Monday, December 31, 2012

4 Startup Tenets for Extreme Focus on Customers

extreme-focusNew product startups rightfully begin with a heads-down focus on creating the ultimate product – whether it’s a new technology, a new look and ease of use, or a new low-cost delivery approach. Most then add customer service at the rollout, but very few really understand what it means to be truly customer centric, and even fewer really achieve it.

Customer centricity is far more than providing excellent customer service, although that’s a step in the right direction. Customer centricity is a strategy to fundamentally align a company’s products and services with the wants and needs of its most valuable customers, with the aim of more profits for the long term.

As I was reminded recently by Peter Fader’s book, “Customer Centricity” from the Wharton School, Wal-Mart and Costco aren’t really customer centric. They do provide the right products at the right price to save all customers money (with good customer service), but they don’t try to find their most valuable customers, and nurture them to buy more or bring in friends.

Customer centric means building loyal customers, like Apple appears to have done extremely well. It means recognizing that all customers are not the same, and that all customers are not always right. It means pursuing Fader’s four tenets that can lead to even greater long-term success and profits than a great product at a low price:

  1. Accept that all customers are not the same. By recognizing the fundamental and inevitable differences among your customers, you can give your organization a strategic advantage over your product-centric competitors – who may know little to nothing about the customers who account for their success and survival.

  2. Focus on individual customer value. By understanding that there is real and quantifiable value to be found in individual customers, you can better focus your long-term marketing efforts on precisely those customers who will generate the greatest long-term value.

  3. Quantify the value and cost of acquiring every new customer. By working to quantify the value of each and every one of your customers, you can gain enormously valuable insight about how much you should be willing to spend to keep an existing customer and how much you should be willing to spend to acquire a new customer.

  4. Personalize your offering to each customer or group. By moving forward with a highly focused customer relationship management initiative, you can gather and leverage more information about your customers. This will allow your company to serve those customers in a more personalized (yet genuine) manner than any competitor can.

In reality, you don’t need to get to know each individual customer. But you do need to segment your customers into homogeneous groups. Then you can decide on a marketing program, loyalty program, or a level of attention that is appropriate to each group, for acquisition, retention, and profitability.

Remember, this is not a one-time effort. The needs and interests of your customers are ever-changing, so you have to constantly re-align your resources to build mutually beneficial relationships. Don’t focus only on your products and operational efficiencies, unless you already have the brand image and leverage to prosper with price as the key differentiating factor.

Success hinges on progressing past lip-service, to the real work of building a customer centric organization to execute the focus. That means setting up operational and financial metrics, educating team members, and rewarding the right actions. Can you name three elements today in your startup that go beyond good customer service? If not, competitors are approaching.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Entrepreneurs Learn New Rules for Real Influence

tony-hsiehSuccessful entrepreneurs, like Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Casey Sheahan of Patagonia, have long since realized that influence is no longer something that you do to someone to get what you want, but requires listening and relationship building to do what they want, with a win-win outcome. We now live in a world where even subtle persuasion efforts are suspect.

If your business and your style is still focused on the “old-school” hard-selling push-marketing approach, it’s time to take a close look at how well it’s serving you these days. The new culture driven by social media is all about forging real connections and building relationships.

How this relates to influencing other members of your team, business partners, and customers is clearly illustrated in a new book “Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In,” by business psychiatrist Mark Goulston and executive coach John Ullmen. They start by describing a four-step model for connecting and influencing people in this new culture:

  1. Inspire people to great outcomes that they desire. Focus on the three ‘R’s of a great outcome: Results, Reputation, and Relationships. Real influencers go for something grand, build a reputation worthy of long-term commitment, and invest in relationships to get buy-in to desired outcomes.

  2. Master listening to learn where other people live. To discover where they are coming from, you need to get to the fourth level of listening - not listening while ignoring, not defensive listening, not even problem-solving listening, but connective listening into other people’s world. It’s listening from “their there,” instead of “your here.”

  3. Engage and connect with people in their space. True engagement and connection requires that you get “it” (the other person’s issue reality), you get “them” (at a personal level), and you get their path to progress (show a positive path to progress). They then sense that you are working with them, instead of manipulating around them.

  4. Go beyond expectations to make yourself unforgettable. This means adding value before, during, and after an interaction. Find ways to add value in expanding their thinking, making them feel better, and helping them take effective action. You must do more (but not everything), and ask other people to do more.

After you have mastered these steps, there is still room to take real influence to the next level, and become a “power influencer.”

  • Let adversity lead you to great outcomes. Don’t get stuck in the “I can’t” world, and don’t forget the positive lessons from every negative experience. Do acknowledge your feelings, because when you do, you can address them effectively. Do have the courage to let new great outcomes find you.
  • Influence by getting out of the way. Every great outcome becomes a part of you, and it’s hard to let go (like handing over your CEO role). If you are strong enough to get out of the way, so others can take over, your great outcome can last forever, or become someone else’s even greater outcome. It also opens your door to more great outcomes.
  • Influence positively after you’ve made big mistakes. To repair the damage from the mistakes we all make, we need to learn how to make them right after we’ve made them wrong. Be brave enough and humble enough to make amends to the people hurt. Let others help you dissect the mistake, and they will respect you and learn from your efforts.
  • Let gratitude magnify your influence. When you perform an act of gratitude, whether you are thanking a person directly or talking about someone else who has helped you, the person who is listening to you feels a strong sense of gratitude as well. That immediately creates a stronger bond between the two of you.

Being an entrepreneur has always been all about influencing others, but the rules of persuasion have changed. What worked in the days of Dale Carnegie doesn’t always work in today’s more sophisticated and less trusting world. If you want to influence me to the contrary, I’m ready to listen. Are you?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, December 24, 2012

10 Action Items to Keep Angel Investors Hovering

elite-daily-shark-tankEvery new startup I know dreams of being funded early by one of the 318,000 active Angel investors in the USA alone. But many entrepreneurs don’t realize that Angels are also extremely discerning in the projects that they will invest in, rejecting approximately 97% of the proposals submitted to them, according to the California Investment Network.

Most of these investors are members of Angel groups that have a rigorous filtering and screening process, to select the top 3% and most fundable proposals. What is this daunting process, and what can you do to optimize your chances of surviving it? Over the past 10 years, I have had the opportunity to see how the process works, several times from the startup side, and more recently from the Angel perspective (as a member of an Angel group screening committee).

Don’t expect the pomp and celebrity of the Angels on Shark Tank, but they do ask a lot of the right questions. So what should you do to prepare for this stage in your venture, and optimize your chances of making it through the process? Here is my list of top ten action items to best prepare you for success in achieving a funding event with Angels:

  1. Incorporate the business now. If you expect to require external funding, you should first incorporate as an S-Corp, C-Corp, or LLC, rather than the more expeditious sole proprietorship or partnership. The corporate entity lends itself best to the concept of “sharing” equity required by investors, and unincorporated entities don’t get funding.

  2. Line up an experienced team. Remember the old adage that “investors fund people, not ideas.” That’s why this item is so important, and is probably the biggest stumbling block I see in getting through the initial Angel screening. If the founders are not experienced, find a couple of advisors from the business sector to fill the gap.

  3. Get your Internet domain name and website. In today’s world, if you don’t have a web site up and running, you will not be perceived as a real company. Investors routinely go to candidate web sites to get a feel for the tone and scope of the company, as well as its maturity and offerings. Reserve the company name on social networks to protect it.

  4. Define some intellectual property. File a patent and trademarks to show real intellectual property. Having a defensible competitive advantage or “barrier to entry” is another critical step to funding, and another common stumbling block during all phases of the funding process. Start early on this one, or you will lose the opportunity.

  5. Build a prototype product. A conundrum for many frustrated entrepreneurs is that they need money from investors to design and build a prototype product, yet most Angel investors expect to see at least a prototype before they invest. Use your own money or friends and family to demonstrate progress early.

  6. Build an investor presentation and summary. Investors expect a one or two-page executive summary sheet for the initial screening, backed up by a ten-slide Powerpoint investor presentation. Remember to aim the content of both of these at investors, not customers. They must amplify your “elevator pitch” to investors, as well as key points from the business plan and the financial model.

  7. Prepare an investment-grade business plan. Every entrepreneur needs a professional business plan for their own use, whether they intend to seek investor funding or not. As a founder, you may think that everyone understands your vision and plan from your passion and words, but it doesn’t work that way. It should answer every question an investor or associate might ask, including current valuation, funding needed, and exit strategy.

  8. Finalize your financial model. Like the business plan, a financial model is required as much for your own use as to impress Angel investors. In most cases, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is adequate, with projection formulas for revenue, costs, and cash flow over the next five years. Variables for “what if” questions add credibility.

  9. Close at least one initial customer. This must be someone who is willing to pay real money for your product or service. Free trials don’t count. All the conviction and market research in the world are no substitute for real customers paying real money. This is called “validating the business model.”

  10. Network to the maximum with investor connections. The last and possibly most important action item is to build relationships with investors and friends of investors BEFORE you need their help in building your company. A good start is taking an active role in relevant technology groups, trade associations, university activities, and local business groups.

In summary, being touched by an Angel can lead you to your dreams of a new and successful business, but it doesn’t happen without planning, hard work, and careful preparation. Most Angel investors are seeking psychic as well as financial benefit from their investment. Do your homework listed here first to get their attention, but don’t expect anyone to swoop down and wave a magic wand.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Building a Startup is Navigating an Obstacle Course

obstacle-courseIt would be no fun if starting a business was simply plotting a straight line between your idea and success, with no challenges along the way. Zigging and zagging amongst the obstacles is the fun part of being an entrepreneur, and it’s what sets you apart from the average worker who knows exactly what he or she has to do every day to get paid. Relish it, or if it scares you, don’t try it.

That doesn’t mean that starting a business should be a random walk into the unknown. There are certain foundational elements that every entrepreneur must build on to succeed, as well as some critical tools we all need. I found these tried-and-true principles summarized very well in a recent book “The Zigzag Principle” by serial entrepreneur Rich Christiansen:

  1. Assess your resources. At some point financial capital if usually needed to meet business goals. But it’s not a substitute for the other critical resources, mental capital (domain knowledge, skills, and passions), plus relationship capital (friends and advisors). Money results from mental and relationship capital, not the other way around.

  2. Identify your beacon in the fog. Start with a big audacious goal to guide you, so that every once in a while you can hit a smaller goal, to provide a break in the fog and catch sight of the beacon before those next steps into the darkness. Goals need to be written down, measurable, and realistic. Expect your fair share of zigzagging to get there.

  3. Create a catalyzing statement. This is a key element of every elevator pitch, with enough specificity and fuel to keep you and everyone around you moving toward the beacon in the fog. This quantified big dream should be a long-term goal that your short-term zigzags are all leading to. Use your values as the foundation.

  4. Drive your startup to profitability. A first zig of getting to profitability is important to every business, because being broke and always fighting for funding can cause a lot of pain. More importantly, profitability can drive you to find hidden assets, zag to interim revenue sources, and force you to pace yourself in getting to that final destination.

  5. Define processes and add resources. After the initial zigs and zags to get profitable, it is time to formalize and document the processes that worked. Only then can you expand those things that led to your initial success. It also means that it’s time to stop micro-managing, hire some of the right people, and start giving up some control.

  6. Scale the business. This is implementing a model that you can replicate, to get your product or service out across the country, and around the world. Scaling models charge by the transaction, or subscriptions, or have digital assets with no cost to reproduce. Switch to a mindset of working “on” your business, rather than “in” your business.

  7. Stay within your guardrails. Set up some rules to constrain your zigs and zags to prevent “out of control” situations. Common controls include some spending limits, time commitment limits, financial milestones. These guardrails should be closely aligned with your values. Practice the art of saying “no,” and the discipline of delegating.

  8. Develop reward systems. To keep you and your team from burning out, you need to define a simple system of motivators and rewards. Too much reward leads to an entitlement mentality. As you hit each zig, you need to take a break from the intensity, celebrate, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

The alternatives to planned zigzags are a planned straight line, or a planned random walk. Neither of these are realistic for an entrepreneur seeking success, but I still see them every day, and I see the pain that results. Smart entrepreneurs are nimble and flexile, bootstrap to the maximum degree possible, and pivot for emerging opportunities. Be one.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, December 10, 2012

10 Perspective Checks on Your Startup Aspirations

worried-entrepreneurEvery entrepreneur needs to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses, and realistic about their reasons for choosing the startup route. For any entrepreneur, even the best business opportunities, if entered for the wrong reasons, will likely fail. Some of these reasons seem obvious, so forgive me for restating, but I still hear them too often.

Statistics show that at least 50% of new startups fail within five years, and many of the survivors eventually fail. If you don’t want to be part of these statistics, consider all the alternatives to starting your own business, especially if you have one of the following perspectives:

  1. “I’m tired of working hard and being so stressed all the time.” Starting and growing a business is more work and more stress than any employee role should be. Perhaps you need to look carefully at the reasons for your weariness and stress at work. Health and personal problems don’t go away when you start a business.

  2. “It’s my hobby anyway, so why not make it my business?” The problem here is that most hobbies cost money rather than make money. Just because you love doing it doesn’t mean anyone will love paying for it.

  3. “I’m desperate, since I can’t find a job that suits me.” With the current recession, jobs are indeed hard to find. But don’t forget that businesses are failing at a higher rate as well. Desperate people don’t make good entrepreneurs, and probably don’t have the resources or fortitude to start a business.

  4. “My family has always been in business, so it’s in my genes.” Good entrepreneurs do seem to have certain innate qualities, but it’s not clear that these qualities are automatically passed to offspring. If your passions are elsewhere, don’t try running the family business.

  5. “I’ve inherited some money and starting a business should be a good investment.” You can’t start a business without capital, but having capital doesn’t mean you can start one. Learning is expensive and risky. It’s less risky to invest your windfall in someone with a proven business record, or put the money in the bank.

  6. “I have some extra time, and I need a second income.” Being an entrepreneur is not a part-time job. A business startup is actually a second expense more than a second income. For supplementary income, you would be better served to take a part-time job with an existing company.

  7. “I hate having a boss, and just being an employee.” Don’t start a business for a power trip. When you become a business owner, your customers, suppliers, creditors, partners and a lot of other people will become your new “bosses”. These people may be harder to please than your boss at the office today.

  8. “All my friends own hot businesses and seem to be doing well.” You shouldn’t believe all the hype, or all the things said in social circles. Definitely don’t jump into trendy businesses you don’t know just to be popular. Even good friends tend to forget talking about the years of hard work and sacrifice, in favor of recent success.

  9. “I’d like to be rich, so I’ll start a business.” Starting a business with a dream of riches is certain disappointment. There is no evidence that entrepreneurs make more money, on the average, than other professionals. There is much evidence that the risks of failure are higher on the business owner side.

  10. “My primary goal is to contribute something to society.” This is laudable, but more effectively addressed after you have built a successful company, not before. If changing the world is your main motivation and money is not a concern, then do it, without allowing the building of a company to slow you down.

For anyone with entrepreneurial aspirations, I recommend you start by networking with peer business people and organizations before you commit to a startup of your own. Ask questions and do everything you can to make sure you are tackling the right business for the right reasons. Your entrepreneurial life depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Friday, December 7, 2012

10 Key Entrepreneur Success Drivers May Surprise You

ewing-marion-kauffmanWe can all dream about what it takes to make our startup a success. From recent survey feedback, it seems evident that the urban legends leading to success are wrong. The average entrepreneur is not the one who dumped a promising career, sketched his idea on the back of a napkin, and accepted millions from an investor to make billions of his own.

I was just perusing an older but still very relevant report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship, titled “Making of a Successful Entrepreneur.” They surveyed 549 successful company founders across a variety of industries, and gathered their views on success and failure drivers. Many are predictable, all were interesting, and a few even surprised me:

  1. Stick with the business area you know. We all have a tendency to think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but 96% of these founders ranked prior work experience in their business area as an extremely important or important success factor.

  2. It’s the learning; not success or failure, that makes the difference. Successful founders try and try again. 88% attributed their success to prior successes; 78% attributed success to prior failures.

  3. The management team is critical. In looking back on their success, 82% of the founders attributed their success to strength of the management team (not the idea, business plan, or money). No surprise here.

  4. A little luck never hurts. Surprisingly, a full 73% said that good fortune was an important factor in their success. 22% even ranked this as extremely important. Perhaps we can discount this a bit for humility, but there is nothing like being in the right place at the right time.

  5. Don’t discount the value of your network. Professional networks were deemed important in the success of 73% of the founders. 62% of the respondents felt the same way about their personal networks.

  6. Dropping out of school is not recommended. 95% of these founders had earned Bachelor’s degrees and 47% had more advanced degrees. 70% said their university education was important, so only a few said skip it. Born to be an entrepreneur may not be enough today.

  7. First-timers usually fund their own venture. Venture capital and private/angel investments play a relatively small role in the startups of first-time entrepreneurs. 70% said they had to use personal savings as a main source for their first business.

  8. Advice from investors is not worth much. Of the entrepreneurs who received advice from their company’s investors, only 36% ranked it as important, and 38% said it was not important at all. Surprisingly, even in venture-backed businesses, 32% said it was only slightly important. It sounds like founders want to make their own mistakes.

  9. Willingness to take a big risk. When asked what may prevent others from starting their own business, the highest ranked factor by 98% was lack of willingness or ability to take risks. Founders clearly found entrepreneurship to be a risky endeavor.

  10. Huge time and effort commitment. Along the same lines as the previous item, 93% felt from their own experience that the work and time challenges were a major barrier (no support for the part-time, work from home, get rich quick crowd).

Hopefully, by understanding what entrepreneurs think and believe, we can foster more successes, fewer failures, and better guidance, to those of you who haven’t taken the big step yet. If you are already committed, take heed of the advice of those who have been there and done that. People who don’t learn from other’s experience pay a high price just to get to the starting point.

Marty Zwilling

Disclosure: This blog entry sponsored by Visa Business and I received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa's. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business.

The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently.

Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner's success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa's small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, December 3, 2012

10 Course Corrections Every Startup Should Memorize

The popular view of a real entrepreneur is someone with a big vision, and a stubborn determination to charge straight ahead through any obstacle and make it happen. The vision part is fine, but successful entrepreneurs have found that the extreme uncertainty of a new product or service usually requires many course corrections, or “pivots” to find a successful formula.

This reality has fostered a popular startup approach which dramatically improves the efficiency and speed of these corrections, pioneered by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author Eric Ries. His popular book on this subject, “The Lean Startup,” lays out how today's entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses.

Eric espouses designing products with the smallest set of features to please a customer base, and moving products into the marketplace quickly to test reaction, then iterating. He does a great job in the book of making the case for management systems, rather than gut-level reactions, to make required course corrections (pivots), to dramatically improve the odds for success.

Pivots come in many different flavors, each designed to test the viability of a different hypothesis about the product, business model, and engine of growth. I agree with Eric’s summary of the top ten types of pivots to consider:

  1. Zoom-in pivot. In this case, what previously was considered a single feature in a product becomes the whole product. This highlights the value of “focus” and “minimum viable product” (MVP), delivered quickly and efficiently.

  2. Zoom-out pivot. In the reverse situation, sometimes a single feature is insufficient to support a customer set. In this type of pivot, what was considered the whole product becomes a single feature of a much larger product.

  3. Customer segment pivot. Your product may attract real customers, but not the ones in the original vision. In other words, it solves a real problem, but needs to be positioned for a more appreciative segment, and optimized for that segment.

  4. Customer need pivot. Early customer feedback indicates that the problem solved is not very important, or money isn’t available to buy. This requires repositioning, or a completely new product, to find a problem worth solving.

  5. Platform pivot. This refers to a change from an application to a platform, or vice versa. Many founders envision their solution as a platform for future products, but don’t have a single killer application just yet. Most customers buy solutions, not platforms.

  6. Business architecture pivot. Geoffrey Moore, many years ago, observed that there are two major business architectures: high margin, low volume (complex systems model), or low margin, high volume (volume operations model). You can’t do both at the same time.

  7. Value capture pivot. This refers to the monetization or revenue model. Changes to the way a startup captures value can have far-reaching consequences for business, product, and marketing strategies. The “free” model doesn’t capture much value.

  8. Engine of growth pivot. Most startups these days use one of three primary growth engines: the viral, sticky, and paid growth models. Picking the right model can dramatically affect the speed and profitability of growth.

  9. Channel pivot. In sales terminology, the mechanism by which a company delivers it product to customers is called the sales channel or distribution channel. Channel pivots usually require unique pricing, feature, and competitive positioning adjustments.

  10. Technology pivot. Sometimes a startup discovers a way to achieve the same solution by using a completely different technology. This is most relevant if the new technology can provide superior price and/or performance to improve competitive posture.

Every entrepreneur faces the challenge in developing a product of deciding when to pivot and when to persevere. Ask most entrepreneurs who have decided to pivot and they will tell you that they wish they had made the decision sooner. In fact, a startup’s runway is really not money, but the number of pivots they can still make. What are you doing to get to the required pivots faster?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Thursday, November 29, 2012

6 Ways Startups Must Match the Pace of Change

Change is about the only thing constant in the world of startups. Despite their own focus on changing the world, they often forget that they too have to change rapidly and often as the market evolves. Too many find that out too late, and are left chasing a rabbit that is long gone.

The solution is to establish and maintain a culture and processes that don’t view change as a discrete event to be spotted and managed, but as an ongoing opportunity to improve competitiveness. Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, in an HBR article a couple of years ago on change readiness for large companies, define it as “the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Since the startup environment is usually more volatile, the challenge there in balancing advantage, risk, and performance, is more critical than in big companies. The following initiatives that Chris and Tammie define for large companies apply just as directly to startups:

  1. Improve change awareness. How good are you and everyone on your team at proactively scanning the environment for opportunities, emerging trends, and customer feedback? This contextual focus is critical to innovation and survival – the right product at the right time.

  2. Increase change agility. Change agility represents a startup’s ability to immediately and effectively engage everyone in pending changes and innovations. It starts at the top with the founder and CEO, but has to extend quickly to the bottom of the organization. This requires leadership, teamwork, and trust at all levels.

  3. Expedite change reaction. This is the ability to appropriately analyze problems, assess risks, and take responsibility for problem-dictated and market-dictated changes, while still sustaining the day-to-day business activities. It’s called the management of unplanned changes, or how well your startup reacts to crises.

  4. Implement change mechanisms. Every organization needs to have specific mechanisms in place to facilitate change, including regular effective communication, reward systems that reinforce desired change behavior, and accountability for results. These won’t work in an autocratic or dysfunctional management environment.

  5. Build a change readiness culture. Change readiness is hard work, and requires creativity sometimes in conflict with task orientation. People have to have the right attitude, and make the choice from the beginning to be ready to change at any time. They need a sense of urgency to handle change, and confidence in their leaders.

  6. Imbue customer change focus. The more everyone in the startup is obsessed with satisfying customer needs and providing better customer service, the more effective the startup will be in adapting to change. Provide direct customer contact to everyone, as well as training.

Experts say that we live in a world where the pace of change is accelerating at the fastest rate in recorded history. On the other hand, change management practices seem to be changing very slowly, resulting in a 70% failure rate of change initiatives. Failure rates this high demand a new mindset and startups are the logical place for this to happen.

For starters, the whole team needs to be constantly trained and encouraged to develop their skills. Relevant skills include continuous improvement of existing methods, processes and devices against a set of quality metrics. The ultimate skills, which lead to innovation and totally new processes, usually come from experimentation and special studies.

In summary, change will happen. If your people and your startup do not change, statistics say you won’t survive. It’s up to you to get out of your comfort zone and make things happen in your startup, rather than let things happen to your business.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 26, 2012

10 Rules of Thumb for Startup Investment Valuation

Once you have a potential investor excited about your team, your product, and your company, the investor will inevitably ask “What is your company’s valuation?” Many entrepreneurs stumble at this point, losing the deal or most of their ownership, by having no answer, saying “make me an offer,” or quoting an exorbitant number.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s a mysterious subject, and I’m always learning more. This time I’ll use a hypothetical health-care web site company named NewCo as an example to illustrate the points.

Two founders have spent $200K of personal and family funds over a one year period to start the company, get a prototype site up and running, and have already generated some “buzz” in the Internet community. The founders now need a $1M Angel investment to do the marketing for a national NewCo rollout, build a team to manage the rollout, and maybe even pay themselves a salary.

How much is NewCo worth to investors at this point (pre-money valuation)? What percentage of NewCo does the investor own after the $1M infusion (post-money ownership percentage)? Well, if the parties agree to a pre-money valuation of $1M, then the post-money investor ownership is 50% (founders give up half interest, and lose control). On the other hand, if the pre-money valuation is $4M, the founders ownership remains at a healthy 80% level.

So what magic can the founders use to justify a $4M valuation (or even the $1M valuation) at this early stage? Here are the components and “rules of thumb” that I recommend to every startup:

  1. Place a fair market value on all physical assets (asset approach). This is the most concrete valuation element, usually called the asset approach. New businesses normally have fewer assets, but it pays to look hard and count everything you have. NewCo might be able to pick up an initial $50K valuation on this item.

  2. Assign real value to intellectual property. The value of patents and trademarks is not certifiable, especially if you are only at the provisional stage. NewCo has filed a patent on one of their software tool algorithms, which is very positive, and puts them several steps ahead of others who may be venturing into the same area. A “rule of thumb” often used by investors is that each patent filed can justify $1M increase in valuation, so they should claim that here.

  3. All principals and employees add value. Assign value to all paid professionals, as their skills, training, and knowledge of your business technology is very valuable. Back in the “heyday of the dot.com startups,” it was not uncommon to see a valuation incremented by $1M or every paid full-time professional programmer, engineer, or designer. NewCo doesn’t have any of these yet.

  4. Early customers and contracts in progress add value. Every customer contract and relationship needs to be monetized, even ones still in negotiation. Assign probabilities to active customer sales efforts, just as sales managers do in quantifying a salesman’s forecast. Particularly valuable are recurring revenues, like subscription amounts, that don’t have to be resold every period. This one doesn’t help NewCo just yet.

  5. Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) on projections (income approach). In finance, the income approach describes a method of valuing a company using the concepts of the time value of money. The discount rate typically applied to startups may vary anywhere from 30% to 60%, depending on maturity and the level of credibility you can garner for the financial estimates. NewCo is projecting revenues of $25M in five years, even with a 40% discount rate, the NPV or current valuation comes out to about $3M.

  6. Discretionary earnings multiple (earnings multiple approach). If you are still losing money, skip ahead to the cost approach. Otherwise, multiply earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) by some multiple. A target multiple can be taken from industry average tables, or derived from scoring key factors of the business. If you have no better info, use 5x as the multiple.

  7. Calculate replacement cost for key assets (cost approach). The cost approach attempts to measure the net value of the business today by calculating how much it could cost for a new effort to replace key assets. Since NewCo has developed 10 online tools and a fabulous web site over the past year, how much would it cost another company to create similar quality tools and web interfaces with a conventional software team? $500K might be a low estimate.

  8. Look at the size of the market, and the growth projections for your sector. The bigger the market, and the higher the growth projections are from analysts, the more your startup is worth. For this to be a premium factor for you, your target market should be at least $500 million in potential sales if the company is asset-light, and $1 billion if it requires plenty of property, plants and equipment. Let’s not take any credit here for NewCo.

  9. Assess the number of direct competitors and barriers to entry. Competitive market forces also can have a large impact on what valuation this company will garner from investors. If you can show a big lead on competitors, you should claim the “first mover” advantage. In the investment community, this premium factor is called “goodwill” (also applied for a premium management team, few competitors, high barriers to entry, etc.). Goodwill can easily account for a couple of million in valuation. For NewCo, the market is not new, but the management team is new, so I wouldn’t argue for much goodwill.

  10. Find “comparables” who have received financing (market approach). Another popular method to establish valuation for any company is to search for similar companies that have recently received funding. This is often called the market approach, and is similar to the common real estate appraisal concept that values your house for sale by comparing it to similar homes recently sold in your area.

Remember that all the components, except the last, are cumulative. Even if a given investor excludes some of the components from consideration in your case, your credibility will be bolstered by the fact that you understand his interests as well as yours. In any case, the analysis will prepare you for the heavy negotiation to follow.

Precision is not the issue here – the task for the entrepreneur is to build a company that is worth at least $50M before thinking about an exit -- no investor wants to spend more than five minutes arguing the fine points of the last valuation dollar.

So what is a reasonable valuation for a company like NewCo? My advice for early-stage companies like this one is to target their valuation somewhere between $1.5M and $5M, justified from the elements above. A lower number suggests that the founders are giving away the company, while a much higher number may suggest hubris or lack of reality on the part of the owners.

Of course, we have all read about the “new” company with $100M valuation, but I haven’t met one yet.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Women Entrepreneurs Surge But Fight Their Demons

Women entrepreneurs are starting small businesses at approximately twice the national average for all startups. Despite some inaccurate stereotypes, the evidence is that they are in every industry, from small consulting firms to medical high technology. As a result, there have also been many new resources and mentors popping up specifically aimed at women.

In most cases, the lifestyle questions asked and the answers given are essentially the same for all entrepreneurs, whether they be men or women. But according to a recent book by Adelaide Lancaster and Amy Abrams, “The Big Enough Company,” based on years of helping women entrepreneurs, the road to success for women does involve its own unique set of demons.

All surveys of women business owners show that women’s business concerns tend to skew towards issues such as finding work-life balance, startup financing, and marketing. But a key problem the authors found even among the best women entrepreneurs was trying to do too much at once. Here is a short list of impacts they commonly reported and all mentors have seen:

  1. You feel overwhelmed. This is easy to do when your to-do list is threatening to swallow you whole or when you’re staring your big bad goal in the face. Your work is never done, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend your life catching up. Pace yourself.

  2. You feel discouraged. It’s easy to get caught in this mindset and lose sight of what’s already been accomplished. Accept the reality that the business will forever be incomplete, and celebrate the small successes and the big milestones.

  3. You are distracted. Everything unplanned seems like an unwelcome distraction, and it’s likely that important opportunities will be missed or be turned down. Don’t forget to pay attention to strategic priorities and time for yourself.

  4. You suck all the fun out of your business. Chances are you became an entrepreneur to attain some level of satisfaction in the first place, so remember, the fun is in the building, not just the destination. Stressful journeys don’t lead to joyful outcomes.

  5. You compromise your personal motivations. It’s pretty hard to bask in newfound freedom when you don’t even have a chance to breathe. The point is to build the business to honor your needs, not sacrifice them for the business.

  6. You make bad decisions about the business you are building. When you’re under the false impression that your business won’t wait, you make decisions that are sub-optimal in the long-term. Be realistic, but don’t settle for less than satisfying outcomes.

  7. You burn out. Remember … it’s a marathon. You gain nothing if you’re unable to keep going, especially if you expect your business to have any degree of longevity. Slow down and don’t let your work, passion, and creativity disappear before its time.

The antidote and solution to doing too much is doing less and, of course, doing it well. That doesn’t mean to do less overall, but do less right now, at this very moment. This entails the following:

  • Prioritizing. Keep two to-do lists: things you “need to do” and things you “want to do.” Start with what is closest to the money, considering what you have available to make it happen. You are not super-human, so “want to do” things sometimes have to wait.

  • Taking baby steps. While vision is great, progress is about putting one foot in front of the other, and taking small steps toward your goals. Other people’s steps always look larger, but in reality we all move forward one small step at a time.

  • Creating accountability. Hold your own feet to the fire, and remember that it’s normal to have to do that for everyone else. Create specific goals and deadlines for everyone in the company. To help you, find a coach, create a system, join a group, or get a partner.

  • Delegating. You can’t talk about doing less without talking about enlisting help, and relinquishing control. Focus on what you do best, and offload other tasks to people who can do them better, and you will both be happier and more productive.

  • Celebrating progress, not just success. When you complete a baby step, or a major milestone, celebrate it. Then keep going. Then repeat. Consider each celebration a demonstration of respect for yourself, the work you have done, and the sacrifices made.

In the past, women have often come to entrepreneurship with fewer resources available to them than men. With this book, and the wealth of other information now available, the tide has turned, and every woman entrepreneur should be able to create a business that works for them. That’s the real definition of success. Go for it!

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 19, 2012

6 Clues That You May Be Cool as an Entrepreneur

A while back, when a startup founder mentioned to me that he wasn’t sure he had the personality to be an entrepreneur, I realized how important that insight was. My first thought is that if you are more annoyed than energized by expert advice, team suggestions, and customer input, then you should probably avoid this line of work.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s a good start. After working with entrepreneurs for more than a decade, I have developed a good “radar” to quickly recognize mentalities that will likely pass the test of investors, employees, and customers.

But it’s easier for me to look in from the outside than it is for you to look out. So here is a list of mentality characteristics which I believe are absolutely necessary for you as an entrepreneur to see in yourself. On the other hand, if you see any of these causing you stress and discomfort, you probably won’t be happy in the role of entrepreneur:

  1. You enjoy being the visionary leader. Being able to envision what the business and the industry will be like in years to come is a skill that can guarantee that you will be around for the long haul. What makes most success stories in business is not totally reinventing the wheel, but leading the charge to make the current wheel better.

  2. Sometimes you are creative, sometimes logical. A successful entrepreneur has to come up with innovative ideas, but also turn them into a value-creating profitable business. That requires good amounts of both “left brain” and “right brain” activities, with enough common sense to find the balance.

  3. Risk energizes you. To really enjoy the ride in the world of entrepreneurship, you need to be able to sustain yourself outside of your comfort zone and have a sense of adventure. Startups never ever go as you anticipated. This is why you need to be ready to go “off the script” and improvise, and enjoy the thrill of victory when it works.

  4. Actively seek others input. The quicker you learn not to take it personally (and it’s hard when it’s your business and your creation), the more successful you will be. You will always come across people that will criticize you, no matter how great or valuable your product or service may be.

  5. Motivated yet patient. When you start a business, you need to have the frame of mind that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life. Most people want financial freedom, but they want results immediately, and that is not the case 99% of the time. Most successful entrepreneurs understand that overnight success takes years.

  6. Jack of all trades. When running a business, you'll be doing a little bit of everything. You have to be good but not an expert at everything you do, and you have to know when to be flexible and when to ask for help. If you are one to specialize in just one thing, then running a business might not be for you.

If you don't fit into everyone’s personal view of an entrepreneur's mentality, please don't be totally discouraged. Winning businesses have been started by people of every type. Yet overall, the facts are that about two-thirds of startups fail, so think hard before you ignore warning signs.

I’m convinced that if entrepreneurs spent half as much time evaluating themselves and what makes them happy, as they do writing business plans, and visiting with attorneys and accountants, they would be winners far more often.

Finally, don’t forget that the most important mentality aspect is to always do something that you enjoy. Life is too short to be going to work every day unhappy. Beyond that, I believe success is a state of mind derived from confidence, self esteem, and what you really want in life. How strongly do you really want to manage a startup?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 16, 2012

7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Asking For Money

The first question most people seem to ask when contemplating a new startup is where they will get investor money. That’s certainly a valid question, but all the money in the world won’t make your business a success if you hate what you are doing, and you don’t have a plan to use it. I suggest that there are several other questions even more important than the money one.

The best way to assure the success of your startup is to do something you love, as opposed to something that will make you a lot of money. Of course, all these things and many more are critical, so it’s important that you keep your priorities straight. Here are the right questions to ask yourself, in the right order, before asking others about money:

  1. Do you understand and aspire to entrepreneur lifestyle? Being a startup founder is not a job, but a lifestyle, like getting married versus staying single. In fact, it’s more like being single, since founders usually have no one to lean on, no one to make decisions for them, no one to blame, and no vision to follow but their own.

  2. Do you have a passion for your idea and business opportunity? There is no joy in starting a business, if you can’t stand the people, business climate, or the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. Some people relate to service businesses, while others are more comfortable with manufacturing or construction.

  3. What type of business startup best fits your mentality? Beyond the traditional new product or service model, you can always buy an existing business, purchase a franchise, join a multi-level marketing (MLM) company, or simply go out on your own as a consultant. Each of these has their unique challenges and payback. Ask around.

  4. What level of experience and training do you have for this business? Be wary of stepping into an unknown business area, just because it looks easy or promises a big return. The real secrets of any business are not in textbooks, and you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Experience is the best teacher.

  5. Do you have real self-confidence and self-discipline? Starting a business is hard work and will require sacrifices. You will be operating independently, making all the decisions, and shouldering all the responsibility. Will you be able to persevere and build your new venture into a success?

  6. Do you have a viable plan? If you haven’t yet written down a business plan, you probably have no idea how much money you really need, or even if the opportunity is real. I believe the process of writing the plan is more valuable than the result, because it forces you to think through all the elements, and make sure they fit together and fit you.

  7. How much money do you really need? From your plan, calculate the absolute minimum amount you need to make your plan work, and then buffer it by 50%. Consider the non-cash alternatives, like offering equity instead of cash and bartering for services. Fundraising is extremely difficult, which is why most entrepreneurs do bootstrapping.

If you have made it this far, it’s fair to now start asking people where and when you can find the money you need (if any). Professionals will tell you that the sequence is friends and family first, angel investors second, and only then venture capital. Each of these has a cost in time an effort.

The process for all of these is networking (not email blasts or cold-calling investors). Start with the local Chamber of Commerce, industry associations, or investor seminars. Just attending doesn't work. Use your entrepreneurial spirit to start some exchanges and relationships that can lead to your next step.

Starting a business is a marathon, so do your preparation and training before you ask for that bottle of water. Finding money is tough, but it’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is to do it all while enjoying the journey. Get busy, and have fun.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Don’t Look For Investors for All the Wrong Reasons

There is so much written these days about how to attract investors that most entrepreneurs “assume” they need funding, and don’t even consider a plan for “bootstrapping,” or self-financing their startup. Yet, according to many sources, over 90 percent of all businesses are started and grown with no equity financing, and many others would have been better off without it.

According to the book, “Small Business, Big Vision,” by self-made entrepreneurs Adam and Matthew Toren, it’s really a question of need versus want. We all want to have our vision realized sooner rather than later, but it can be a big mistake to bring in investors rather than patiently building your business at a slow, steady pace (organic growth).

In fact, most of the rich entrepreneurs you know actively turned away early equity proposals. Too many founders are convinced they “need” equity financing, for the wrong reasons, as outlined in the book and supplemented with a bit of my own experience:

  • Need employees and professional services. Of course, every company needs these, in due time. In today’s Internet world, enterprising entrepreneurs have found that they can find out and do almost anything they need, from incorporating the company to filing patents, without expensive consultants, or the cost to hiring and firing employees.

  • Need expensive resources up front. Many people think that having a proper office and equipment somehow legitimizes their business, but unless your business requires a storefront, everything else can be done in someone’s home office, or a local coffee shop, on used or borrowed equipment. Consider all the alternatives, like lease versus buy.

  • Need to spread the risk. Some entrepreneurs seem to get solace and implied prestige from convincing friends, Angels, and venture capitalists to put money into their endeavor. If nothing else, these make good excuses for failure – no freedom, wrong guidance, etc.

On the other hand, there are clearly situations where your needs call for investors. Even in these cases, all other options should be explored first:

  • Sales are strong – too strong. If you are not able to keep up with demand due to lack of funds for production, and your company is too young for banks to be interested, you will find that investors love these odds, and are quick to go for a chunk of the action.

  • Your company has outgrown you. Some entrepreneurs are quick with creative ideas, and even excellent at managing the chaos of initial implementation. That’s not the same as instilling discipline in a larger organization, where most the challenge is people.

  • You need a prototype. When you have invented a new technology, you need expensive models and testing, including samples for potential customers. If you don’t have the personal funds to make these happen, investors might be your only option.

  • You need specialized equipment. If your solution depends on high-tech chips, injection molding, or medical devices, and you can’t get financing from suppliers, giving up a portion of the company to investors is a rational approach.

  • General startup expenses are beyond your means. Investors are not interested in covering overhead, unless they are convinced that you have already put all your “skin in the game” (not just sweat equity), and have real contributions from friends and family.

When deciding whether and how an investor can help you, remember that finding outside investors requires a huge amount of time and work, perhaps impacting your rollout more than working with alternate approaches and slower growth. Perhaps you really need an advisor rather than an investor.

Even under the best of circumstances, working with an investor requires give and take. More likely, you now have a new boss – which may be counter to why you chose the entrepreneur route in the first place. Maybe that’s why bootstrapped startups are the norm, rather than externally funded ones. You alone get to make the big decisions on your big vision.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 12, 2012

7 Keys to Positioning Your Competitors to Investors

Every entrepreneur should spend plenty of time thinking about competitors, and how they relate to your business, but you need to be very careful what you say out loud about them to your team, your investors, and your customers. What you say speaks volumes about how you think about your startup, how smart you are, and your personal integrity.

I’ve spent hours talking to startup founders, and heard a thousand startup pitches, and I always listen carefully to what is said (or not said) about competitors. Everyone has a view on competitors, so you will likely get some off-the-cuff questions on this subject as well. Here are some common pitfalls or traps to avoid:

  1. Above all, don’t say you have no competitors. This statement is a huge red flag to investors, who will take it to mean that there is no market for your offering, or you haven’t bothered to look. Both conclusions will kill your credibility, and usually preclude any further funding interest.

  2. Avoid degrading or demeaning your competitors. Talking about competitors is your opportunity to make positive statements about the advantages of your own product. For example, “Compared to product x, my solution will get the job done in half the time, and at half the price.” Don’t say “Product x is more expensive and hard to use.”

  3. First-mover advantage is a double-edged sword. Being first to offer something is often used to cover the fact that you have no patent or intellectual property. Investors will conclude that you are highly vulnerable to the deep pockets of big players who will wake up and kill you when you show traction. The best defense is a dynamic product line.

  4. Don’t be caught not recognizing a potential competitor. Do your homework ahead of time on all potential competitors you can find on the Internet, from industry magazines, advisors, and team members. Great momentum in a meeting can be killed instantly by apparent ignorance or bias against a proposed competitor.

  5. Don’t forget to mention alternatives and substitutes. Make it clear that you have considered competition in the broadest sense, including indirect competitors and alternative solutions available. You won’t get any credibility for refusing to admit that airplanes are competition for trains. Always present a balanced and honest picture.

  6. Watch the timeframes implied in comparisons. Making a big point that your competitor is missing a big feature today that you will have when you come out next year is not very convincing and doesn’t make you look smart. If it’s important, he’s probably working on it also, and has a big head start on you.

  7. Competitors exist now and in the future. You can make real credibility points on this one by suggesting future competitor directions, and what you are doing to head-off these initiatives and advantages. Remember that the world is a small one these days, and international considerations, as well as technologies, are important.

Remember that investors invest in people first. They are looking for you to be smart, but present a balanced, realistic, and honest view of competitors. Trying to finesse investors who have real questions about competitors is not the way to close an investment deal, or even convince a customer to buy from you.

In the real world, you will never have perfect answers to questions about competition, because you can’t know what they might do before or concurrently with your delivery. Your challenge is convincing investors and customers that the risk of following you is less than the risk of relying on competitors. That’s a lot easier if you believe it yourself, and present a balanced view with integrity and conviction.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 5, 2012

Great Startup Teams Foster a Culture of Likability

You don’t have to be likeable to everyone to be a great entrepreneur, just to the people who count. Of course, we can all point to apparent exceptions, like Ted Turner or Larry Ellison, who are sometimes seen as lions, downright predators, or even jerks. Yet I’m told that even these guys are considered quite likable by an intimate group of business and personal associates.

So likability is an elusive quality. It doesn’t mean always being perky and bright and constantly being happy. What makes each of us likable is distinct to us, and to some degree it’s in the mind of the beholder. But the basic drivers of likability are the same for most of us, and Michelle Tillis Lederman, in her book “The 11 Laws of Likability” has summarized these nicely:

  1. Be your authentic self. Don’t try to be someone that you are not. Other people quickly see through this façade, and lose respect. Find the good in difficult situations or personalities. Work on improving the real you, rather than building a better façade.

  2. You have to like yourself first. Don’t expect others to like you if you have a bad self-image. Practice positive self-talk using genuine accomplishments to pave the way for authentic productivity and success. Absorb the new approach and make it real.

  3. Perception is reality. How you perceive others is your reality about them, and the same is true for them of you. It is far easier to make a good first impression than to change a bad one. Likability is leaving people with positive perceptions.

  4. Exude energy in all your actions. What you give off is what you get back, and your own output can energize other people or deflate them. Channel your authentic energy to be genuine and likable, even when faced with difficulties and challenges.

  5. Curiosity never killed a conversation. Showing genuine curiosity about a person’s job, life, interests, opinions, or needs is the best way to start a conversation, keep it going, and make you likable. Check for matching needs for help rather than demanding help.

  6. Practice listening to understand. If you want others to understand and like you, you have to understand them by truly listening to what they are communicating. Don’t forget that good listening is done with you eyes and other body language, as well as your ears.

  7. Show people how you are like them. Look for common interests and backgrounds, shared experiences and beliefs, to find similarities that can help you build connections with other people. People like people who are like them.

  8. Create positive mood memories for other people. People are more apt to remember how you made them feel than what you said. It’s hard to be likeable when you intimidate people, practice insensitivity, or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable.

  9. Stay in touch and remember connections. Showing genuine curiosity about a person’s job, life, interests, opinions, or needs is the best way to start a conversation, keep it going, and make you likable. Stay in someone’s mind to make them comfortable.

  10. Give something without expecting a return. There are countless ways to give freely to others, including making introductions, sharing resources, doing favors, and giving advice. What goes around comes around.

  11. Have patience, don’t expect benefits from every contact. Likeable people don’t demand value from every interaction. Stay open to the possibility that results may take time, and come in ways not obvious today.

An old Harvard Business Review article, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” looks at how people choose those they work with. It shows that people choose who they partner with at the office according to two criteria. One is job competence (Does Joe know what he’s doing?). The other is likability (Is Joe enjoyable to work with?).

In many cases, likability actually trumps competence. So unless you already have the money and position of one of the lions mentioned earlier, it’s worth your time to focus on both likability and relevant business skills, as well as relationships. Likeability is everyone’s business, and people do business with people they like. How high would you score on the likability scale?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

10 Reality Checks for Entrepreneurs From the Master

Most of the time, I’m all about providing encouragement and inspiration to entrepreneurs. They need it and they deserve it, because entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of our economy. But every so often, I try to give them a reality check, just to keep their feet on the ground and their nose to the grindstone.

Many years ago, I enjoyed one of Guy Kawasaki’s first books, “Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition.” In his classical humorous and cynical style, he could reset your dreaming in a moment. Here is a sampling of ten themes from the book that I think are just as relevant today as they were then:

  1. The reality of starting. It’s not going to get better – it already is. Startup folks are like medieval monasteries: always convinced that paradise is just ahead or that things only recently got worse.

  2. The reality of raising money. The closest real-world analogy to raising money is speed dating. That’s right: In five minutes, people decide if they are interested in you, just as in bars and nightclubs. This isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but it is reality.

  3. The reality of planning and executing. If you think raising money was the hard part, you’re in for a surprise. Raising money is easy and fun. The real work begins when you have to deliver the results you promised.

  4. The reality of innovating. Many people think that innovation is easy: You sit around with your buddies and magical ideas pop into your head. Or your customers tell you what they need. Dream on. Innovation is a hard, messy process with no shortcuts.

  5. The reality of marketing. Everybody wants to do the fun stuff: shuck and jive with the beautiful people, and create fun marketing campaigns. More accurately, marketing is the process of convincing people that they need your product. That’s not so easy or fun.

  6. The reality of communicating. Entrepreneurship is an outward-focused activity. It requires that you communicate with others in all the modern modes. Every one is a skill you need to master. All it takes is reading this book and practicing for twenty years.

  7. The reality of competing. If you don’t compete with anybody for very long, it may mean that you’re trying to serve a market that doesn’t exist. The question of defensibility is one of the toughest for an entrepreneur to answer. A good answer is not to stop moving.

  8. The reality of hiring and firing. These are black arts for most people. Few people are trained for either, and most depend on their gut. They believe they won’t make hiring mistakes, so will never have to fire anyone. Wrong; and mistakes hurt people and you.

  9. The reality of working. In the beginning, startups are like a clean sheet of paper: nothing but opportunity and upside with a chance to make meaning and change the world. Then the reality of work sets in. Building a success is hard – damn hard, actually.

  10. The reality of doing good. At the end of one’s life, you are measured not by how much money you made, but by how much you’ve made the world a better place. Successful entrepreneurs often switch to non-profits and social entrepreneurship for real impact.

Of course, there is much more, but I think you get the idea. I also hope these themes don’t send a totally negative message, because the book is funny as well as thought provoking. I do believe we all need reality checks to face our challenges head-on, so that we can deal with them and survive, rather than just float along in the clouds until our dreams evaporate.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, October 29, 2012

Startup Execution Transcends the Idea From Day One

A startup begins with a great idea, but all too often, that’s where it ends. Ideas have to be implemented well to get the desired results. Good implementation requires a plan, and a good plan and good operational decisions come from good people. That’s why investors invest in entrepreneurs, rather than ideas.

People and operational excellence have to converge in every business, large or small. Microsoft found this out when their market capitalization, once at $560B, had fallen in 2010 to $219B, allowing them to be passed by Apple, who grew from $15.6B during that period. Apple is now at $570B, with Microsoft at $240B. Both had access to the same technology, people, and market.

So what could have happened here? I found a good summary of the relevant keys to business operational excellence in a new book by Faisal Hoque, called “The Power of Convergence.” His focus is on repeatable practices to maximize business opportunities in large companies, but I’m convinced that these apply equally well to startups:

  • Clearly define your value chain. Your value chain consists of customers, partners, vendors, internal systems, and your own team. Make sure you understand this chain, as well as market dynamics, to drive operational innovations and every decision. Apple has been able to innovate at an amazing pace to define and meet new market opportunities.
  • Visualize abnormal or suboptimal performance. Recognizing and understanding deviations enables a startup or any business to take corrective action quickly. This requires executives and a team that understands the parameters, and is focused on customers, quality, and continuous improvement.
  • Facilitate the power of your team. Startups need to empower their people to take action in the absence of orders. That doesn’t mean abdication in setting corporate policies, which provide parameters to ensure that individuals have to ability to act collectively in the company’s best interest. Steve Jobs built a committed team.
  • Communicate effectively with the team and customers. Communication is a challenge in any organization, but it’s a particular challenge when you’re working in a startup, where customers, products, processes, and the team are new. Most founders forget that communication becomes exponentially more difficult as the business grows.
  • Measure value flow and performance. Measuring performance may seem self-evident, but many entrepreneurs mistake this task as a point-in-time or a one-time event. In operationally excellent startups, performance measurement is an ongoing effort throughout the process chain, not just at the outcome.
  • Define response mechanisms. Anticipating and planning for worst-case scenarios, and having a Plan-B, will enable the quick-response and pivots required to put a startup back on track. Metrics are required for ensuring the return to a known good baseline.
  • Maximize technology architecture and standards. Continuous innovation to maintain your competitive advantage does not mean that you can ignore current architectures and standards. These must always be leveraged produce optimal intended product outcomes.

What every business needs is a convergence of business and technology elements to optimize return and competitive positioning. All too often, entrepreneurs posit a new technology or idea, without understanding that a successful business is a never-ending process of adapting and improving all the elements in a business – especially business model, processes, and people, as well as technology.

Apple, while Steve Jobs was at the helm, demonstrated a rare convergence of technology, market understanding, business process, and people. Are you focused on all the right execution principles in your startup to do the same?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, October 22, 2012

10 Entrepreneur Tips Dodge Million-Dollar Mistakes

It’s a well-accepted axiom in the investor community that entrepreneurs learn more from their failures than their successes. Thus a well-explained startup failure often can actually improve your odds of funding in the next go-round. Yet, there is no doubt that the best strategy is to learn from someone else’s mistakes, so you can enjoy the millions that someone else lost in learning.

Certainly there are innumerable possible mistakes to be made, but there is a thread of common ones that I see across the range of all startups. Ryan Blair, a serial entrepreneur who admits to his share of million dollar mistakes, as well as some multi-million dollar successes, sums these up nicely in his book “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain:”

  1. Don’t make wildly optimistic sales forecasts. Test and adjust your projections, based on experienced advisor input and industry norms, rather than the Google high exception. Excel spreadsheets can easily project dramatic growth, with no connection to reality.

  2. Don’t hire people who like your ideas all the time. Flattery feels good, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Look for the thoughtful challenge to your ideas, and practice active listening, when you are selling your vision. High three-digit intelligence has value.

  3. Don’t focus too much on the competition. It’s always more productive to focus on making your offering successful, rather than killing your competitors. Doing things like dismantling their leadership team, or highlighting their shortcomings is lose-lose.

  4. Don’t waste time caring what others think. No matter how hard you try, you won’t make everyone happy. Don’t be afraid to follow your vision, learn from your mistakes, and pivot the business, just because someone will see the change as a disappointment.

  5. Don’t mix business with pleasure. This is especially true of relationships. Do not fraternize with your employees, and choose your partners wisely. Thou shall not “do your business” where you do business.

  6. Be quick to fire and slow to hire. Pull the trigger fast when a new hire isn’t working, but don’t forget to be human and follow all the steps. On the other side, hiring after one interview is like hopping a red-eye to Vegas to get married after one date.

  7. Don’t put your company before your people. A company is an entity that can be pivoted at will. Your team of people has a collective passion and intelligence with a real worth that’s hard to manipulate. Make the company fit the people, rather than vice versa.

  8. Don’t under-forecast cash needs. When you have people and their families depending on you for their paychecks, and you are out of money, that’s another lose-lose situation. Even if you can find someone willing to help, it’s a very, very expensive proposition.

  9. Don’t try to do too much all at once. You hear about all the parallel entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs running Apple and Pixar at the same time. Make sure you have the aptitude to run one business well, with one product line, before you start a couple more.

  10. Never write something you wouldn’t want to come back to you. Every one of us has sent a sensitive email to the wrong party, or had it misinterpreted by the receiver. Save the hard and easily misinterpreted messages for face-to-face calm discussions.

There are more, but I think you get the idea. Of course, the biggest mistake is failing to learn from the mistakes of others, or even from your mistakes. You can only learn from your mistake after you admit you’ve made it. Wise people admit their mistakes easily, and move the focus away from blame management and towards learning. Wise people can become great entrepreneurs. Where are you along this spectrum?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

7 Facts of Business Life For Aspiring Entrepreneurs

When I started mentoring entrepreneurs and startups a few years ago, I anticipated that I would get mostly tough technical questions, but instead I more often hear things like “Where do I start?” I find that the basics are actually the hardest to answer, just like your parents found out when they first tried to fill you in on the “facts of life” a long time ago.

Most entrepreneurs are not born with the knowledge to run a successful business, so the right place to start is some business training in school, or some practical work experience in a business of your interest, prior to starting your own company. Jumping into a business area you don’t know, because you see a chance for big money, is a surefire path to disaster.

I also found a wealth of books are available to address the basic facts of business life, like one I just finished by Bill McBean, aptly named “The Facts of Business Life,” based on his forty years running large and small businesses. Bill does a great job of outlining the key facts as follows:

  1. If you don’t lead, no one will follow. Good business leadership begins with defining both the direction and the destination of your company. That’s where you start. From there you need to hone a whole set of skills to survive and prosper, including effective communication, leadership under pressure, and constant adaptation to change.

  2. If you don’t control it, you don’t own it. Control in business requires teamwork, which occurs in successful companies when team members, products, and processes work in unison. You have to define the key tasks that must be handled every day, and institute the proper controls to make sure they happen effectively and consistently.

  3. Protecting your company’s assets should be your first priority. Assets include the obvious equipment, accounts receivable, and cash. Maybe more importantly, your long-term survivability is tied to intellectual property, like trade secrets and patents, as well as other less tangible items like your customer base, your experience, and your skills.

  4. Planning is about preparing for the future, not predicting it. Planning is not just an early-stage activity, but must be an ongoing activity, based on current accurate information as well as educated guesses on future changes. Planning should keep you focused on what’s important, and prepare you for what lies ahead.

  5. If you don’t market your business, you won’t have one. Marketing and advertising are business realties. Word-of-mouth and viral are not long-term solutions. It doesn’t matter how good your product or service is if most of your potential customers don’t know about it. With 150,000 new websites per day, customers won’t find you by accident.

  6. The marketplace is a war zone. Every company has competitors, or there is no market for what you offer. Successful entrepreneurs know they have to fight not only to win market share, but to retain it as well. Past success is no guarantee of future success, and the only way to remain successful is to maintain a fighting mentality.

  7. You don’t just have to know the business you’re in, you have to know business. Understanding one’s industry is necessary but not sufficient to be successful. Many businesses fail simply because they ignore or do poorly one or more of the basic aspects of every business, like accounting, finance, personnel, or business law.

In business, as with people, there is a life cycle of birth, constant maturing, change, and rebirth. Entrepreneurs are ultimately responsible for guiding their business through this life cycle, rather than getting suck in any one stage. This means the entrepreneur has to focus correctly not only on what is important, but also on when it’s important.

Before you start building a business, you really do need to know the basic concepts of leadership, management, and operations, and you need to know how these areas change as a business goes through its life cycle. These are the “street smarts” that many entrepreneurs try to acquire by fast talk and bravado. That’s a painful and expensive way to learn any facts of life.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stealth Mode Entrepreneurs Only Increase the Risk

Every time I hear about a new startup that is in stealth mode, I wonder what problem they are hiding from whom. Of course they pretend that they are trying to avoid alerting competitors prior to launch, but too often it becomes an excuse to move slowly in a world that’s all about getting to market fast.

I believe stealth makes sense for large companies who can be sued for “pre-announcing” a new product to stall the market or kill a competitor. It also makes legal sense to never disclose the details of your patent application, before the product is ready to ship. But otherwise, startup companies should seek out publicity and the open sharing of information, from day one.

Openness is part of the business culture of entrepreneurs and technology centers around the world. People talk to people, and even competitors freely exchange news on trends and discoveries. Here are seven ways this can actually help your startup efforts, rather than hurt them:

  1. Initiate media interest. These days, new technologies and social trends are fanned from an ember into a flame by the media and word-of-mouth. This takes time, and is more valuable than any advertising you can buy. It’s probably here that you need the “first-mover advantage” more than in the lab.

  2. Get concept feedback early. No matter how good you are, your initial idea is likely to be at least partially wrong. The sooner you get that feedback from people who count, the better your chance of recovery, and the less money you have wasted. Don’t be so arrogant to assume you won’t need course corrections.

  3. Find your real competitors. The sooner you disavow yourself of the notion that “we have no competitors,” the more likely you are to survive. “No competitors” may mean no market (give up now), or customers are happy with alternatives (keep their car rather than ride the new fast train). Face reality early, and you can deal with it.

  4. Deliver minimum product and iterate. Stealth mode can give you a false sense of security that you can take additional time to get it right the first time. Time is your biggest enemy, and customer feedback is your biggest ally. A startup that has been incorporated for two years or more without shipping is already seen as a bad investment.

  5. Prime the investor world. Don’t talk directly to potential investors until you have the business plan and other basics complete. But start networking with advisors, industry pundits, and domain experts early. Your direction will get back to potential investors, and create a sense of heightened expectations that can help you get in the door when ready.

  6. You need time to pivot. The good news is that almost every mistake can be undone, if you have the time. Customers are more forgiving of early visible changes in direction, and the cost is much lower for you. With stealth mode, you can’t learn early enough to pivot gracefully.

  7. Tune your website. Most startups need funding before shipping, and investors expect to see your website to validate your business plan. In addition, a website needs several weeks of presence for indexing by search engines, search engine optimization, blog activity, and link building. These things can’t be done while in stealth mode.

To enforce stealthy behavior, startups often require everyone, even potential employees to sign nondisclosure agreements, and strictly control who may speak with the media. This is a turnoff to everyone, and real investors never sign nondisclosures. It’s all an expensive distraction that doesn’t work.

Overall, I recognize that there are some startups, like biotech and semiconductors, with long highly technical development cycles and huge competitors, where early stealth makes sense. With most others, like web services, incubation time must be short, and secrecy can be the kiss of death. For these startups, stealth mode can keep you under the radar, just when you wish you could be found.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Friday, October 12, 2012

10 Ways to Make You the Best Part of Your Startup

If you expect to succeed in the thrill-a-minute, roller coaster ride of a startup, let me assure you it takes more than a good idea, a rich uncle, and luck. In fact, the idea is often the least important part of the equation. Most investors tell me that they look at the people first, the business plan second, and only then at the idea.

If you want some tips to beat the insurmountable odds, take a look at the following concepts, adapted from Richard C. Levy’s book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cashing in On Your Inventions.” He was talking about inventions, but I think his concepts apply perfectly to any entrepreneur starting a business:

  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take your idea too seriously, either. The world will probably survive without your idea. You may need it to survive, but no one else does. But there is no excuse not to love and laugh at what you are doing. I’m convinced that people who love their work are more innovative, as well as happier.

  2. The race is not always for the swift, but for those who keep running. It’s a mistake to think anything is made overnight other than baked goods and newspapers. You win some, you lose some, and some are rained out, but always suit up for the game and stick with it. It’s not speed that separates winners from losers; it’s perseverance.

  3. You can’t do it all by yourself. Entrepreneurial success is almost always the result of unselfish, highly talented, and creative partners and associates willing to face with you the frustrations, rejections, and seemingly open-ended time frames inherent to any business startup.

  4. Keep your ego under control. Creative and inventive people, according to profile, hate to be rejected or criticized for any reason. An out-of-control ego kills more opportunities than anything else. While entrepreneurs need a healthy ego for body armor, it can quickly get out of hand and become arrogance if not tempered.

  5. You will always miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you don’t put forth the effort, you won’t fail, but you won’t succeed, either. Inaction will keep opportunities from coming your way.

  6. Don’t start a company just for the financial rewards. We all want to make money. That’s only natural. But you should be motivated by the opportunity to “make meaning” as well. People who do things just for the money usually come up shortchanged.

  7. If you bite the bullet, be prepared to taste gunpowder. Not every idea or decision works. For every action, there is always a criticism. Odds are, you’ll encounter far more criticism than acceptance. Learn from your mistakes, and don’t blame someone else.

  8. Learn to take rejection. Don’t be turned off by the word “No,” because you’ll hear it often. Rejection can be positive if it’s turned into constructive growth. My experience is that ideas get better the more times they are presented. “No” means “not yet.”

  9. Believe in yourself. One of the first steps toward success is learning to detect and follow that gleam of light Emerson says flashes across the mind from within. It’s critical that you learn to abide by your own spontaneous impression. Allow nothing to affect the integrity of your mind.

  10. Sell yourself before you sell your ideas. Be concerned about how you are perceived. You may be capable of dreaming up ideas, but if you cannot command the respect and attention of associates and investors, your proposal will never get off the mark, and you may not be invited back for an encore

As with all the other “principles of success” articles I have seen, you should take these tenets with a grain of salt. Yet I’m betting that every entrepreneur out there can relate to these principles and practices, and most of the long aspiring and unhappy entrepreneurs have broken one or more of them. Maybe it’s time to learn from your mistakes, forget the past, and go for the trophy.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark