apply, in conjunction with a couple of additional considerations:

  • Time frames for acceptance are longer and the risk is higher. Based on history, the acceptance period for major technology changes is much longer than innovative evolutionary changes -- sometimes taking 20 years or more for pervasive acceptance. Investors thus tend to shy away from these startups, meaning you need deeper pockets.

  • Disruptive technologies require customer education to create a new market. Customers tend to think linearly, so existing customer feedback is unlikely to lead to, appreciate or pay quickly for the new solutions from world-changing technology. This means more time and money for viral marketing, product iterations and promotions.

So the more you emphasize the technology of your offering, the more you need to be prepared for increased costs, reduced investor interest, slow customer acceptance, and a longer wait for any return. On the other hand, the longer-term impact and return of disruptive technologies is likely to be huge, if they survive the early challenges.

My recommendation for first-time entrepreneurs, and the rest of us who don’t have deep pockets, is to focus on customer problems that are causing pain today, and customers who are willing and able to spend real money on a solution.

You will more likely get the investor resources you need, the guidance from existing experts, the opportunity to hone your business skills, and the confidence from success. Then when you sell your first company for several hundred million, you will be ready to tackle that favorite disruptive technology leading to the next big solution to change the world.

Martin Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 9/12/2014 ***


Share/Bookmark

Friday, September 19, 2014

10 Entrepreneur Beliefs That Defy The Stereotype

Page brin_by_origaMost people agree that entrepreneurs have to think differently and take risks to have much chance of building a successful business. Yet I have found that serious entrepreneurs usually go way beyond these platitudes in their actions and thinking, and often won’t volunteer their real views, for fear of alienating “regular” people, and being branded a fanatic.

In his book from a while back “The Entrepreneur Mind,” by serial entrepreneur Kevin D. Johnson, he outlines 100 essential beliefs, insights, and habits of serious entrepreneurs. Most of these are predictable, like think big and create new markets, but I found a few, like the ten below, that will likely raise the hackles of many people outside this lifestyle, and many “wannabe” entrepreneurs.

Yet, based on my own years of experience “in the business”, mentoring many entrepreneurs, and following stalwarts like Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, even these potentially controversial mindsets ring true to me:

  1. All risk isn’t risky. Entrepreneurs surely understand the high probability of failure, but they don’t necessarily like to gamble. Instead, they take calculated risks, stacking the deck in their favor. They must have enough confidence in themselves, supplemented by expert knowledge, solid relationships, or personal wealth, to see the risk as near zero.

  2. Business comes first, family second. This view isn’t a selfish one, but a recognition by serious entrepreneurs that family well-being is dependent on the success of the business, not the other way around. This is why airlines ask you to put on your oxygen mask first. Should you forego closing a million dollar deal to attend a ball game with your son?

  3. Following your passion is bogus. Look for a good business model first. Your passion may be for a good cause, like curing world hunger, but it may not be a good business. In any young business, you inevitably find things that are not enjoyable, but need to be done, like cold calls or firing unproductive employees. Just doing fun things is a myth.

  4. It’s not about being your own boss. Great entrepreneurs aren’t interested in being bosses at all. People who crave the freedom to do what they want when they want generally make terrible entrepreneurs. In order to be a successful entrepreneur, discipline is a must, and accept your new bosses as investors, partners, and customers.

  5. Fire your worst customers. We have all had customers who take advantage of us, to the detriment of other good customers. The best entrepreneurs are quick to make the tough decisions to bypass bad customers, with proper respect, to minimize frustration, resource drain, and reputation loss. You can’t please everyone all the time.

  6. Ignorance can be bliss. It’s great to be highly familiar with the industry in which you plan to compete, but many times people see too many challenges, and never start. In other cases, entrepreneurs are opening up new business areas, so no one yet knows the challenges. Serious entrepreneurs trust their ability to beat a new path to the opportunity.

  7. You’re in no rush to get an MBA. If you are already an entrepreneur, more education, including an MBA, will only slow you down. Consider it a waste of time. If you plan to become an entrepreneur, and already have business experience or an undergraduate business degree, skip the two-year delay and cost of the MBA.

  8. You are odd, and it’s OK. Entrepreneurs, especially those in technology, usually don’t start out as well-rounded, well-adjusted leaders. In fact, being odd is quite the norm. According to other studies, attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is common, as well as host of other personality disorders. It’s actually cool to be a geek in this lifestyle.

  9. A check in hand means nothing. Every entrepreneur remembers their na├»ve days when that first customer check bounced. When you receive a new purchase order, a check, a verbal agreement, or even a written agreement, don’t get too happy and excited. Save the celebration until you have cold cash in hand, or the funds are verified.

  10. There’s no such thing as a cold call. If you are an elite entrepreneur, you don’t go into anything cold. With the Internet and a plethora of other resources, you can warm up any call quickly, and not waste your time or theirs. Doing your homework first is one of the best ways to get an advantage over your competition.

If you think Johnson is on the right track, see his book for 90 more challenging insights. Even if you disagree with some of these, try to open your mind to the value of the seemingly backward way of thinking required to be a great entrepreneur – others seek refuge, they take risks; others want a job, they want to create jobs; others follow the market, while they define the market.

Have you caught the entrepreneur bug yet? If so, prepare for a lifetime commitment, and learn from the elite. There is no turning back.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Entrepreneurial Leadership Can Save Any Business

Chris-RoebuckOne 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.

I recently finished an insightful new book exploring these issues, “Lead to Succeed: The Only Leadership Book You Need,” by Chris Roebuck, an expert on transformational leadership. I have worked in both large companies as well as startups, and I have seen first-hand the positive impact of the entrepreneurial leadership 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


Share/Bookmark

Monday, September 15, 2014

Startups Need To Capitalize On Every Conversation

business-conversationWhether you are trying to motivate your team, close a deal with a customer, or get funding from an investor, a casual conversation is usually a waste of your valuable time. These result is a founder who is always “too busy,” but never seems to get the business done and the team moving. All real business is conversations focused on creating results.

Shawn Kent Hayashi, in her recent book “Conversations That Get Results and Inspire Collaboration” makes my point very well as she outlines the top twelve types of conversations that relate to working together in business, and provides tips on how to make each of them more effective for all concerned:

  1. Conversation for connection. Connecting with others happens when we slow down our talking enough to be in the present and really listen to one another. Rapport building requires listening, more than talking. Powerful listening causes trust to grow.

  2. Conversation for creating new possibilities. The questions a manager or colleague asks help us to understand a situation better, if we ask good questions and really listen to the answers. Conversations can also be the triggers to professional development.

  3. Conversation for structure. When we know what we want to create, the next step is to devise a plan. We build our plans with the steps as we become aware of them through conversations, with ourselves as well as with others.

  4. Conversation for commitment. For each identified action step, we identify potential candidates and then seek their commitment to produce the result that corresponds to the task. The commitments we make to ourselves are the most fundamental.

  5. Conversation for action. What actions will make your tasks and goals come alive? We’ve all seen people get stuck in a project because they do not know what to do next. They’re not asking themselves or anyone else the right questions, and not listening.

  6. Conversation for accountability. After a conversation for commitment has occurred and the expectations are clear, being accountable for engaging others in what you want to do is a sign of respect. Sometimes people need to be guided into better outcomes.

  7. Conversation for conflict resolution. Many people will avoid conflict in work relationships at all costs, which is nonproductive. Others feel fear when the smell of conflict arises. A few overuse this conversation type. Conflict is normal, so deal with it.

  8. Conversation for breakdown. Anger indicates that something or someone has crossed one of our boundaries, and is a signal to address the issue. Breakdown recognition is vital to moving forward. Asking for what we want might actually clear up the breakdown.

  9. Conversation for withdrawal and disengagement. It is unrealistic to think that all work relationships will be enjoyable or friendly forever. Often it is best to end a tenuous connection, so that we can invest our time in ones that are meaningful and productive.

  10. Conversation for change. Your ability to change the direction of an individual, team, or an investor occurs through conversations. By design, you can change the conversation in the office, at board meetings, and with peers who seem to have gone off track.

  11. Conversation for appreciation. Think of the last time you felt really appreciated at work. Undoubtedly someone showed appreciation of your efforts using language that works for you. Affirming others through conversation builds relationships and momentum.

  12. Conversation for moving on. You have conversations for moving on when leaving a community or transferring or retiring from a company. One day you might reconnect, but for now you have closure, with no expectations of future conversations.

Being successful as an entrepreneur begins in a conversation with ourselves first, and then extents to others, focused on what we are passionate about, and the solutions we are bringing to market. None of these are casual conversations, where you don’t really listen to the response. How committed are you when someone is obviously not listening to your responses?

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Dread Startup Problems Or Learn To Enjoy Challenges

business-problem-solving-stressIf you can’t solve problems and enjoy it, you won’t make it as an entrepreneur. By definition, an entrepreneur is the first to undertake a given business, and firsts never happen without problems and people frustrations. The toughest problems are people problems, like personnel issues, but there are tough operational problems as well, such as vendor delays and quality surprises.

The real entrepreneurs I know are good at overcoming both people problems and business obstacles, and get satisfaction from the challenge. Some people think this is a talent that you must be born with, but experts disagree. You can definitely train yourself to be a problem solver, if you haven’t already. It’s a key skill for success in every business role, from accountant to customer support. Here are some basics rules:

  1. Practice active listening. Whether it’s a frustrated employee, or a dissatisfied customer, what you first hear is usually someone yelling with emotion or talking so fast that you don’t know what they are talking about. The first thing to do is resist the urge to vocally jump into the fray, and listen attentively without interruption. Often the person will solve their own problem as they are unloading.

  2. Promise action but manage expectations. Calmly commit to resolve the problem, but don’t immediately promise any given solution. Let the person know that the situation is not simple, and you need some time to investigate the circumstances and alternatives. Then give an expected time frame for an answer, and move to the next stage.

  3. Investigate thoroughly. There are at least two sides to every problem. Don’t assume anything, and gather facts from all relevant parties. If it’s a judgment or fair treatment question, practice your active listening with each party. If a problem requires special expertise, like a tax question, do your homework or call an expert.

  4. Provide regular progress updates to all. Status communication is critical, if the resolution time is going to be longer than one day, even if you have given an expected time from longer than one day. This is probably the most important step and probably the most neglected. If they hear nothing, unhappy people get progressively harder to satisfy.

  5. Make a timely decision. Meet your committed time frame for a resolution. Schedule enough face-to-face time (not email or text message) to lay out your understanding of the problem, facts you have assembled, options that you considered, and your decision reached, with reasoning behind it. If possible, let the person with the problem chose from alternatives, so you get more “buy-in.” Put the decision in writing to prevent ambiguity.

  6. Follow-up. No matter how smooth the resolution, you need to re-confirm the decision with affected parties within hours or days. This reaffirms your commitment to the process, their satisfaction, and avoids any secondary problems. If the problem was a business process, get the process update documented and communicated to all.

It’s critical to train everyone in your team on these principles, if you want an effective business. Your goal in all of this is to be a role model and get respect for you own position, as well as to empower team members to effectively solve problems for you and for your customers directly.

Problems happen, that’s part of life and people usually understand that. Problems are an everyday part of every business and personal environment. In fact, every business is about solutions to customer problems – no problems, no business.

Entrepreneurs who are great problem solvers within the business are the best prepared to solve their customers’ needs effectively as well. But in both cases, forcing a smile is not an alternative to the techniques described above. Your team and your customers will see right through it.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Saturday, September 13, 2014

7 Reasons To Think Positively About Competition

Mens_100m_finals_Olympic_TrialsMost entrepreneurs spend far too much time thinking negatively about competitors, and can’t resist making derogatory statements about them to their own team, investors and even to customers. This approach only makes these important constituents question your integrity, intelligence and your understanding of business basics. Pointing out flaws in others does not give you strength.

As an investor, I always listen carefully to what an entrepreneur says, and does not say, about competition. Every business area has competition and every customer has alternatives, so a smart entrepreneur needs to acknowledge these as a positive in defining a big market, and position the features of a new solution in this context. Here are seven key ways to do this:

  1. Frame the competition as manageable. Investors want to see evidence of your sustainable competitive advantage. They don’t want to hear there are no competitors or a long list implying a crowded space. Use three generic categories, and relate your position to a key player in each.

  2. Highlight your positives to suggest competitor shortcomings. Talk about competitors with positive statements about the advantages of your own product. For example, “While product X has worked well in the server market, my product also provides cloud support to drastically reduce IT costs and maintenance.”

  3. Emphasize intellectual property and a dynamic product line. Patents and trade secrets are more powerful advantages than missing competitive features, which might be quickly filled in as you gain traction. Be careful with the first-mover claim, since big competitors have deeper pockets and can accelerate to quickly eliminate your lead.

  4. Demonstrate expertise on the range of competitors. You don’t need to talk about every competitor, but you better know every one just in case someone challenges you. Do your research thoroughly on the Internet and with industry experts and advisors. Build your credibility by presenting information on competitor leadership and team histories.

  5. Become a thought leader on industry evolution. Make it evident that you have learned and evaluated competition from a higher perspective -- meaning the evolution of industry technology and trends. Show that you have thought about indirect competitors and alternative solutions, such as airplane technology versus a better train.

  6. Develop a timeline showing continuous innovation. Make your competitive position a long-term advantage by presenting a timeline of technology evolution, rather than a comparison at the time of first rollout. Investors don’t like an apparent “one-trick pony” or a momentary advantage that can be quickly overcome by smart competitors.

  7. Position your solution in the world market. Every market and every opportunity these days is global, so successful strategies and positioning are done with that in mind. Your rollout needs to be focused and targeted locally in the near-term, but competition needs to be addressed in a much broader, long-term way.

Don’t forget that the primary objectives of every competitive positioning are to demonstrate your business acumen and integrity, as well as the strengths of your solution. Any overly negative comments you make about competitors doesn’t help you on either of these objectives and will kill your momentum with investors and potential customers.

Spot comparisons are also less and less valuable these days, as the market tends to change quickly, and competitors can pivot and recover just as quickly. Remember that smart competitors are likely working on new features with resources greater than yours, and timeframes to delivery that may be shorter.

In addition, thinking positively about competitors is what your customers will do, and what every smart investor or potential business partner does. You have to get on the same wavelength to optimize your solution, maximize your credibility and minimize the competitive risk. Besides, being an entrepreneur who is full of negativity is no fun.

Martin Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 9/05/2014 ***


Share/Bookmark