Monday, July 19, 2010

Let Interns Be Your Startup Competitive Edge

By Mark Babbitt

We’re all familiar in some way with the concept of “interns” in business. Quite possibly your perception is the young adult working dutifully in the company mailroom. Or, perhaps the hectic “get me coffee” and “make me copies” chores associated with climbing the corporate ladder.

That stereotype may be changing.

Due in large part to the current economy and an ultra-competitive job market, a Gen-Y entrepreneurial tsunami is already upon us. A recent Gallup poll shows that 7 out of 10 high school students aspire to own their own businesses. And today, more than 2,000 colleges and universities offer entrepreneurship courses – up from the just 70 schools that Boomers and Gen-X had to choose from in 1970.

Many entrepreneurial-minded students, graduates, and career-changers understand how important an internship is to their career path. More and more, they choose to intern at a dynamic small company or startup. Their goal is to gain career-critical experience while satisfying the predisposition to “create” in a small-team environment – something they can’t obtain interning for IBM or General Motors. For a startup or small business executive serving as mentor, the proverbial “win-win” is created as they benefit from an injection of essential bandwidth, youthful energy, and technical expertise.

The intense desire of Gen-Y talent to make an immediate difference is a compelling reason why an intern with entrepreneurial aspirations would choose to intern at a startup over a Fortune 1000 company. You’ll find that your company – no matter how small or early stage you may be – can benefit greatly from hiring an intern – and has plenty to offer the intern in return.

  1. Confidence vs. Questions. In a small team environment an intern enjoys a unique opportunity to significantly impact the direction of a project (or even the company itself) while having more opportunities to submit their input and suggest new ideas. At a startup, an intern will gain the confidence needed to decide the direction of their future, as opposed to questioning their career-related decisions after an internship spent running errands and performing menial tasks.

  2. Experience vs. Escape. An intern at a startup learns more about running a business than they’ll ever learn in a classroom or from a cubicle in a huge corporate department. Rather than watching the clock (in that “I can’t wait to get out of here” way) interning at a startup is a great opportunity to experience the challenge associated with being a responsible team member.

  3. Creativity vs. Chores. Successful startups survive and prosper through their ability to constantly create and adapt to stay ahead of the game. Startup companies foster a creative spirit. Rather than negotiating bureaucracy with a corporate to-do list, an enthusiastic intern at a startup will help you by learning to make quick decisions, and doing more with less.

  4. Responsibility vs. Rut. Like you, an intern will wear multiple hats at a startup – amazing training at ground level for a young professional. As opposed to performing repetitive tasks in a single department at a large corporation, your intern will be working side-by-side with your executive team – the people who had the ambition and passion to strike out on their own. You can delegate essential tasks and projects to your intern, allowing you more time to focus on running your business.

  5. Satisfaction vs. Stress. Startups are typically project oriented, and the intern is expected (and expects!) to pull their weight. At a small company, there will be blocks of time where the intern doesn’t have someone to guide them through every step of the assignment, challenging them to take initiative. This combination of circumstances leads to a highly satisfying level of contribution, and a huge win for you through an energetic source of creative ideas. Perhaps your intern might be given the freedom to design and implement an entire strategy for your company (social networking, for example).

An intern program at your small business instills enthusiasm, creativity and youthful thinking. In return, the intern benefits immensely from the experiential education. Intern candidates intentionally seek out companies like yours for career-relevant experience and mentorship.

Has your startup taken the initiative to find a motivated intern yet?

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Today’s guest blog is presented by the founder of YouTern, Mark Babbitt. His company is dedicated to matching the best young talent to leading companies through internships. He has worked for large corporations as well as Internet startups, and speaks from years of experience in human resources. Check out his site, and contact him directly at mark@youtern.com.


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Sunday, July 18, 2010

How Dare They Block My Facebook at Work?

If you are addicted to Facebook, you may be in for a big shock when you go to work in the corporate world. Based on a survey just last year by Robert Half Technology, over half of today’s companies block social networks completely, while another 19 percent only permit it "for business purposes." The blocking percentages are still going up, rather than down.

Beyond wasted productivity and network bandwidth, here are ten additional reasons given by employers in a recent Network World article for why they continue to place these restrictions:

  • Data leaks – social networks are all about easy sharing, and employees go too far.
  • Social networks have become a great vector for Trojans like Zeus and URLZone.
  • Keep out social networking worms, like Koobface and other botnets.
  • Phishing bait – Facebook was a lure into FBAction and fbstarter.com
  • Shortened links (bit.ly and tinyurl) obfuscate sources, masking malware installs.
  • Twitter accounts are being used as a command and control center for botnets.
  • Advanced persistence threats (APT) – opens the door to a new class of intelligent application cracking tools.
  • Cross-site request forgery (CSRF) – technique used to spread networking worms.
  • Impersonation – Twitter accounts hacked to spread false info and malware.
  • Users haven’t learned not to trust all social applications.

On the other side, here are the major arguments I hear from Gen-Y (Millennials), on why they can’t live without Facebook and Twitter, and are ready to go to war, overtly and through subterfuge, with any employer who would dare impinge on their access to their favorite site:

  • Email is dead, takes too long, and it also is a major source of viruses.
  • Hate to pick up the phone or find the person every time I needed something.
  • My clients and customers use it, and I need to stay in sync.
  • You need to be plugged in to be career competitive with hyper-networked peers, and keep ahead of competitors.
  • Best online collaboration platform for project teams.
  • Flexible, easily customizable productivity tools.

They also point to the fact that, for some roles and professions, like real-time monitoring of news and consumer issues, these sites can be leveraged as effective business tools, now about one in five companies actually requires their use for work-related purposes.

The net is that most companies do dare to put restrictions on social networks “at work.” An obvious complication is that it is becoming more and more common to be “on the job”, but not “in the office.” Consider these examples:

  • Employee works at home with company computer equipment.
  • Employee works at home with personally owned computer.
  • Contractor, temp, or outsource worker off site.
  • Campus student environment with resources provided by University.

In these cases, the company often can’t control the social network activity directly, so they have to rely on corporate policy, personal integrity, and personal ethics. This is uncharted territory for some companies, who are struggling to write the “guidelines” and “code of conduct” manual.

To me, the answers are clear. When you work for a company, whether as an employee or an agent, everything you do is viewed by the client or customer as a reflection on the company, good or bad. Just as you are measured by the integrity and image of your company, your company is also measured by your image and integrity, on company time or your time.

I don’t see this as an entitlement issue, on either side. In fact, in the grander scheme of things, this is really a momentary issue. Over time, specific tools like Facebook will morph or go away, so I can’t imagine wasting any energy and jeopardizing your career for something so trivial.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Role Model Entrepreneur: Brad Bergersen Interview

president 1 A few days ago I met a 26 year-old entrepreneur with an attitude that exemplifies what I believe it takes to succeed in this new economy and new world. After doing well as a teen in the jewelry business, he made his first big jump as an entrepreneur by buying a failing store to begin his entrepreneurial career, but quickly found that the road can be a rocky one.

Marty: Welcome to Startup Professionals interviews. Tell us what you do.

Brad: My name is Brad Bergersen, and I am the President and founder of 24K Brokers, Inc. We are a national full-service jewelry wholesale corporation. Our mission is to revolutionize the jewelry industry and fundraising as a whole, by helping non-profits run money-raising events.

We have been able to raise thousands of dollars very quickly with this program, by paying wholesale prices and giving a large % of the profit back to the sponsoring organization. 24K Brokers has been featured on ABC-2 and Fox45 news channel in Maryland, as well as on Radio One and the Huffington Post.

Most recently, I was selected to be one of seven entrepreneurs for the upcoming reality TV show "Good Fellas Of Baltimore" which centers around businessmen giving back. We are committed to helping fund any legit fundraiser nationwide as “The Company With The Heart Of Gold.”

Marty: When did you know that you were destined to be an entrepreneur?

Brad: This may sound cliché, but I was born to be an entrepreneur. Since a young man, I had a knack for making things happen. So from selling candy on the black market in elementary school to closing deals worth over a million, my attitude has never changed.

I choose to live by “Positive Closing Mental Attitude (PMCA)!”  Whether you are trying to close a sale, open a business, or overcome an obstacle in your life, PCMA will get you through anything!  I found the concept of closing escapes many, so I’ve written a book (scheduled out this year) “Close The Damn Sale.”

Marty: Was your first business venture a positive and learning experience?

Brad: Probably my first 100 ideas were not successful. Why? Because I did not do what it took to succeed. I can’t really even say they were ventures, as I did not put in the financial capital needed, nor the effort to see any of them through to success.

Now I understand that the reason I never succeeded in my previous entrepreneurial concepts is because I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I wanted to make a lot of money and tried to hop on the bandwagon with whatever the “in” thing was to get rich. Finally I realized that the only way I would become truly successful was to find something I was truly passionate about.

Why go away from your niche? Once I stopped making excuses for myself and took ownership of my actions, my life changed. I went from an idea to action quickly; because of my commitment to excellence, I now have a hot commodity for investors to feast on.

Marty: Are you willing to share any personal challenges you were able to overcome to get to this point?

Brad: At 22, I was making great money and had the respect and admiration of many as the top performer of the #1 family owned national jewelry store. There was only one problem, I was an idiot. I made $150K a year and lived like I made $500K.

I was immature, irresponsible, and thought it was a good idea to buy 2 homes and 4 cars and live off plastic. I hit rock bottom when I used my piggy bank to pay my electric bill in July, 2008. I decided that night I would take control and change my life for good. I was over-indulging in food as well as materialistic possessions, and I was overweight.

I made some big decisions, and in a year lost 100 pounds, stopped spending like a fool and started creating my dream business. I don't know exactly how, but I still believe I am destined for greatness. I am dedicated to doing exactly what it takes to get there. "In the pursuit of perfection, excellence will be tolerated" became a way of life.

I have had many people doubt me, and thought I was crazy last year in a rough economy to leave a job and small side business making 200K a year with a pregnant wife at home and 3-year-old son to take a 125K pay cut and pursue my purpose in November, 2009. Yet I now have a million dollar business which has grown over 1000% in the last 6 months.

Marty: What’s the most challenging aspect of being an entrepreneur these days from your perspective?

Brad: I’m learning to give up the concept of perfection. I will always strive for excellence and continue to raise the bar for myself. I know that overcoming yourself in the biggest challenge you will face.

That means that you must block out all negativity and doubt you experience. You must always operate with PCMA and do what it takes to succeed. You must always look to find a solution, to never give up on your dreams no matter how gloomy your situation is.

Marty: Any advice you would like to give to someone contemplating a startup?

Brad: "Without imagination, there are no dreams. Without dreams, there is no reality. Without reality, there is nothing worth living for!" Follow your dreams, and make sure you are passionate about the business you aspire to build. Excuses are monuments of nothingness; if you commit to not making them, you will succeed! Good Luck!

Marty: Brad, thank you very much for some great insights and your role-model leadership for all of us! You can find out more about Brad’s entrepreneurial activities or contact him directly through his business site 24KBrokers.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, July 12, 2010

Six Artificial Barriers to Startup Innovation

A few months ago I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Roy McAlister, who has been a prolific inventor for thirty years, and a recognized authority on the use of hydrogen as the ‘fuel’ of the 21st century. While he still remains upbeat, I can sense the frustration that comes from years of facing barriers to innovation.

In his world, and many others that entrepreneurs inhabit, the problem is not a lack of ideas or technology. It’s not even a lack of money or opportunity, but a whole series of artificial constraints which seem to be getting more prevalent rather than less. Here are some of the key ones I see:

  1. People are too comfortable. One of my favorite sayings is that “Real change doesn’t happen until the pain level gets high enough.” In Roy’s world, most people proclaim that we must do something about global warming and our dependence on fossil fuels, but the real impact to them is only a minor annoyance so far. People tend to complain about minor annoyances, but spend money on entertainment.

  2. The inertia of infrastructures. It’s easy to see value in electric, natural gas, or hydrogen engines, but these all need a huge new investment in service stations, maintenance, training, and manufacturing. Replacing the existing infrastructure is painful to its constituents (oil companies and auto companies), so it will take generations.

  3. Government regulations. Especially after the banking debacle a couple of years ago, everyone seems to want more government regulations. Even the best ones take years to get through our democratic process, and take even more years to change when innovation would suggest changes. The result is minimal innovation.

  4. Risk avoidance. You never get anywhere unless you take a chance. Is it just me, or are more and more people afraid to challenge the “status quo?” Risk aversion has in many cases now moved to the extreme, called ‘entitlement’. No risk, guaranteed reward.

  5. “Silos” of knowledge. Areas of study in many domains have become so narrow and deep, that experts fail to see the forest for the trees. This is rooted in our educational system, but extends beyond. In other words, universities should be preparing students to think and problem solve innovatively (outside the box), rather than using a microscope.

  6. Low persistence levels. Thomas Edison failed more than ten thousand times before finding the right design of the light bulb. Challenged by his contemporaries, Edison soberly responded: "I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won't work." Some Gen-Y’ers have been raised by doting parents who tried to protect their kids from even one failure. That does not lead to innovation.

The world needs more innovation, and I’m looking to the entrepreneurs out there for the energy, vision, leadership and hustle to make it happen. They should be striking partnerships with inventors like Dr. Roy McAlister to find the limits of technology that can be commercialized (see Roy’s book for examples, “The Solar Hydrogen Civilization: The Future of Energy Is the Future of Our Global Economy”).

The greatest thing about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to innovate and do what you want the way you want. You can connect with clients, friends, colleagues, and competitors on your own terms to figure out if you are doing things right or need to make changes.

Don’t let the artificial constraints described above slow you down. The cost of delay usually exceeds the cost of mistakes. We need you!

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, July 2, 2010

Internet Video is Hot, But Not a Money-Maker Yet

The buzz on the Internet these days is that if you want traffic, your website better have video. They point to YouTube as the big gorilla, but also social networking with video (Bebo), and video job sites (VisualCV). One video blog (now called vlog) on YouTube has over two million subscribers.

But the word on the street is that very few, if any, of the video-only companies are making money. Even the veritable YouTube doesn’t seem to be bearing as much fruit as Google clearly thought it could when it paid $1.65 billion for the site in 2006.

One large Internet information provider, comScore, says U.S. online video watchers generated a 40 percent increase in consumption in a single year, and there’s no reason to think it will go away. According to predictions and what I see on the many sites I have visited, there are still positives and negatives to consider:

  • YouTube is already gigantic, so the interest is there. It claims to serve two billion video views per day. There are now more than 24 hours of video uploaded every minute to the site. Their revenue from advertising may approach one billion dollars this year, with most consumed by bandwidth and associated costs, YouTube isn’t even profitable yet.
  • The biggest trend in online video is watching it anywhere on the new smart phones. Video is going mobile with the high bandwidth like all new applications. Video segments must be shorter, and match the interests of these users. At least 66% of Internet users watch at least one video per month online.
  • The largest video social network, Bebo, purchased for $850 million, was just sold by AOL in a “fire sale,” after it lost half its membership of 10 million users last year. During the same period, Facebook approached 500 million users worldwide.
  • Video ad network BrightRoll claimed profitability last year, but took a $10M third round of financing just recently. They now have 50M unique viewers per month, and have closed a $10M third round. They are most optimistic about video advertising, rather than vlogging or other applications, since video ads have been the norm for a long time.
  • It looks like YouTube has a lock on the video blogging, which is still coming of age and yet to make money. An early high flyer in this space, MoBuzz, couldn’t make a business and folded a couple of years ago.
  • Hulu is a popular website offering streaming video of TV shows on demand in the United States, and movies from NBC, Fox, ABC, and other studios. Hulu is for TV what NetFlix is for movies, but its growth has been dropping off sharply.
  • There is now even a search engine, called Clicker, which is geared to find the online video and Web TV content to be able to watch it. Clicker has just raised $11 in funding, and is hoping that traffic will now follow. They provide a fast, free, and easy way to search for online video all across the Web.

Thus my recommendation is that you integrate video into your website offering, but don’t make it the only offering. Video is one of the ways to deliver customer value, but it is not THE value, per se. In some cases, video can detract from your message, by taking a long time to load, by forcing extra clicks, and giving the negative impression of being forced to listen to a commercial.

As with all businesses, website success is driven by delivering the right mix of value to the customer, in the right format and context. Of course other things, like the market, founder dynamics, funders’ indulgence, and luck will have a part in your success or failure. But if you’re lucky enough to have a little runway left, add some video value. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.

Marty Zwilling


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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Five Drivers of Real Opportunity for Startups

One of my favorite sayings is the “Real change doesn’t happen until the pain level gets high enough.” There aren’t many of us who love change, just for the opportunity to learn something new, and even we won’t pay much for it. Entrepreneurs who search for real pain points, and build solutions around them, have the best chance of changing the world.

In my opinion, real pain points for most people do not require a new user interface for Facebook, a new programming platform for app development, or even the Apple iPad. So why do I see some many funding requests for products along these lines?

As an alternative, if you are an entrepreneur looking for the next big thing, where should you look? Here are some key drivers that should lead you to a fundable idea:

  1. A business crisis. The recent meltdown of major financial institutions and process is causing us all pain, and finally forcing change. Maybe we haven’t seen the results yet, but there are thousands of startup opportunities to offer new products and services, to replace those in crisis.

  2. Some kind of natural or man-made disaster. The BP oil spill in the Gulf, the volcanic eruption in Iceland, and recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, all suggest that real opportunities for change are needed in pollution control, just-in-time manufacturing, and building materials. Usually, people pay to relieve pain before buying luxury items.

  3. When the world gets smaller. When globalization or technology shrinks distances (Internet), painful missing needs become evident, and opportunities abound. Other countries can provide e-commerce with different business models, outsource manufacturing at low cost, and a huge market for new products.

  4. The impact of global instability. Unpredictable forces, such as unrest in the Middle East, can quickly change energy cost equations, or availability of critical products. Many of the current opportunities in alternative energy are the result of these forces, as well as the lack of effective government coalitions to conserve other resources.

  5. Truly “disruptive” technologies. I hear this term every day, wrongly applied to new user interfaces, or a new search engine. I’m looking for things like the next Internet, cold fusion, or a technology to cure cancer. Recent “paradigm shift” technologies, like the cell phone, still spawn major opportunities.

Of course, there are caveats to every opportunity. Many of the biggest and most obvious ones have non-business and non-technical hurdles, including the following:

  • Government regulations. New medical initiatives and new energy alternative technologies can be delayed or bogged down for years by existing bureaucracies and irrelevant political agendas.
  • Existing infrastructure. Companies with huge existing install bases and infrastructures, such as oil companies or phone companies, often present major roadblocks to the implementation of alternative solutions outside their control.
  • People are slow to accept change. Change is hard for most people. Therefore, it takes time, sometimes whole generations, of education, communication, and incremental proof to get momentum going and overcome old fears.

Professional investors know all of these too well, and are sometimes hesitant to fund any innovation that is deemed to be too disruptive. Of course, you can choose to play it safe with more incremental, modest innovations, There’s nothing wrong with modesty. That’s the great thing about being an entrepreneur. You get to choose your pain.

Marty Zwilling


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