Monday, December 30, 2013

7 Questions Test Entrepreneur Focus Before Funding

snail-moneyThe 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 work if you don’t have a plan to use it, or hate what you are doing. I suggest that there are several important questions before assuming that funding is the gate to your success.

In reality, the best way to assure the success of your startup is to do something you love, as opposed to something that you think 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 some key questions to ask yourself, before asking others for money:

  1. Do you really need investor funding to make this work? From your plan, calculate the absolute minimum amount you need to make your plan work, and then buffer it by 25%. Consider the non-cash alternatives, like offering team members equity instead of cash and bartering for services. Fundraising is stressful and difficult, which is why 90% of successful entrepreneurs do bootstrapping.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. Do you have passion for this idea and this 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.

  6. Do you really 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.

  7. 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.

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. Start slow like a snail, and make sure you enjoy the walk before you start running after money.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Sunday, December 29, 2013

You Can’t Run A Startup And Fear Speaking In Public

stage-fright-public-speakingAs a mentor for aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs, I talk to a fair number who may have a great vision and a strong engineering background, but have a negative interest in the role of public speaking in business. In fact, they often claim to be part of the survey group that fears public speaking more than death, but I’m not sure how anyone could validate that survey.

Beyond the fear, many really don’t get the value of being willing and able to communicate effectively with team members, investors, customers, and a myriad of other support people, both one-on-one and one-to-many. I’m not suggesting that all have to be on the professional speaker circuit to succeed, but let me assure you that public speaking is a required business skill.

Thus, if you are like me, with no real background or experience in public speaking, I encourage you to start early with some traditional training, like a Dale Carnegie course, or read a good book on the subject, like a recent one by successful businesswoman and speaker Jan Yager, Ph.D., “The Fast Track Guide to Speaking in Public.” After that it’s practice, practice, practice.

Dr. Yager outlines in her book just a few of the reasons why an entrepreneur needs to overcome the fear, and master the art of speaking in public, and I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few occasions from my own business experience:

  1. You need funding, and have to address a group of investors. As an investor, I sometimes see CEOs who negotiate to send their VP of Marketing to talk. Those requests will always be rejected, since investors invest in people, rather than ideas, and want to look the top decision maker in the eye and gauge their ability and conviction.

  2. You have the opportunity to appear on a panel of experts. As a startup, you as the entrepreneur are the brand, the brand builder, and the major lead generator. You can’t afford to turn down the honor of being visible and showing your expertise, no matter how small the forum or indirect the role.

  3. You are asked to explain your vision in a television interview. Believe me, talking in front of TV cameras requires all the skills of public speaking, and more. The implications to you and your company are also large, so be prepared. In her book, Jan devotes a whole chapter to speaking to the media, as a key aspect of public speaking.

  4. As your company grows, you have to host customer seminars. You may think it’s too early to worry about this requirement, or you can hire professionals for customer user group meetings, but even meeting with your first potential customer will likely have a better outcome if you handle yourself like a professional public speaker.

  5. You will be the key speaker at employee update and reward meetings. In a small startup, it may be cool to have a CEO who wears a hoodie and communicates via text messages. But it won’t be long before employees expect to hear and see their executives exercising the sensitivity and communication skills of other industry leaders.

  6. Need to represent your company at industry association events. How you speak in public is even more important outside your company than inside. Your skills will be implicitly critiqued by industry analysts, potential strategic partners, your competitors, and the media. Their perception will determine the reality of your company and your career.

Dr. Yager asserts that being able to speak in public is one of the five key business skills that can make or break your company, whether you are a new startup or an entrepreneur who's been around for many years. The other four are: new product development, writing, time management, and sales/marketing. Many would argue that Steve Jobs impact at Apple came more from his public speaking ability than the other four skills put together.

Fortunately, the ability to be an effective speaker is based on communication skills that can be taught. And with practice, you may find you are not just a good, but a terrific speaker. If you used to fear speaking, you may find yourself not just tolerating it but enjoying the experience as you understand the source of your fears and how to overcome those fears.

You can’t win as an entrepreneur working alone, and without speaking in public, just like you can’t build a business from your invention without good business skills. The good news is that both are learnable, so the earlier you start, the better prepared you will be when you need them most. For an entrepreneur, the need arises as soon as you have your initial idea. Are you there yet?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Smart Entrepreneurs Don’t Overstay Their Welcome

rupert-murdochFor most entrepreneurs, their current business is not where they intend to stay until they die. At the right time, they all intend to make a graceful exit, and leave while still perceived to be on top of their game. The challenge is how to know and exit gracefully when the right time has come, without trauma to either the company or themselves.

I haven’t seen much insight on this subject, so I was intrigued by a recent book “Leaving on Top: Graceful Exits for Leaders,” by David Heenan, a business executive and Georgetown professor. He did some good research on 20 top leaders, and why some leaders ‘get out while they’re on top’ while others ‘overstay their welcome.’

First of all, both Heenan and I agree that most exiting business leaders can be categorized into one of four major groups:

  • Timeless wonders. With their skills very much intact, these white-haired prodigies have no need to call it quits. Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch clearly fall into this category.
  • Aging despots. Reluctant to leave the spotlight, they are past their prime and should turn the reins over to a new generation. We won’t mention any names here, but we all know a couple of these.
  • Comeback kids. Whether to return their enterprises to their former glory, or simply save themselves from boredom, these departed leaders have returned with a vengeance. Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz are a couple that come to mind.
  • Graceful exiters. Quitting while ahead, these leave a sterling reputation as they move on. Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are business examples in this category.

After many stories of leaders in all these categories, he offers some good tips on how to get counted in the category you prefer:

  1. Know thyself. What matters most to you? Fame? Fortune? Family? Friends? Helping others? Listen to your heart. Look at yourself as objectively as possible and analyze what’s truly important. Be open and responsive to the inputs of others.

  2. Know thy situation. When everything is clicking, it’s easy to overstay your welcome. Staying power is elusive at best. Know where you stand, and don’t wait for the annual review. Move on before someone else decides to move you on.

  3. Take risks. Don’t shackle yourself to the past. Accept change as a natural part of your transition, just as you always have for your company. Strike out anew while you are still hardy enough to face new challenges. Push your comfort zone.

  4. Keep good company. Stay connected. Cast a wide net, including people inside and outside your fields of interest. Ignore the naysayers. Keep the company of sunny characters, those with an upbeat disposition. Avoid humorless people.

  5. Check your ego at the door. While we still treat some personalities like royalty, a new view of leadership is beginning to see them more as stewards than kings. In addition to muffling hubris, graceful exiters functions as talent spotters, so everyone wins.

  6. Keep learning. Graceful exiters remain curious. They are intellectually interested, alert, and adaptable. They read, explore new places, and engage their senses. The more diverse your experiences, the better the prospects for forging a new chapter in your life.

  7. Stage your exit. The transition to what’s next may take a while. Back into it. Live life incrementally. Break your departure into manageable steps. Take things bit by bit. By carefully staging your departure, you’ll build confidence for your new life.

  8. Know when to walk away. Many give up everything to stay in the saddle. As their legacy erodes, they fail to prepare for the next season of their lives. However brilliant they may once have been, their unbridled egos cost them soul and substance.

  9. Know when to stay put. If you are happy and productive, stick with your day job – the one you love. Give it your all. Remain passionate about it. Not everyone has to pack it in. A long, healthy, and productive life awaits those people who prepare for it.

  10. Start now! Life’s prolonged course offers everyone the opportunity to chart new horizons. But you need to set your priorities early and put the building blocks in place to achieve them. Don’t dillydally or let procrastination steal your dreams.

Leaving on top, and exiting gracefully, begins with recognizing that a job, like a life stage or a relationship, has peaked. After that, I’m reminded of the old quote by John Richardson "When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened." Which category will you fall into?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Smartest Entrepreneurs Bootstrap Their Startup

bootstrapThere 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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

10 Metrics To Drive Your Annual Business Review

Visa Business_December InfographicEntrepreneurs have no trouble focusing on how to build a product, and the good ones know how to find and nurture those first critical customers. Many, however, don’t know how to take their small business to the next level. What I’m talking about here is a level of discipline and skill necessary to collect and analyze the relevant business data, known as metrics.

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a good time for every startup to assess the metrics, technology, and platforms they’re using to manage the business. Maybe it’s time for an upgrade to get you to the next level. For starters, here is my selection of some key metrics that every six-sigma joint like GE tracks without thinking, but that too many small businesses haven’t yet formalized:

  1. Sales revenue. Sales is simply defined as income from customer purchases of goods and services, minus the cost associated with things like returned or undeliverable merchandise. Of course, everyone is happy when the numbers keep going up, but the data needs to be mined constantly for deeper meanings and trends.

    Sales data needs to be correlated to advertising campaigns, price changes, seasonal forces, competitive actions, and other costs of sales. More sophisticated metrics in this domain, like the Asset Turnover Ratio, Return on Sales, and Return on Assets, can tell you how your company’s performance stacks up against others in the same industry, or same geography. In the long run, these tell you whether you will live or die.

  2. Customer loyalty and retention. Customer loyalty is all about attracting the right customer, then getting them to buy, buy often, buy in higher quantities and bring you even more customers. You build customer loyalty by treating people how they want to be treated.

    There are three common methods for measuring customer loyalty and retention: 1) customer surveys, 2) direct feedback at point of purchase, and 3) purchase analysis. All of these require a systematic and regular process, rather than ad hoc implementation. According to Fred Reichheld and other experts, a 5% improvement in customer retention will yield between a 20 to 100% increase in profits across a wide range of industries.

  3. Cost of customer acquisition. This metric is a measure of the total cost associated with acquiring a new customer, including all aspects of marketing and sales. Customer acquisition cost is calculated by dividing total acquisition expenses by total new customers over a given period.

    This tells you whether your marketing and advertising investments are paying for themselves. Over time, you cost of acquisition should go down as growth and your brand image go up. Again, be sure to check industry norms for your type of business to see if you are competitive.

  4. Operating productivity. Obviously, measuring staff productivity is important, and the reasons why are obvious. If you do not know how your staff is doing, how can you truly know the inner workings of your own company? Staff discontent can put your company in serious jeopardy, while on the other hand, high staff productivity can be your best company asset.

    Productivity ratios can be applied to almost any aspect of your business. For example, sales productivity is simply actual revenue divided by the number of sales people. Compare your productivity to industry norms by consulting industry statistics, or check yourself for continuous improvement by accumulating your statistics over time. The process works the same for manufacturing productivity, marketing productivity, or support productivity.

  5. Size of gross margin. The gross margin is calculated as a company's total sales revenue minus its cost of goods sold, divided by the total sales revenue, expressed as a percentage. The higher the percentage, the more the company retains on each dollar of sales to service its other costs and enjoy as profits.

    Tracking margins is important for growing companies, since increased volumes should improve efficiency and lower the cost per unit (increase the margin). Improving productivity requires effort and innovation, and many companies charge ahead, not realizing that margins are going the wrong way. What you don’t measure probably won’t happen.

  6. Monthly profit or loss. Profit is not simply the difference between the costs of the product or service and the price being charged for it. The calculation must include the fixed and variable costs of operation that are paid regularly each month no matter what. These include such items as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, taxes, and the salary that you and your partners are not taking just yet.

    Beyond reducing your cost of operation, the biggest lever on profit is usually the price you can charge for your product or service. This amount you charge, over the base cost of an item, is called “the markup,” and the difference between cost and price is the “margin.” Investors realize that small companies with margins below 60% will likely have a tough time growing.

  7. Overhead costs. In economics, overhead costs are fixed costs that are not dependent on the level of goods or services produced by the business, such as salaries or rents being paid per month. In any growing business, these can creep up and out of control if not tracked carefully.

    By tracking them on a monthly basis, you will be able to see more clearly where spending occurs in your business. Use this information when updating your business plan or when preparing yearly budgets. Because overhead costs are not influenced by how much your business earns or grows, you need to track them separately and diligently. Moving to a location that is less expensive or switching utility suppliers are ways to reduce the fixed costs of running a business.

  8. Variable cost percentage. By definition, variable costs are expenses that change in proportion to the activity of a business. Fixed costs and variable costs make up the two components of total cost. These include the "cost of goods sold" and other items that increase with each sale, such as the cost of raw materials, labor, shipping and other expenses directly connected to producing and delivering your goods or services.

    The value of tracking these as a metric is to assure that they are decreasing as your volume is growing, and assure that they are consistent with industry norms and competitive offerings. If your variable costs go up, your business won’t grow, even if sales are up and the number of customers increases.

  9. Inventory size. Inventory is the raw materials, work-in-process goods and completely finished goods that are considered to be the portion of a business's assets that are ready or will be ready for sale. Inventory represents one of the most important assets that most businesses possess, because the turnover of inventory represents one of the primary sources of revenue generation and subsequent earnings for the company's shareholders/owners.

    For growing companies, this is an important area to manage. You will find that you either have too much inventory (cash tied up, high storage costs, obsolescence, and spoilage costs), or not enough (lost sales, lower market share). The challenges include forecasting inventory requirements, buying in cost-effective lot sizes, and just-in-time delivery systems.

  10. Hours worked per process. Beyond ratios, you need to keep metrics on total labor hours expended for various functions. Labor is likely to be your most important and most expensive raw input, especially in manufacturing, assembly, and support operations. The one constant in small business is change, so the excuse of “we have always done it that way” is not one that a growing company should ever want to hear or use.

    These days, most labor-intensive operations can be replaced with automation, and as you grow the business, you need to recognize when the cost of automation is justified. At some point, the return on investment (ROI) of more computer systems, and automated manufacturing operations, is well worth the cost and time to change.

Leveraging the latest data can uncover new opportunities and help you measure the results of your efforts. I believe every small business owner should monitor these metrics constantly, and take time to chart, review and carefully examine them at least once a month.

Tracking key business metrics is important for a bunch of reasons, but probably the most important reason is cultural. It leads to a culture of success when you see the key business metrics moving in the right direction. Don’t miss the opportunity to celebrate your successes as you reach new milestones.

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 16, 2013

8 Key Questions To Expect In Investor Due Diligence

startup-employee-due-diligenceIf you really want to impress a startup founder as a potential employee, or you want to be a smart investor, you need to know the right questions to ask. These are the questions that get past the hype of a founder “vision to change the world,” and into the realm of real business strengths, weaknesses, and current health.

Some founders try to deflect these questions by talking incessantly, so you often need to be calm, patient, and persistent to get the answers. My advice to founders out there is to not volunteer too much, but be open and honest in the face of direct questions like the following:

  1. What is your burn rate and runway today? These are investor slang terms referring to how fast money is being spent, with an implicit question of how long the startup can survive before breakeven or another cash infusion is required. You need to know this as a future employee, since it probably gates how long your new job will last. If the runway is less than six months, with no new source signed, both you and the startup are at risk.

  2. How much “skin” is already in the game? The intent of this question is to determine the level of commitment of founders, both cash and “sweat equity,” and how much others have already invested into this plan. Implicit in the analysis of the answers is how much progress has been made for the investment, and how stable the business is now.

  3. What’s the total history of this company? Gaps in the history of a startup are big red flags, just like gaps in your resume. If the company was incorporated five years ago, and is still in early stages, with the same founding team, chances are slim that it will suddenly get back on track with you as an employee, or you as an investor.

  4. How well do the founders get along with each other, and with the team? The smartest people are often the most eccentric, so some conflict in the ranks is normal. Excessive conflict, lack of communication, or lack of mutual respect is indicative of a dysfunctional team, and eventual failure of the startup. You won’t get this answer from the founder, but it’s not hard to get it by talking to other team members.

  5. What’s in this deal for me? Investing in a startup, or joining a startup, is always a very big risk, so the potential return better be large. As an employee, you salary will likely be low, your job security low, so the job title better be large, and the stock options better be large. As an investor, look for an ROI that is 10x your initial investment, based on something more than a dream from the founder. What traction can be measured today?

  6. Who do you have as outside board members? The only true outside board or advisory members are not family members, not current investors, but are experienced entrepreneurs with deep knowledge and connections in the relevant business area. They should be asking to speak to you if you are a potential investor or a superstar hire. If you talk to them, they better know the answers to the previous questions.

  7. Who is a real customer that I can talk to? Real customers are ones who have paid full price for the product, have it installed and in use, and are still satisfied. Free trials don’t count, betas don’t count, and “excited about the potential” doesn’t count. If there are no customers yet, when will the product ship, and how many times has the date been set?

  8. How solid is the intellectual property? Provisional patents, or lawsuits pending, don’t add up to a strong sustainable competitive advantage. You need to know these things before you put your money on the table, or bet your career and your family’s future on this startup.

Again, I’m not suggesting that you go on the attack to get answers to these questions. But don’t let management divert you with comments on your failure to understand “the vision and the big picture.” If you are a potential employee, it probably makes sense to get the job offer first before you tackle some of these, always staying calm and assertive.

In the parlance of an investor, asking these questions and getting answers is the heart of that mysterious “due diligence” process. Now you know. If you are a potential employee, you need to do the same due diligence before you sign on. Every good founder will have done the same on you, before they make you an offer.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, December 9, 2013

Corporate Perks Will Doom Your Entrepreneur Dreams

business-jet-laptopI hear many executives and professionals in large corporations talking about their dream of jumping ship, and starting their own company. What they don’t realize is that the longer they wait, the more big-company habits they are acquiring, which will make their eventual decision harder and entrepreneurial efforts less and less likely to succeed.

Certainly, the longer they wait, the greater the variety of excuses they will find for why now is not the time. Common examples include; need to work on my resume, broaden my experience, enhance my skills, save my income, and maintain a stable family life until my children are gone. Most will then NEVER make the step, and remain unsatisfied through much of their career.

The reasons for waiting have merit, but they need to be balanced against the non-entrepreneurial habits that every professional picks up in a large corporation. These include:

  • Managers delegate real work. Executives in an enterprise usually don’t write their own memos, contracts, and certainly don’t schedule their own meetings. It’s easy to grow accustomed to having your staff do the “real work” (my assistant will call your assistant to work out the details). In a startup, that luxury isn’t possible, so the work suffers.
  • Executives have perks. By the time many big-company executives are ready to go out on their own as an entrepreneur, they have forgotten what it’s like to fly in coach class, buy their own health insurance, or having to deal with running out of money. The result is a startup with an exorbitant burn rate, and a very unhappy entrepreneur.
  • Manage a team rather than work with a team. There is a difference. In a startup you have to be an integral contributor to your small team, taking your share of the workload, and leading by example. That’s a whole different mindset and skill set from your experience and training in an enterprise.
  • Highly specialized focus. In a big company, you get used to having an IT team around configure your computer, a personnel specialist for hiring and firing, and a marketing team for strategy. You forget or even disdain any ability to be that jack-of-all-trades a new startup requires.
  • Training courses are required. Before stepping into a new role, you count on the company providing you with in-house or contracted training courses for the basics, like project management or people management. In a startup, these don’t exist, and you have forgotten about how to self-learn, and there are no in-house experts to lean on.
  • Count on getting paid for your efforts. Big-company professionals get in the habit of expecting near-term remuneration for today’s work. The average startup founder takes no salary for the first couple of years, with a high risk of never getting any return. After too many years, that’s an unfathomable step down for most people.

So when is the best time to make the leap from a big corporation to a startup? My scan of the literature and talking to investors would indicate a few years of experience in a large organization (zero to 5 years) is a good thing, while 20 or more years before founding your own venture will stack the cards against you.

Unless you are really young at heart, if you haven’t made the leap by the time you are in your early 40s, those habits you have picked up with your experience in a big company will be evident to your team and to investors. Not to mention the fact that if you are accustomed to a big-company culture and lifestyle, you will likely not be happy or satisfied with the startup lifestyle.

So if you really want to be an entrepreneur, there is no time like the present. Old habits die hard, so the longer you wait, the harder it will be to make the jump, and your odds of success go down. Going the other way is a lot easier.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Thursday, December 5, 2013

7 Benefits For Startups Joining The B-Corp Movement

b-the-changeMore entrepreneurs want to be socially responsible these days, but fear a negative impact on profits, growth, and the ability to find an investor. In the short run, there are real costs associated with the “triple bottom line” of maximizing profit, people (social), and planet (environment). But very quickly, it is becoming obvious to startups that the value and satisfaction exceeds the costs.

To legally facilitate startups who want to give top priority to socially conscious solutions, seventeen states, starting with Maryland in 2010, have passed legislation allowing incorporation as a Benefit Corporation (B-Corp). The B-Corp status is meant to reduce investor suits, and gives consumers an easy way to spot genuine social commitment, without assuming it is a non-profit.

I believe this option will spread quickly to other companies, states and countries. Last year, Etsy in New York announced that it had joined the ranks of the now more than 865 companies nationwide as a Certified B Corporation, keeping good company with Patagonia in California and Seventh Generation in Vermont.

Even without B-Corp status, entrepreneurs are speaking out more on the positives to support business models that benefit not just shareholders, but customers, workforce, the environment, and the greater community. Several good discussions take a whole chapter in a recent book “Mind Your Business: Thoughts for Entrepreneurs,” by international entrepreneur Toine Knipping:

  1. Investors favor startups that integrate social responsibility. Investors believe these startups demonstrate more integrity and less risk, as well as being better positioned to deliver long-term, sustainable value to their stakeholders. Of course, investors still require a profitable business model, and the potential for high returns.

  2. Startups can use social responsibility as a competitive advantage. Some customers and stakeholders don’t just prefer that an organization is socially responsible, but insist on dealing only with these startups. That’s a real competitive edge that you can use in your marketing and positioning.

  3. Socially responsible products typically sell at a premium price. The anecdotal evidence is growing that consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainability, and have started to demand a discount for ‘un-sustainability.’ More startups are using this strategy to improve their profitability, and reduce financial risk.

  4. Social responsibility opens the door to a broader customer base. By adding to perceived value, it can attract more sophisticated and demanding customers less expensively and more quickly. More and more customers choose a company based on their perceptions about the good that they do, as well as the price and service.

  5. Customer loyalty is highest for socially conscious startups. Even way back in the recession, the Edelman Good Purpose study found that 68 percent of global consumers would remain loyal to a brand if the organization practiced social responsibility. We all know the cost of retaining customers is far less than the cost of new customers.

  6. Being socially responsible improves organizational performance. Doing business is a human process. Team members interact on a daily basis with the stakeholders of the startup and the way they feel about the organization has a major and direct impact on how they perform their tasks and do their job at the end of the day.

  7. It is easier to recruit and retain human capital. Employees tend to stay longer with the organization, reducing the costs of recruitment and retraining. This leads to better performance as employees become specialized in their tasks and experienced, but they are also more motivated to give back to the organization and ultimately, more productive.

More and more, the goodwill of the relevant customer community, in large measure, contributes to the success of any product and any company. For some business opportunities, like Facebook and Twitter, the community is the value.

Unfortunately, balancing social and environmental impact against making money for survival and investor return isn’t an easy equation. In the long-run, what your business actually does is what counts. Are you ready for the challenge ahead?

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

7 New Business Facts Of Life For Entrepreneurs

new-business-facts-lifeStartups are the corporations of the future, so I have long believed that entrepreneurs who study existing corporate models, rather than ignoring them with disdain, will likely profit from the exercise. In today’s fast-paced world, that means recognizing early and capitalizing on the changes that are bringing many big companies to their knees, before that company is yours.

We see evidence in the news every day of these irresistible forces of change, like the pervasive global penetration of the Internet, the impact of terrorist activities even to peaceful countries, the power of social media in building business relationships, and the depletion and pollution of natural resources. These are all huge challenges, as well as huge opportunities, for entrepreneurs.

A new book by global business consultant Diana Rivenburgh, “The New Corporate Facts of Life,” highlights these challenges and opportunities to the corporate world, but I believe they need to be understood as well by every startup. Here is my interpretation of Rivenburgh’s forces for the entrepreneurs out there:

  1. Disruptive innovation. This occurs when a new product, service, or business model renders the old way of doing business obsolete. It used to happen only a few times per century, but now I see disruptive innovation highlighted in almost every business plan I read. That means if your new startup doesn’t plan for continuous innovation, the company may never reach corporate status.

  2. Economic instability. Financial uncertainty today threatens all countries, industries, and people. Our hyper-connected world links economies around the globe, so manufacturing moves to emerging nations, and tiny country woes ripple quickly to impact the most innovative companies, like Apple and Nike. But instability is also an opportunity to prosper.

  3. Societal upheaval. Poverty, pollution, unemployment, limited education, and inadequate health care are sparking some of the biggest opportunities for social entrepreneurs today. The best startups also see these as opportunities for brand recognition and viral marketing, to simultaneously benefit people and boost the bottom line.

  4. Stakeholder power. Customers and employees are the new stakeholders for every business. Public companies have been too focused on Board members and shareholders as the only stakeholders with power, leading to unintended consequences. Explore new models like Conscious Capitalism™ and Benefit Corporation to win with all stakeholders.

  5. Environmental degradation. The old model that humans can plunder the earth at will and suffer no consequences is obsolete. Negative perceptions of a company’s impact on the environment decrease brand value; positive perceptions increase it. Going green doesn’t always hurt the bottom line, and investors now look for startups with sustainability.

  6. Globalization. Markets are now hyper-connected, where communications technology and rapid transportation link all citizens of the world together. We now talk about “reverse innovation,” where customers in developing countries adopt new technologies first, and global reach allows scaling of young companies to happen almost overnight. Be there.

  7. Demographic shifts. With more people on the planet, and faster shifts from one demographic to another, more products and services are consumed, from basics to high technology. Luxury goods flood into emerging nations, and urbanization brings needs for sustainable development. Startups can win carrying less baggage onto this playing field.

  8. The new facts of business life will not go away any time soon. These facts will increasingly determine whether you will succeed or fail as an entrepreneur. So every time you make a business decision, whether large or small, local or global, strategic or cultural, you must consider the implications with respect to the new business facts of life.

For every startup, a key step is to design a resilient organization from the start. Organizational resilience means building in the flexibility to manage anticipated as well as unanticipated challenges, putting in place a future-oriented structure to distribute accountability, linking functions with networks to get thing done, and a heavy focus on the best people practices.

Great entrepreneurs and great leaders are the ones who are energized by these opportunities, rather than overwhelmed by the challenges. They love to engage all the stakeholders, both internal and external, and engage to excel. Is your energy and your new business idea big enough and bold enough to set the model for the new corporate world?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 11/26/2013 ***

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, December 2, 2013

6 Tips For Entrepreneurs Who Think They Can Dance

so-you-think-you-can-danceI’m not much of a television person, but my family loves one of the popular “reality” shows, called “So You Think You Can Dance,” so I’m sort of forced to watch it every week. Over time, I’ve concluded that even startup entrepreneurs can learn a few things from this one. Of course, you must ignore the pomp and circumstance of the TV staging.

I’m on the selection committee of our local Angels group, so I know that every CEO approaching our group for funding goes through ten minutes of creative “dancing,” to give us a basis for selecting startups that are most qualified and “ready” to proceed to the next level. If selected, they go through it again in the real meeting of 40-60 investors. It’s tough and not fun for either side.

The business “dance” obviously has different particulars than TV dancing, but there is serious business and artistry involved in both cases. Here are some observations I can offer to startup founders looking for funding, analogous to the aspiring dancers on the show, hoping to move to the next level:

  1. Judges evaluate the person first. Investors want to look the CEO in the eye, and be convinced that he or she can lead the company to success – it’s more important than the creative idea. On the TV show, I’m sure you all see contenders that have lost before they start, just because they lack the enthusiasm, presence, and confidence of a winner.

  2. You only get a few minutes to make the case. In fact, your case is usually won or lost in the first couple of minutes. In business, as on the show, wins can turn to a loss if you bungle or skip relevant basics in the short time allotted. Everyone wants a longer time or second chance to win you back, but it would rarely ever change anything.

  3. Skip the bravado, but don’t be immobilized with fear. I subscribe to a quote from another TV show too old to mention, where the hero said “He who is not afraid – he’s a fool.” Let your adrenalin help you deliver an outstanding performance, but trying to wow investors with jokes or stories of unending success will not move you up a level.

  4. Play to the audience in front of you, and adapt your message. If the panel is looking for value and return for the investor, skip the technology pitch, or customer sales pitch. Some entrepreneurs give the same talk, no matter what the audience. If you have only one dance, don’t be surprised if it wears thin quickly with the judges.

  5. Dress appropriately and professionally. Under-dressed may impress on TV, but it’s better to be over-dressed in the business world. Business casual is the standard for investor presentations. Remember that most investors are from a generation where faded and torn jeans were on the wrong side of success in business.

  6. Practice, practice, practice. Even if you are an experienced dancer, you practice your craft with renewed determination before a big show. Business entrepreneurs need to do the same thing, maybe in “presidential debate” style with their team of critics, until they master the timing and can handle every unanticipated slip or challenge.

Even though I’m certainly no expert on dancing (I’ve taken Beginning Ballroom Dancing three times now), most of the reviews I have seen call the TV show realistic, with the panel of judges giving reasonable critical and technical feedback. That’s a welcome relief from Donald Trump's pompous calls on "Celebrity Apprentice."

Depending on one's perspective, this economic surge is either the perfect time or an awful one to start a business. So, if you plan to face a business version of the dancing challenge soon, watch the show and check the recommendations above. Show some energy and enthusiasm, and don’t let the technical steps required overshadow your creativity. Break a leg!

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Thursday, November 28, 2013

7 Entrepreneur Oversights That Will Crash Profits

rocket-scienceMany startups fail before reaching that magic “cash-flow positive” position they have been striving for, despite seemingly reasonable financial projections. A closer analysis often indicates the cause to be a lack of diligence in handling common business finances. These mistakes are usually masked by excuses, like the economy turned on me, or my competitors played dirty.

I found a good summary of the most common mistakes in a recent book by Kelly Clifford, “Profit Rocket,” written primarily to help you on the other side of the equation – skyrocket your profits. I’m sure all you accountants will agree that fixing the mistakes listed here does not require rocket science, but I’ve seen them so often that to be forewarned is to be forearmed:

  1. Failing to factor in fixed costs when pricing. Don’t forget to add all pesky “overhead” costs, with fixed elements, like rent, insurance, and administration, and variable elements, like delivery, customer support, and commissions. Always use a break-even analysis to measure what volume and price are required to offset total costs.

  2. Thinking you are profitable once money begins to flow in. Money flowing in has to exceed all costs, including inventory, credit, and your salary, before there is a real profit. Many startups see initial revenue from customers, and love the fast growth, but fail to anticipate the cost of early vendor payments, monthly overhead costs, and later taxes.

  3. Considering the job done once a client has been invoiced. A startup must insure that the payments are collected per agreed terms. A required metric is average days to payment compared to expectations. If you expect payment in 30 days, many customers will stretch this period to 45 days or even 90. This difference will kill your profit margin.

  4. Not paying close enough attention to cash flow. In startups, cash is king. If you fail to pay a cash obligation when it is due, the business is technically insolvent. Insolvency is the primary reason firms go bankrupt, even while making a profit. Entrepreneurs should sign every check and manage cash personally, rather than delegate this task to anyone.

  5. Not producing and reviewing financial reports regularly. Too many entrepreneurs hate the numbers side of the business, so they assume their accountants will warn them of danger signs. But administrative people rarely see the big picture, which you need for profitability and survival. It’s well worthwhile to learn the basics and use financial reports.

  6. Not having a budget. A budget is the financial plan and road map to get you from your business plan to profitability. Without a road map, you can be lost and not know it. Make sure you have a budget which is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed (SMART). Prepare it, update it regularly, and use it.

  7. Wasting money unnecessarily. Every business ends up buying things they don’t need, or paying more than they should, due to lack of attention and lack of negotiation. Review supplier terms regularly, and don’t be afraid to shop around. Take advantage of early payment and volume discounts, where possible

Above all, avoid self-sabotaging behavior that you may not even be aware of, like blaming others rather than taking responsibility for all decisions, or not charging what your product or service is worth, due to lack of current market information or a personal bias.

For example, I find many entrepreneurs are certain they can make a profit on a 20% margin, even though most of their competitors target 60% margins, or even higher. Unless you are a Walmart, with very high volumes and an existing infrastructure, you won’t survive for long on a 20% margin.

It’s fair to use your vision, creativity, and innovation to change the world with new and better products and services. But don’t forget that the underlying laws of finance are harder to change, much like the laws of physics, so try not to ignore these basics. In business, when you lose money on every sale, it’s hard to make it up in volume and be profitable.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 25, 2013

Your Venture Is All About You, Not Your Invention

intellectual-venturesIf 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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Too Many Startup Founders Sabotage Themselves

sabotage-yourselfIn working with entrepreneurs and other business people over the years, I often hear stories of entrepreneurs who were so close to success, but somehow let it slip through their fingers. They could always give a rational excuse, like the market changed, but somehow it seemed that they were actually afraid of success, so they subtly undermined their own efforts.

I couldn’t really believe that anyone would be afraid of success, until I finished a self-help book by Patrick Daniel, “Finding Your Road to Success.” This is billed as a must-read for any entrepreneur who needs a shot of optimism. Relative to my suspected entrepreneur fear of success, Patrick outlines six rationales that my positive-thinking mind would never even consider:

  1. Success will lead to loneliness. Some entrepreneurs believe that success will mean working long hours, neglecting their spouse and children, which in turn could result in divorce. Women, in particular, sometimes believe that success will make them unlovable and intimidating to men.

  2. Success will lead to envy. Many people want what others have, and the more success a person achieves, the more envious are that person’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues. This is a reality that some entrepreneurs don’t want to deal with, and some apparently undermine their own success to avoid it.

  3. I’m not good enough for success. This belief can result from many things, such as having negative parents and not having a college degree. With this belief often comes “I don’t deserve success,” so they sabotage their own efforts in that direction. If this resonates with you, I don’t recommend the entrepreneur lifestyle.

  4. Success will change my lifestyle. Some entrepreneurs fear that the changes that come with success will actually make life less enjoyable. They believe that will have less time to, for example, enjoy sports, surf the Internet, spend time with their family, or relish the excitement of building the business. My logical mind would assume just the opposite.

  5. Success is too expensive. There is a cost to everything, and success is not an exception. Sometimes, to make money you have to spend money, and some entrepreneurs just can’t face the risk of making that initial investment. Certainly I know many people who would never put other’s people’s money at risk to start their business.

  6. I won’t be able to control everything that happens. If you fear all the things you can’t control, you should never step into the entrepreneur lifestyle. Startups have to deal with many factors outside their control, so this fear can cause an unhealthy stress and worry. Successful entrepreneurs usually relish their ability to control at least one thing that no one else has managed to figure out.

Ironically, these “fear of success” rationales are often restated by entrepreneurs as a somewhat less embarrassing, equally deadly, “fear of failure.” Fear of failure in generally recognized as one of the strongest forces holding entrepreneurs back. Yet failing in a startup is practically a rite of passage, according to investors, as well as successful entrepreneurs.

Overall, I would suggest that if you let your fears control your actions, you probably have a hard and unhappy road ahead as an entrepreneur. Most successful entrepreneurs are not fearless, but they know how to transform these fears into positive actions rather than negative ones, and they take every failure as a positive learning experience.

I assure you that no entrepreneurs are born successful. Every smart entrepreneur has a fear of the unknowns in their new business initiative. Only those with the passion and conviction to start anyway will have any chance of success (you can’t succeed if you don’t start). Likewise, you can’t succeed if you give up too early, or sabotage your own efforts due to a fear of success. Make sure you don’t let fear paralyze you at any stage of your startup.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Intrapreneurial Efforts Need Tough Love to Compete

intrapreneurship“Intrapreneurs” are entrepreneurs inside big companies, who do corporate spin-offs. A spin-off is merely a startup spawned by a mature parent (company), and conventional logic would dictate that it has a survival advantage over the lowly startup. Yet spin-offs seem to most often fail to launch in the real world. I was part of one myself a few years ago, and felt the pain.

My first thought is that spin-offs are like struggling adolescents with over-protective parents. When companies spin off a division (sometimes called a demerger or deconsolidation), they naturally want it to grow and succeed on its own merits, just as they have. But like protective parents everywhere, they tend to shelter it in ways that stunt its growth in the long run.

Before we look at my specifics, I should mention some of the reasons companies make the spin-off decision in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, according to a report by A. T. Kearney, these go well beyond an organization getting rid of its "problem children:”

  • Deconsolidate—shed non-core functions to focus on core competencies. An example would be Time Warner spinning off AOL—to end a disastrous, dot.com-era marriage.
  • Mingle and learn from the startup culture and new technology – without losing control. Foreign companies in the US like to use spin-offs to find expansion opportunities.
  • Unlock shareholder value, which the spin-off can do as an independent entity. They may not be so constrained by monopoly fears and Sarbanes-Oxley controls.
  • Grow faster, which a spin-off can do outside the parent company. Airlines, for example, have difficulty scaling up through mergers and acquisitions (M&As), but they can spin off their maintenance businesses and let the spin-off do the M&A in its own field.
  • Grow in new dimensions from the parent company. Service operations such as call centers can grow far beyond their parent companies, especially if their services are more generic.

In retrospect, in the case I was part of, I believe there were several areas in which the parent company consistently fails in their discipline of intrapreneurial efforts:

  • Rewarding without earning. The parent company guaranteed the spin-off a revenue stream and provided incentive bonuses based on artificial objectives, rather than competitive or market driven targets. The guaranteed revenue and incentives were only loosely tied—at best—to the spin-off’s performance.
  • Fostering dictatorial leadership. Effective management skills in a startup are actually quite different from those in a large enterprise. The dictatorial leaders who survived and prospered in the enterprise parent, were ill-suited for the collaborative and highly adaptive spin-off and startup requirements. Yet they had “earned” the right to run an autonomous unit, and were not easily dislocated.
  • Supporting them for an undefined period. Parent companies provide services or infrastructure to the spin-off at below-market prices or for an excessively long period of time. In the reverse direction, this “support” carried the high overhead that is standard in the enterprise, but not financially sustainable in the spin-off.

In my view, fostering successful spin-offs, like raising adolescents, often requires tough love, embodied in the tough financial objectives and a firm timeline that startup investors impose on their charges. No free passes, and no bailouts. HP tried to come to grips with all these issues a few years ago, in spinning off its PC business, but ultimately backed down.

In most ways, the success of a spin-off depends on the same factors that are critical to a startup, but sometimes get forgotten or taken for granted as a corporation matures. These include a clearly articulated vision and business strategy, communicated from leaders in a way that heightens motivation and lessens team anxiety of the unknown.

For entrepreneurs, this analysis should be a positive message, but it should also be a wake-up call to the overriding value of leadership and effective communication. For all of you who all too quickly tie your business success or failure to funding, or the lack of it, think again. Sometimes it helps to be “hungry” in that respect.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Investors Do Not Fund Research And Development

research-and-developmentI still get business plans, looking for an investor, that say all too clearly that the primary “use of funds” will be to do research and development (R&D) on some promising new technology, like superconductivity or cancer cures. Entrepreneurs forget that investors are looking for commercial products to make money, rather than R&D sunk costs, so investment hopes are sunk as well.

In fact, the term ‘research and development’ covers a continuum of activities, so you need to use a more precise term to maximize your funding likelihood. There are opportunities all along the continuum, and they need to be mapped to the right academic environments and public- and private-sector development organizations before a funding source can be determined.

Let’s consider the six stages normally associated with R&D, and the boundaries and project-specific activities interwoven therein:

  1. Basic technology research. The first stage is basic research on a technology that shows a potential for solving a difficult or expensive problem. Look only for grants, universities, and enterprise sponsors at this stage. Real products are only speculation at this stage, and mentioning a large list of them won’t help get outside investors.

  2. Technology development. This stage is the transition to pilot-scale research on the technology. It may entail a number of false starts, but no products. A successful result is a one-of-a-kind technology that shows enough promise both technically and economically to warrant demonstration. Funding sources are still the same as stage one.

  3. Prototype development. Now we are ready for demonstration tests conducted on first-time or early-stage products. The demonstration stage usually implies substantial redesign and debugging until final robustness can be established. Angel investors are definitely interested at this stage, but VCs usually wait until stage five or six.

  4. Verification. Verification is testing and publicly reporting the performance of a commercial-ready technology using specific standards (EPA, FDA, etc.). Results, if positive, are used for marketing a product directly to customers. If these required tests are common and low risk, VCs may jump in at this stage.

  5. Commercialization. The fifth stage includes preparing for, financing, and implementing full-scale manufacturing and marketing activities. The technology can be reliably replicated and produced. This includes entering into partnerships, arranging for manufacturing facilities, and developing channels for distribution. All is definitely fundable now.

  6. Diversification. At this point the technology is ready for implementation with a full-scale marketing plan for an array of products, including interfacing with appropriate partners, and commercialization. The term research and development should never be mentioned, even though ongoing efforts for the next product are always required.

While I certainly applaud basic research, I try to remember that people buy solutions and products, rather than buying technology or a new platform. There is even a small group of customers, called ‘early adopters’ who seek out new technology solutions. However, we all need to remember that the mass market tends to wait for the product image to supersede the technology.

So investors, looking for a near-term large and growing market, see technology development as a big red flag. They defer to others, like government agencies, universities, and large corporations to take that risk. You can participate, of course, with private funds and grants, but don’t expect venture money to be thrown your way just yet. Get used to the message, “We love your proposal, so come back when you have a real product and a real customer!”

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Sunday, November 17, 2013

8 Startup Gaps That Will Frustrate Funding Efforts

mind-the-funding-gapA while back I received a discouraging note from an entrepreneur with a patent and a medical software application who couldn’t find a dime of investment, and was grousing that seed funding just wasn’t available anymore. After exchanging a couple of notes, I concluded that she was more likely a victim of item #1 on my reject list below, rather than a drought on seed funding.

Too many people still believe the urban myth that you can sketch your idea on a napkin, and people will throw money at you. Fundraising is indeed brutally tough at all stages, and the seed funding is the hardest to find. The simple answer is that if you need funding, do your homework early and completely.

I seem to see common threads in the stories from people who don’t get money, so I checked my list against ones quoted in a book by Barry H. Cohen and Michael Rybarski, titled “Start-Up Smarts.” We agree on issues we see sabotaging most funding efforts, in decreasing priority sequence:

  1. Lack of a compelling story. That story has to begin with a painful problem shared by a large collection of viable customers, with your competitive solution. Additionally, you need to be able to communicate the essence that story and value to investors in a couple of sentences – your elevator pitch.

  2. Lack of clear objectives/goals. Often, the number one question that entrepreneurs fail to address is: “How much money do you need, and what valuation do you place on your company?” Then you have to have evidence to support your request. I’ve asked this question many times of presenters in Angel meetings, and often get a blank look.

  3. Failure to prepare for due diligence. Any serious investor will perform a thorough review of your business and personal background before signing the check. They don’t like surprises, so you should explain any possible issues first, in the best possible light, before being asked.

  4. Lack of understanding of the funding process/rules. The key here is to create a win-win partner situation for your investors. Discussion of risks and rewards in an open fashion, without sleight-of-hand or shortcuts, will convince investors that they can count on you, and will avoid shareholder lawsuits later.

  5. Reliance on inappropriate business professionals. Using well-respected professionals to bolster your endeavor is key. If you can attract well-known advisors, attorneys, and accountants, it will give potential investors comfort that you have been able to get implied endorsement of your concept, as well as your integrity.

  6. Poor choice of funding sources. It is not helpful to you for funders to love an idea that does not fit the criteria for their investing capability. Don’t waste time talking to VCs for requests less than $1M, or very early stage, and don’t expect professional investors to jump in if you have no “skin in the game.”

  7. Not doing due diligence on the funding source. You need to complete due diligence on your prospective funders as they complete due diligence on you. Find out what they have invested in recently, what stage, and what is their track record of expectations and follow-through. You don’t need surprises or disappointments either.

  8. Being unprepared for the next steps. After a good elevator pitch or initial presentation, investors will ask for your formal business plan and financial projections. Don’t derail their enthusiasm or risk your professional image by not having these materials immediately available. The same thing goes for incorporating your company, having key hires lined up, and facilities arranged as required.

There are many others opportunities for you to shoot yourself in the foot. Rather than play the victim, you can be proactive on all these items, and stay one step ahead of your “competitors” in professionalism, timing, and preparation. The resources are out there to help you, like the book mentioned, this blog, and many more. Use them and win.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Great Early Stage Startup Behaviors Limit Scaling

scaleOnce you are able to achieve some real “traction” with your business (paying customers, revenue stream), it may seem the time to relax a bit, but in fact this is the point where many founders start to flounder. All the skills and instincts you needed to get to this level can actually start working against you, and you can fail to scale.

Investors often say that successfully navigating the early stages of a startup requires lots of street smarts, guts, and luck. For successful scaling of the business, there has to be a transition to “executive” mode in the more traditional business sense. Certain behaviors between these two modes are incompatible, and can cause real problems.

Several years ago, John Hamm published some early work on this subject in "Why Entrepreneurs Don't Scale" in the Harvard Business Review. Here is my interpretation of that work, incorporating my personal experience, identifying some strengths of an entrepreneur during early startup stages which can become a problem for scaling:

  • Perseverance. This is generally a required quality for a successful entrepreneur, but it can turn into an unhealthy stubbornness during the scaling stage. The key is to make decisions from data and feedback, once your business has real customers and real products. Trusting your gut at this stage isn’t good enough.

  • Absolute control. During the early stages, you are the company, processes are not documented, you don’t have much help, so you need a fanatical attention to detail. To scale the business, you have to find people who can do the tasks, and delegate appropriately. Control freaks are doomed to failure.
  • Individual loyalty. Most founders form very close relationships with the small team that gets the startup off the ground, and that is important. Scaling requires that you expand the team, probably with people you haven’t known. You also have to deal with the inevitable personnel challenges, even within the original team. Total loyalty can be toxic.
  • Isolated and insulated. Working in isolation is fine during the creative phase of the startup, where the founder is often the designer and architect, as well as the builder. Now this same individual has to step into the spotlight, and meet with customers, analysts, and investors. Insulation from the real world will not work during scaling.
  • Tactical versus strategic. Early stage startup founders have to think tactically. Even business school courses don’t teach you to operate strategically, deal with people objectively, and create loyalty within a diverse workforce. These are areas where past stumbles are the best teachers. Investors don’t want to fund your stumbles.

Every founder moving into the executive role has to step back and take a hard look at what works, and what doesn’t work. The best ones can do that, and they adapt. Investors and advisors see this as a critical part of their role, and often are the “bad guys” who ask the founder to step aside, while they bring in a “more experienced” CEO to take over the helm.

Unfortunately, some founders won’t adapt, and won’t step aside. Even if they are pushed out, they can cause terminal damage to the business by negative versions of their strengths, now seen as stubbornness, unwillingness to give up control, testing loyalty, and hiding from reality.

Thus my best recommendation, if you want to scale and to survive, is to open up and work closely with an “outsider” that you trust, such as a respected board member, a coach, a mentor, or an investor. The key is to expedite your learning, and take deliberate steps to confront your shortcomings. That way, you will become the leader your company needs, learn to stop floundering, and begin to fly.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

7 Strategies For Beating The Failure Odds Online

beat-the-oddsIt seems like everyone has an Internet startup these days. The cost of entry is so low – you can create a web site for almost nothing - and you are on your way to riches with e-commerce, your latest invention, or personal services. But the low cost also means that your competition will also be there in force. Mashable claims there are 150,000 new web sites created per day.

In addition, every business has operating costs, like customer acquisition, fulfillment, inventory, and customer service. Without a sustainable strategy, these challenges lead to the terrifying statistic that nine out of ten online businesses will fail, and lead to the current ratio of Internet failures to millionaires being thousands to one.

So what are the key strategies that can improve the success odds for your online startup? In the latest book by business guru Joe Wozny, “The Digital Dollar: Sustainable Strategies for Online Success,” I found a good summary of some great strategies, with some practical advice on how to implement them:

  1. Understand what’s in a name on the Internet. In the online world, you need a solid connection between your domain name and your product, brand, or business. In addition, you must reserve consistent names in key online channels like Twitter, Facebook, and others. Failure can stall business strategies, and bring digital momentum to a halt.

  2. Content is king of the road. Having a web site is necessary, but not sufficient. The site must have more and better content (information presented) than your competitor. Digital content includes text, graphics, sound, and video, with presentation style, currency, and appeal. The best content gets attention and keeps momentum growing.

  3. Beware of no-cost and low-cost marketing. Marketing requires content, and nothing is “free.” Social media activities require professional effort and time, so beware the hidden costs. No-cost efforts usually have no value. Content that does not change loses its value quickly. Assess cost versus value with analytics and measurement tools.

  4. You have to be found and favored by search engines. Search engines like Google are still the primary method for finding information on the Internet. If your web site is not optimized for search engines (SEO), all your online content and marketing efforts are wasted. “Paid search” will mitigate this to some extent, but is not a sustainable strategy.

  5. Engage your audience with social media. Social media is more than the “Big 4” of Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter. It’s sharing features built into your web site content like social bookmarking, emailing, or auto posting and interactive features like comments and voting. It is integrated features for smart phones and tablets. Do them all.

  6. There is still a place for paid advertising. Online advertising is the promotion of your site and content on other sites such as pay-per-click contextual ads, banner ads, rich media ads, and ads in newsletters. Key measurements should always include return on investment, and visibility to the targeted audience.

  7. The route to success is not a random walk. From a strategic perspective, all the above should start with an overall digital roadmap, where you define your goals, outline the steps required, and articulate your success measurements. Plan to update this roadmap at least once a month, based on results, new information, and competition.

For sustainability against competitors, every startup needs to practice strategic business decision making, rather than managing the crisis and the opportunity of the moment. That means continual focus and change based on the existing customer base and existing competitors, as well as new opportunities for growth.

“Pivoting” is another name for a strategic change decision, or for changing your strategy, your business model, target customers, or direction, and this is an integral part of evolving a company. According to Steve Blank, research has shown that a typical successful Internet startup experiences up to three pivots in their evolution. If four or more pivots occur (or none), then the chance of success goes down.

So while the cost in dollars of entry to an online business is low, that doesn’t prevent a failure from hurting badly. Don’t let the low entry cost lure you into a false sense of security, or convince you that you don’t need to make strategic plans to be sustainable. How many of these key strategies are in your plan, or already implemented?

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, November 11, 2013

10 Common Startup Flaws Leading To An Early Demise

failing-bar-chartBased on my experience as a mentor and an entrepreneur, if you fail on your first startup, you are about average. That’s not bad, but who wants to be average? Every young entrepreneur knows implicitly that startup success is a long hard road. Statistics show that the failure rate for new startups within the first 5 years is higher than 50 percent. How can you improve your odds?

Of course, a real entrepreneur always takes a failure as a milestone on the road to success. They count on learning from their mistakes, and use the experience to move to the next idea. But why not learn as well from the mistakes of others, without suffering their cost, time, and pain? In that context, I offer you my list of ten top startup failure causes, seen over and over again:

  1. No written plan. Don’t believe the old urban legend that a business plan isn’t worth the effort. The discipline of writing down a plan is the best way to make sure you actually understand how to transform your idea into a business. Take heed of the words of an old country song, “if you don’t where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.”

  2. Business model doesn’t make money. Even a non-profit has to generate revenue (or donations) to offset operating costs. If your product is free, or you lose money on every one, it’s hard to make it up in volume. You may have the solution to the world hunger problem, but if your customers have no money, your business won’t last long.

  3. Idea has limited business opportunity. Not every good idea is a good business. Just because you passionately believe that your technology is great, and everyone needs it, doesn’t mean that everyone will buy it. There is no substitute for market research, written by domain experts, to supplement your informal poll of friends and family.

  4. Execution skills are weak. When young entrepreneurs come to me with that “million dollar idea,” I have to tell them that an idea alone is really worth nothing. It’s all about the execution. If you are not comfortable making hard decisions, taking risk, and taking full responsibility, you won’t do well in this role. Remember, the buck always stops with you.

  5. The space is too crowded already. Having no competitors is a red flag (may mean no market), but finding ten or more with a simple Google search means this may be a crowded space. Remember that sleeping giants do wake up if you show traction, so don’t assume that Microsoft or Proctor & Gamble are too big and slow for you to worry about.

  6. No intellectual property. If you expect to seek investors, or you expect to have a sustainable competitive advantage against sleeping giants, you need to register all your patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets early. Intellectual property is also often the largest element of early-stage company valuations for professional investors.

  7. Inexperienced team. In reality, investors fund people, not ideas. They look for people with real experience in the business domain of the startup, and people with real experience running a startup. If this is your first time around, find a partner who has “been there and done that” to balance your passion and bring experience to the team.

  8. Resource requirements not understood. A major resource is cash funding, but other resources, such as industry contacts and access to marketing channels may be more important for certain products. Having too much cash, not managed wisely, can be just as devastating as too little cash. Don’t quit your day job until new revenue is flowing.

  9. Too little focus on marketing. Viral marketing and word-of-mouth are not enough these days to make your product and brand visible in the relentless onslaught of new media out there today. Even viral marketing costs real money and time. Without effective and innovative marketing across the range of media, you won’t have a business.

  10. Give up too easily or early. In my experience, the most common cause of startup failure is the entrepreneur just gets tired, gives up, and shuts down the company. Many successful entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, kept slugging away on their vision, despite setbacks, until they found the success they knew was possible.

Note that the lack of a university degree or MBA is not even in the list of common failure causes. In fact, we can all point to examples of successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, but still went on to be way above average. The most important thing you can learn in school is how to learn.

The best entrepreneurs value “street smarts,” in addition to “book smarts,” to temper their passion with reality principles, like the ones listed here, to stay ahead of the crowd. It’s good to say you never make the same mistake twice, but success is even sweeter the first time around with no mistakes. Go for it.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark