Thursday, February 28, 2013

Startups Need Business Relationships Without Drama

business-feedbackEntrepreneurship is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Every startup requires building and maintaining effective relationships with people, including partners, team members, customers, and investors. That means giving and asking for feedback, and learning from it, especially negative feedback.

“Friction” is feedback mixed with emotion or drama, making it all the more difficult to sort out the value. There should be no immediate assumption that one side is right, and the other is wrong. It may be an indication that one party isn’t giving the feedback well, or the other isn’t taking it well, or both. Both of these modes are wrong, and non-productive.

Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs I talk to confess that they put off giving feedback because they are uncomfortable. Others tell me they can’t deal with friction or negative feedback, so they don’t listen. If feedback is so important, why is it often ignored? Let’s look at what causes friction, and how to prevent it, resulting in productive feedback:

  • Make your feedback “information”, not a judgment or evaluation. Words such as “good” or “bad” telegraph evaluation, on the quality of work or rightness of behavior. Label words, such as “careless” or “disloyal”, signal judgment about a person’s character. Most people don’t like judgments, so they respond with friction, rather than listening.
  • Descriptions in neutral language lead to recognition. People tend to keep listening and consider changing when they recognize themselves in non-confrontational descriptions of an actual event. When they can’t relate to the data, you will have friction or tune out. Stick to what you know and what you observed.
  • Secondhand feedback poisons the process. Too many entrepreneurs create friction by highlighting comments from other people. This stems from two problems. First, this he-said-she-said doesn’t include concrete examples and clarifications. Secondly, people become defensive when feedback is not first-hand.
  • Pick an appropriate time and place for feedback. Getting feedback in front of your peers, or when you are rushing to meet a deadline, is embarrassing and prone to friction. If you are trying to give feedback with privacy, and the person never has time to listen, that’s a different problem.
  • Feedback given at work should be only about work. Don’t mix observations about commitment and loyalty on work issues with observations about private relationship actions seen at a party or elsewhere. Again, stick to the facts you know, your personal observations, and avoid absolutes such as “always” and “never.”
  • Minimize the perceived power difference to facilitate listening. Feedback to top executives is more readily received from outside experts and mentors, rather than less experienced team members. Inversely, feedback to newer employees should be given by their direct manager, or even peers, rather than a top executive.

Not all feedback should be about things that need improvement. Everyone needs positive reinforcement on items and actions done well, and it opens their mind to any feedback without friction. In fact, most psychologists agree that people advance more rapidly by positive reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement.

We never see ourselves as other people see us. We see friction, and we react to friction, based on our standards, what we consider important, what we value, and what makes us uncomfortable. Understanding that, and understanding the triggers to friction outlined above, you as an entrepreneur need be able to deal with friction as the most important feedback of all.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

9 Entrepreneur Skills Which Drive Team Leadership

contagious_leadershipStartups provide business leadership with new products, services, and new revenue models, but leadership startups can only be built by entrepreneurs who are leaders themselves, and incent leadership in the team around them. Leadership which incents other people to be leaders is called “contagious leadership.”

John Hersey, in his book “Creating Contagious Leadership,” describes nine required skills or habits for inspiring a contagious leadership culture within a startup, as well as within other types of businesses, or even life in general. He and I believe that leaders have to make the overt decision to acquire these skills, and don’t have to be born or trained into them:

  1. Spotlight leadership acts of others. This is the habit of focusing attention, directly or indirectly, on leadership efforts and accomplishments of another team member or group. For managers and non-contagious leaders (contained leaders), the spotlight seems to always be on themselves.

  2. Cultivate positive character qualities. Contagious leaders have a habit of highlighting effective choices about “how” things were accomplished, and not just “what” was accomplished. It’s not just about the numbers, but how character played a role, and who made the right decisions along the way.

  3. Provide in-depth recognition. Don’t just articulate specific actions that deserve praise. Contagious leaders tell Harry why and how he did a good job, whereas managers and contained leaders just say “Good job, Harry.”

  4. Emphasize strengths, leading to greatness. Conventional managers focus on people’s shortcomings and point them out as often as possible. Contagious leaders nurture the habit of recognizing others strengths, and help them extrapolate these to greatness.

  5. Communicate often and effectively. The habit of constantly exchanging information, thoughts and feelings openly and honestly builds morale, enhances productivity, and fosters contagious leadership. Too many managers “tell ‘em only what they need to know and not a moment before they need to know it.”

  6. Provide an unobstructed vision. Contagious leaders foster the habit of focusing actions on a clear and sensory-rich picture of the desired result. Managers tend to have only a vague picture of where the company is going, so they are unable to share a coherent vision with others.

  7. Really touch people’s lives. Nurture the habit of truly knowing your most valuable asset – people. Managers avoid any real, deep involvement. Most don’t know if the people reporting to them are married or single, or anything about them. Contagious leaders know their people personally and do things for them, not because it’s good for business, but because they truly care.

  8. Passionately support your people. Managers are always controlled, rather than being fully committed and willing to take a risk. Contagious leaders are quick to support their team, and always stick up for them, even in the face of adversity.

  9. Mentor a permission mentality. Contagious leaders mentor their team to always assume they have permission to do things their way. They try to extend the concept of contagious leadership, rather than constrain it. Managers want a staff of imitators and followers. They want people to do what they want, and to do it their way.

In summary, leaders are not the same as managers. Managers focus on the process, while leaders focus on the people. Leaders influence people to make things happen, rather than tell people to make things happen. Contagious leaders create a culture that inspires everyone to be fully engaged in the startup. The result is that your whole startup will be the leader.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How Much Traction is Enough for Investors?

tractionAlmost every early-stage startup who has approached investors for funding has heard the innocuous sounding rejection “I love your idea, but come back when you have more traction.” What does traction really mean to investors, and how much is enough? Let me try to clarify the rules, and what it takes to win at this game.

First of all, a definition. Traction is evidence that your product or service has started that “hockey- stick” adoption rate which implies a large market, a valid business model, and sustainable growth. Investors want evidence that the “dogs are eating the dog food,” and your financial projections are not just a dream.

Obviously this definition is generic, so my first recommendation is that you take the lead in defining traction metrics for your startup, and then selling your results convincingly to investors. A graph that shows a hockey-stick “up and to the right” curve with at least three data points per key indicator is a great visual assist.

One or more of the following parameters are viewed by most investors as traction indicators, but good entrepreneurs are often creative and define their own to supplement these:

  1. Start with sales to-date for a priced offering. As an investor, I would like to see one month of sales, and see how that compares to your projections. One customer is not traction, and beta tests with a thousand customers at no cost don’t count. Your graph should show that sales have “turned upward” per projections, beyond friends and family.

  2. Free and freemium products need a solid base. If your product is free, with advertising revenue from click-throughs, you need a sign-up rate and page-view rate that approaches one million page views per month. I like to see at least 10,000 active users, or a user base, page-views, or mobile downloads that double every three months.

  3. Market penetration. Percentages may be difficult at this early stage, but you need to get creative about slicing and dicing the market, sector, demographic, and sub-categories. For example, if your value-add is with first-time parents, show me a graph of how many 20-30 year-old moms have signed up each week the first month.

  4. Average transaction size and revenue per customer. Often enterprise customers, or even consumers, test a new channel by signing up for a few small transactions or trial products. If your average transaction size, number per customer, or margins have been turning up dramatically, it should mean you have gained real traction in the market.

  5. Customer acquisition cost. In an inverse fashion, real traction usually means that your cost to acquire a new customer is coming down rapidly, as your marketing kicks in, and your offering is known and accepted by the mass market. You need to position these numbers to investors as positive, based on your domain experience, before being asked.

  6. Show acceptance by major customers and key distributors. Sometimes it is not the numbers that indicate traction, but who you have signed up. Signed contracts with big name customers, like IBM, AT&T, or Wal-Mart, is a strong indication of traction. The same is true if your offering has been accepted by major distributors in your industry.

  7. Public statements from industry experts and groups. In the enterprise world, if your offering is even included as a new contender by respected industry groups, like Gartner Research, you should claim traction. In the consumer world, groups like Consumer Reports, will give you similar credibility, if positive. Start early to work these relationships.

You need to take the lead in choosing the key metrics that accurately and positively express, both quantitatively and graphically, that your startup has broken through the traction barrier. Don’t ask investors if you have traction – if you have to ask, you probably won’t like the answer.

But never forget that traction is necessary, but may not be sufficient, to lower the risk perception of investors, and assure an investment. The quality of the team, and overall financial health are equally important, as well as how your offering compares to competitors.

Overall, you should think of traction as that indicator or indicators which demonstrate that your offering has shifted from being an “idea” to being a profit-making “business.” As such, it should be just as important to you as to potential investors. Make sure you understand what it means to you, and communicate where you stand. If investors have to raise the subject first, you don’t have enough traction to win.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Young Entrepreneur on 02/18/2013 ***


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Monday, February 25, 2013

Entrepreneurs Need ‘Go-To’ People, and Be the Model

how-can-i-helpGo-to people get things done. As an entrepreneur, you need these people, and you need to be one, if you expect your startup to be successful. That may be easier said than done, since resumes do not tell the story, and without real nurturing, the best people won’t stay around long.

To highlight how rare this breed is, Jeffrey Gandz of the Richard Ivey School of Business relates a quote from a new CEO in a large company, "I have more than 1000 people in my head office organization, 900 can tell me something’s gone wrong, 90 can tell me what’s gone wrong, 9 can tell me why it went wrong, and one can actually fix it!"

Finding and nurturing that one is the challenge for every company and every startup. I like his summary of how go-to people are different from other people, not necessarily because they have unique skills, but because of the ways these skills are configured and integrated with other leadership characteristics:

  • Know how business works and how to work your business. They have what we might call “street smarts” as well as real intelligence. They have a special ability to help people get results, clear away road blocks, and resolve impasses that are frustrating people. Then they use those skills to build support for required actions.

  • Politically astute without being politicians. Unlike many political operatives these people are seen as dedicated to the goals of the business, rather than feathering their own nests. This leaves them with the reputation for being politically astute rather than being labeled with the stigma of being a politician.

  • Know how to use power when it’s needed but seldom use it. They recognize that people are persuaded by those that these people, in turn, can persuade. So they open themselves up to recommendations from those they are trying to persuade. They recognize that people want recognition, so they reward people who get-with-the-program with attentions for doing so.

  • Consummate negotiators but getting it done is non-negotiable. They are adept at seeing situations from others’ perspectives, separating people from principles, building bridges between positions, and bringing people to their senses. But they are laser-like in their focus on project completion, and never sacrifice deadlines for compliance.

  • Networks of reciprocation rather than deals. However, these exchanges of favors and reciprocity are not conditional negotiation elements, but usually based on having done someone a favor without requiring anything in return. The favor is often motivated not by future consideration but by a genuine desire to help someone else.

  • Think out of the box while acting inside the box. Go-to people are creative people who are constantly looking for better ways to get things done. Barriers are challenges, obstacles are opportunities for innovation, the words “can’t do” register as “how can we do.” They use the culture to change the culture, and use channels effectively.

  • Analytical and intuitive, aggressive and patient, confident and humble, deliberate and decisive. These sometimes paradoxical characteristics of highly effective leaders are present in abundance in go-to’s. They escalate what needs to be handled at a higher level and don’t feel that they have to resolve everything themselves.

While many resumes portray people as leaders, resumes are heavily weighted toward “initiators”, those who start things and develop new ways of doing things. Few talk about completions – driving things that they have initiated through to conclusion. You need both, and don’t confuse the two.

If you are not that natural leader, remember that becoming the go-to person in your organization is very powerful in raising positive perceptions of your value. It's all about who you know, what you know, what you do, and how you can help. Best of all, it’s fun to get things done.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, February 24, 2013

7 Principles That Predict What Steve Jobs Would Do

Steve_JobsSteve Jobs was one of those entrepreneurs who seemed universally either loved or hated, but not many will argue with his ability to innovate in the technology product arena over the years. He was instrumental in creating Apple, which has pioneered a dazzling array of new products, and even surpassed Microsoft, to become the world’s most valuable technology company.

Carmine Gallo, in one of his secrets books “The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs,” outlines Jobs “insanely different principles for breakthrough success.” I’m not convinced that Jobs’ world was that simple, but Carmine has boiled it down to seven principles, which I suggest every entrepreneur can learn from, as follows:

  1. Do what you love. Think differently about your career. Steve Jobs followed his heart his entire life and that, he said, made all the difference. Innovation cannot occur in the absence of passion and, without it, you have little hope of creating breakthrough ideas.

  2. Put a dent in the Universe. Think differently about your vision. Jobs attracted like-minded people who shared his vision and who helped turn his ideas into world-changing innovations. Passion fueled Apple’s rocket and Jobs’ vision created the destination.

  3. Kick start your brain. Think differently about how you think. Innovation does not exist without creativity, and for Steve Jobs, creativity was the act of connecting things. Jobs believed that a broad set of experiences broadened the understanding of the human experience.

  4. Sell dreams, not products. Think differently about your customers. To Jobs, people who bought Apple products were never “consumers.” They were people with dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Jobs built products to help them fulfill their dreams.

  5. Say no to 1,000 things. Think differently about design. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, according to Jobs. From the designs of the iPod to the iPhone, from the packaging of the Apple’s products to the functionality of the Apple Web site, innovation means eliminating the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

  6. Create insanely great experiences. Think differently about your brand experience. Jobs made Apple stores the gold standard in customer service. The Apple store has become the world’s best retailer by introducing simple innovations any business can adopt to make deep, lasting emotional connections with their customers.

  7. Master the message. Think differently about your story. Jobs was a great corporate storyteller, turning product launches into an art form. You can have the most innovative idea in the world, but if you cannot get people excited about it, it doesn’t matter.

Carmine suggests and I agree that these principles for breakthrough innovation will only work if you see yourself as the brand. Whether you are an entrepreneur working out of your bedroom, or a small business owner looking for ideas to improve your business, you represent the most important brand of all – yourself.

How you talk, walk, and act reflects upon the brand. Most importantly, how you think about yourself and you business will have the greatest impact on the creation of new ideas that will grow your business and improve the lives of your customers.

Thus you need to look inward first and assess your basic potential. Then imagine what you could achieve in business with the real insight and inspiration. Imagine what you could accomplish if you had Steve Jobs guiding your decisions. What would Steve Jobs do? Follow the principles above and you can do it too.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, February 23, 2013

7 Lessons on Managing Risk From Olympic Champions

risk-managementWillingness to take a risk is the hallmark of a serious entrepreneur. That’s why one of the first questions that potential investors ask is “How much of your own money, and friends and family, have you put into the new business?” If you won’t risk yours, you won’t get investors to risk theirs.

A while back I read the book “When Turtles Fly” by Nikki Stone, an Olympic champion, which explains this well. She provides many examples of success stories from entrepreneurs to Olympians. She proclaims that if you want to be successful, you need to be soft on the inside, have a hard shell, and willing to stick your neck out (“Turtle Effect”).

She goes on to outline seven lessons that are key to mastering the Turtle Effect, and I believe that you need to relate to every one of these before you can dare to even call yourself an entrepreneur:

  1. Find your passion. Entrepreneurs, like Olympians, tend to put a competitive spin on anything they find a passion for, and once they are snagged, they have to win. This passion, while it is your soft inside, is probably the single most important factor in achieving business success.

  2. Make sure you are focused. This is where many entrepreneurs fail. If you try to do too many things at once, you probably won’t do any of them well. All successes are best achieved from a root focal point, one step at a time, through focus on the questions and focus on the process.

  3. Get committed. No one truly understands how much they can accomplish until they develop their hard shell of commitment to a goal you really want. The commitment has to not be one day, or someday, but today. Nothing good comes without hard work. In business, that means first put it in writing with a business plan.

  4. Overcome your adversities. Adversities are the norm, not the exception. We all face them, and a few overcome them. Today it is the economy, tomorrow it could be your health. Successful people bounce back, plan for the unexpected, stop the downward spiral, and enjoy the rewards of a comeback.

  5. Believe in yourself. Confidence is not something that we are born with. It’s something we develop. Peter T. Mcintyre said, “Confidence comes not from always being right, but from not fearing to be wrong.” Focus on your own strengths. Pick a positive future goal, and visualize success. Then go for it.

  6. Take some risks. Be willing to stick your neck out. The best entrepreneurs always believe their startups will thrive despite the odds. Don’t worry if you feel some fear. Fear is a natural emotion, and fears can actually help us to be alert. Especially, you must not fear failure. People learn more from failure than from success.

  7. Use teamwork. No one in business gets to the top alone. The real genius is in recognizing where and when you need support. Finding support is the easy part. Using someone else for support may even allow you time to turn your attention toward more important issues.

Remember that there is no business without sticking your neck out, and no approach that will eliminate risk entirely, so learn to live with it and manage it. Most experts agree that entrepreneurship is more about reducing risk and managing failures, than it is about pure willingness to take risks.

So if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to learn the secrets of successful people who know how to stick their neck out, but maintain a hard shell. Practice the seven lessons outlined above, and enjoy rather than suffer through the entrepreneurial adventure of a lifetime.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, February 22, 2013

10 Job Titles Never Found in an Investable Startup

guy-kawasakiIt’s your startup, so you can give early partners any title you want, but be aware of potential investor and peer implications. VCs and Angel investors like to see a startup that is running lean and mean, with no more than three or four of the conventional C-level or VP titles. More executives, or other more creative titles are seen as a big red flag.

In reality, startup titles should be more about the division of labor than an executive position. The most common ones I see and salute are CEO, CFO, and CTO. A few other credible ones would include Chairman of the Board (COB), Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). Some would say that if you have a title at all, you are not doing enough work.

Where the titles don’t seem to fit the situation or size of the startup, investors start looking hard for other anomalies. Here are some pre-conceived notions about what non-standard titles in a startup, like the following, might mean:

  1. Chief Inspiration Officer. This person may be an extraordinary communicator, who rallies employees, customers, and colleagues around the vivid future he sees. Or he may be the founder’s brother, idea person, or inventor, who can’t be bothered actually working on the nuts and bolts of the real business.

  2. Chief Evangelist. This is a role made famous by Guy Kawasaki in the early days at Apple Computing. Evangelism marketing is an advanced form of word of mouth marketing (WOMM), now largely replaced by Facebook and Twitter. Unless your business is a religion, I don’t recommend it for a startup these days.

  3. Chief Sales Officer (VP Sales). What you really need is a VP of Marketing and Customer Development, who can help with lead generation and honing the message, rather than an executive to manage a sales team and existing customers. See this anecdote by Steve Blank on how a hotshot sales executive can sink your startup.

  4. Chief Brand Officer. Branding is indeed an important role within a startup, but the implied scope of the role is far too narrow. The more conventional VP of Marketing role should cover branding, as well as other marketing advertising, design, public relations and customer service requirements.

  5. Chief Risk Officer. This role is most common in financial institutions, and it seems like it should apply well to startups, since they carry the highest risk of failure of any businesses. But here is another example of a role that everyone carries in a startup, so investors can’t imagine paying anyone uniquely to do that job.

  6. Chief Human Resources Officer (VP Personnel). This is a fancy title for a personnel manager in a large corporation who keeps track of all the hiring and firing, and has a staff to build job descriptions and personnel policy documents. In a startup, that’s your job as founder, and it’s a job you can’t afford to delegate.

  7. Chief Diversity Officer. Diversity is generally only an issue in large organizations, and if your startup is that large, investors will definitely be nervous. In general, I’ve not known diversity to be a challenge or problem in startups, especially if Gen-Y is part of the team.

  8. Chief Information Officer. All the IT work in most startups is done by a college intern, or the owner’s son. Assigning them the title of CIO seems like a bit of overkill, especially these days of serious “cloud” computing, meaning big servers have left the building.

  9. Chief Legal Officer. Also known as General Counsel, this position is an expensive one to fill and maintain. If your business is managing contracts and patents, it makes sense, but the CLO for most startups is LegalZoom on the Internet.

  10. Chief Security Officer. Here is another role that shouldn’t be so large in a startup that it needs to be a full-time task, separate from other executive roles. Frankly, the CSO role has always sounded like the warden at a prison to me, so I would be hesitant to recommend it, even to a large business.

What other strange titles have you seen? In all roles, a startup needs executives who are comfortable with daily chaos and change, rather than defining and following a repeatable formula for success. In addition, you are looking for executives who don’t need a title to get things done. They should get their satisfaction from building their business, rather than building their title.

Marty Zwilling


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Thursday, February 21, 2013

6 Keys to a Satisfied Yet Successful Entrepreneur

unsatisfiedIt’s sad when the startup is “successful,” but the founder still feels totally unsatisfied. I see it happening all the time. The business is a winner, but the family or other relationships are broken by the stress. Or the entrepreneur started down this path to be their own boss and change the world, but find they are now answering to many more people, with nothing really changed.

These issues are the major focus of a recent book, “The Plan,” by John McKee and Helen Latimer. It zeroes in specifically on the difference between being “successful” and being “satisfied” in your personal and professional lives. The authors start by asserting that many people feel more or less successful, but far fewer, even the successful ones, feel satisfied.

Their conclusion is that you need a plan for your life, as well as your business, and they discuss in detail six steps to get there. If you are an entrepreneur contemplating a startup, and you want both success and satisfaction in business, I recommend you complete these steps before you start any business plan:

  1. Identify personal gaps. Find the gaps between the life you’re living and the life you dream of living. Look at the gaps that may exist in three key life areas: the personal/ family side, the career side, and the financial side. It can be difficult to be honest about some of your own character traits. People often behave in ways they don’t understand.

  2. Determine your purpose. Your purpose defines what you stand for. This is what should guide your entrepreneurial ambitions and dreams, gives you a picture of where you are going, and help you as you set the goals. Without purpose, you certainly will find yourself feeling unsatisfied even when you achieve business success.

  3. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Most of us have a fairly good idea of our weaknesses. Few of us take the time to really understand our strengths. Review your natural talents and build on the talents you’ve developed. You will see exciting stuff – new business opportunities, new directions.

  4. Describe your dream. Many of us are clearer about what we don’t want that what we do want. Use visualization to create a very detailed picture of your dream, and write it down to see if it still makes sense. Feel what it would be like to have, be, or do what you want, to follow your purpose.

  5. Create your path. Here the solution is to create short-term milestones. Having a strong desire for something is not enough. Your desire needs to be so clear that you can see each step you need to take to reach it. Taking these steps is absolutely essential and separates those people who succeed from those who don’t.

  6. Live your best life. With the personal life plan complete, the most important step is to implement it. This is the time to have faith in yourself and begin to move towards the life you dreamed. If a business is in that plan, now is the time to start your business plan. That’s the only way to enjoy both a high level of satisfaction and success in both.

Even with all this, failures do happen. In the long run, the difference between success and failure can ultimately hinge on how you handle a failure. Don’t just repeat it in a different context, but do the work to understand it, and alter your plan. Try again – as many times as it takes. No matter how daunting. Step-by-step, day-by-day, you can get closer to your goal until you attain it.

Successful but unsatisfying professional careers are one of the primary reasons that people decide to become entrepreneurs in the first place. Thus it makes sense that before you start down the entrepreneur path, you would do some extra work to make sure you are not about to fail one more time. The last thing that this world or you needs is another successful business failure.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Entrepreneurs Need to Sell Themselves as the Brand

entrepreneur-brandThe days are gone when a techie or a genius could build things in his garage and customers would find and buy the product, based purely on the “wow factor” of the technology. New technologies are everywhere today. People have seen so much that they are blasé, or actually fear pure technology. They want a personable brand, before they will consider the product.

They are overloaded by the media with amazing advertising messages, and people now realize that you can’t believe anything you see in pictures, and even videos can be edited to deliver any message. In fact, we are all media companies now, with our cell phones, computers, and professional-looking publishing tools.

Thus customers and partners rely more and more on personal engagement with people. Social media, like Facebook, allow them to convince themselves that they are engaging on a personal level, even when they aren’t. They definitely look for more personalization, and more “me, myself, and I” in the message.

David L. Rogers talks about this phenomenon in his book, The Network is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age, and suggests some strategies to improve your perceived engagement level. I’ve focused these more towards startups and entrepreneurs:

  1. Show a personal face. Engage customers by showing a personal side and an authentic voice in digital content rather than the authoritative voice of an institution. That means a startup should never use the old-fashioned anonymous website, with no names, addresses, or personal pictures. Show people you are an approachable real person.

  2. Focus on each particular segment and need. Focus on niche audiences and their specific needs and interests, rather than trying to engage every possible customer with the same content. Use the power of available tools to provide video, interactive, and highly targeted messages to each segment of your audience, and each business partner.

  3. Try branding yourself, not selling a product. Offer a story, entertainment, or a compelling idea that you can link convincingly to your brand, rather than trying to sell products or services directly. People buy from people, and in a startup, you are the brand. Sell yourself as the expert, and business sales will follow.

  4. Offer utility to each audience member. Provide content and interaction that helps solve a problem or answers a critical information need for your audience. Avoid the abstract value calculations that don’t apply to the segment you want. Use the power of the new media to deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time.

  5. Make it an enjoyable experience. Use the interactive, goal-based play of online games to engage customers for fun, education, and relationship-building. People today are used to multitasking, and have very short attention spans. Keep the messages short and sweet.

As the digital media continue to evolve, you have to change your content rapidly to keep up. Shorter books, for example, transfer better to phones and other modern reader devices. Links and interactivity become more important as high-speed Internet access becomes pervasive on more devices and appliances.

The key is an ongoing “engage” strategy, producing relevant, sensory, and interactive content that is at the heart of your customer networks. So start now to think of your startup as a media company, rather than an outsourcer of advertising from some anonymous experts. If you can build a product, but not a brand, then you are not quite ready to start a business today.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

10 Ways for Startups to Survive the Valley of Death

valley-of-deathThe “valley of death” is a common term in the startup world, referring to the difficulty of covering the negative cash flow in the early stages of a startup, before their new product or service is bringing in revenue from real customers. I often get asked about the real alternatives to bridge this valley, and there are some good ones I will outline here.

According to a Gompers and Lerner study, the challenge is very real, with 90% of new ventures that don't attract investors failing within the first three years. The problem is that professional investors (Angels and Venture Capital) want a proven business model before they invest, ready to scale, rather than the more risky research and development efforts.

My first advice for new entrepreneurs is to pick a domain that doesn’t have the sky-high up-front development costs, like online web sites and smart phone apps. Leave the world of new computer chips and new drugs to the big companies, and people with deep pockets. For the rest of us, the following suggestions will help you survive the valley of death:

  1. Accumulate some resources before you start. It always reduces risk to plan your business first. That includes estimating the money required to get to the revenue stage, and saving money to cover costs before you jump off the cliff. Self-funding or bootstrapping is still the most common and safest approach for startups

  2. Keep your day job until revenue starts to flow. A common alternative is to work on your startup on nights and weekends, surviving the valley of death via another job, or the support of a working spouse. Of course, we all realize that this approach will take longer, and could jeopardize both roles if not managed effectively. Set expectations accordingly.

  3. Solicit funds from friends and family. After bootstrapping, friends and family are the most common funding sources for early-stage startups. As a rule of thumb, it is a required step anyway, since outside investors will not normally consider providing any funding until they see “skin in the game” from inside.

  4. Use crowd funding. The hottest new way of funding startups is to use online sites, like Kickstarter, to request donations, pre-order, get a reward, or even give equity (coming soon). If your offering is exciting enough, you may get millions in small amounts from other people on the Internet to help you fly high over the valley of death.

  5. Apply for contests and business grants. This source is a major focus these days, due to government initiatives to incent research and development on alternative energy and other technologies. The positives are that you give up no equity, and these apply to the early startup stages, but they do take time and much effort to win.

  6. Get a loan or line-of-credit. This is only a viable alternative if you have personal assets or a home you are willing to commit as collateral to back the loan or credit card. In general, banks won’t give you a loan until the business is cash-flow positive, no matter what the future potential. Nevertheless, it’s an option that doesn’t cost you equity.

  7. Join a startup incubator. A startup incubator is a company, university, or other organization which provides resources for equity to nurture young companies, helping them to survive and grow during the startup period when they are most vulnerable. These resources often include a cash investment, as well as office space, and consulting.

  8. Barter your services for their services. Bartering technically means exchanging goods or services as a substitute for money. An example would be getting free office space by agreeing to be the property manager for the owner. Exchanging your services for services is possible with legal counsel, accountants, engineers, and even sales people.

  9. Joint venture with distributor or beneficiary. A related or strategically interested company may see the value of your product as complementary to theirs, and be willing to advance funding very early, which can be repaid when you develop your revenue stream later. Consider licensing your product or intellectual property, and “white labeling.”

  10. Commit to a major customer. Find a customer who would benefit greatly from getting your product first, and be willing to advance you the cost of development, based on their experience with you in the past. The advantage to the customer is that he will have enough control to make sure it meets his requirements, and will get dedicated support.

The good news is that the cost for new startups is at an all-time low. In the early days (20 years ago), most new e-commerce sites cost a million dollars to set up. Now the price is closer to $100, if you are willing to do the work yourself. Software apps that once required a 10-person team can now be done with the Lean Development methodology by two people in a couple of months.

The bad news is that the valley’s depth before real revenue, considering the high costs of marketing, manufacturing, and sales, can still add up to $500K, on up to $1 million or more, before you will be attractive to Angel investors or venture capital.

In reality, the financing valley of death tests the commitment, determination, and problem solving ability of every entrepreneur. It’s the time when you create tremendous value out of nothing. It’s what separates the true entrepreneurs from the wannabes. Yet, in many ways, this starting period is the most satisfying time you will ever have as an entrepreneur. Are you ready to start?

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, February 18, 2013

Don’t Let Early Adopters Distract Your Market Focus

camera-focusFor most new high-tech products, the first customers are always “early adopters.” The conventional wisdom is that early adopters are the ideal target for new products, to get business rolling. I see two pitfalls with any concerted focus on early adopters; first, the size of this group may not be as large as you think, and secondly, their feedback may lead you directly away from your real target market of mainstream customers.

The term “early adopters” relates to the people who are eager to try almost any new technology products, and originates from Everett M. Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations book. Early adopters are usually no more than 10%-15% of the ultimate market potential, and marketing to them may be necessary, but not sufficient in marketing to the mainstream. Witness the market struggle for 3DTV acceptance over the past couple of years.

The good news is these people will readily provide candid feedback to help you refine future product releases, and push towards new features, increased control, and interoperability. The bad news is that they hardly ever push towards simplicity and increased usability needed by the masses.

The result can easily be the classic death spiral, driven by a small but vocal portion of your market, for more and more features, when you can least afford it in time or money. Equally bad, implementation of input from a few early adopters can actually prevent your products from being adopted by the majority, as follows:

  • Minimizing value of usability features. Features you designed for average users, like wizards for configuration, and simple buttons to eliminate complex processes, will get no feedback, or removal recommendations. Early adopters like to see tricky and elegant details, rather than general usability.
  • Increased control and flexibility. Product suggestions by early adopters often ask for increased user control over details of the technology. However, each increase in control that you hand over to the users also increases user interface complexity, and the opportunity for pitfalls for the average user.
  • Emphasis on engineering robustness. Early adopters love the technology, sometimes to a fault. Technical issues, like execution speed, file size, and memory usage are typical examples that always need further optimization. At some point it becomes compulsive engineering, rather than engineering to increase value for the average user.
  • Higher product price. They want new features automating complicated but obscure tasks. These features will likely be used by only a tiny fraction of the entire user base, but increase complexity for everyone. Early adopters are normally less price sensitive, so may mislead you in finalizing your pricing model.

The dilemma that we all face is that the most valuable customers might be the least vocal (silent majority). The users who scream the loudest are usually a minority segment. The challenge of every business is to proactively seek out a cross section of core users and ask them for feedback, rather than responding to random noise.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you ignore early adopters. Simply recognize them as a specific and important small market segment, and treat them with respect. Early adopters have money, and if they like your product, they’re generally very vocal about it and provide invaluable word-of-mouth press. You need their evangelism and passion to get enough momentum to start attracting mainstream consumers.

So don’t be lulled into complacency by early adopters as your first customers. Temper your feedback assessments, product changes, and marketing strategy to the mainstream market. Ten percent of your projected market won’t make either you or your investors very happy.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Myths Prevent Entrepreneur Thinking About Employees

army-of-entrepreneursEvery startup lucky enough to get some traction gets to the point where they decide to hire some “regular employees” for sales, marketing, and administrative tasks. Then they are surprised to see productivity and creativity take a big dip. What they should be doing is hiring only “entrepreneurs,” meaning people who think and act as if this is their own business.

This commitment to hire people who think like entrepreneurs, or instill an “owner’s mindset” in every employee, should be a high priority in every business. It’s what every customer looks for in every transaction. Most people will tell you this is impossible, but I found a recent book, “Army of Entrepreneurs,” by Jennifer Prosek, where she seems to have actually accomplished this.

I like how she was able to motivate, train, and reward employees, including the implementation of an incentive program to get every member of the team actively involved in generating new business. She also identifies the typical myths against using this approach, and describes how to overcome each one:

  • “Entrepreneurs are born, not made.” The reality is that all entrepreneurial skills are learnable skills. The entrepreneurial mindset is a function of motivation, priorities, and risk versus reward, all of which you set or enable by your leadership and example. Hire employees who have strong skills, with the motivation to learn new ones.
  • “Employees will care only about work they create.” This is really an issue of the quality of the people you hire rather than the management or compensation system. The key is to hire people with the right mindset, and communicate it daily to your whole team, by your actions as well as your words.
  • “Junior people shouldn’t be involved in new business.” This is the platitude of an obsolete corporate culture where you had to “pay your dues” in menial jobs before adding creativity or making decisions. In today’s marketplace, junior staffers are often the most intimately connected to the market, technology, and the customer network.
  • “Employees will lose focus on their work.” Old management models encourage employees to optimize their own task, often at the expense of the overall company objectives. There is new evidence that people want to understand the bigger picture, and business growth financial incentives will increase productivity, rather than lower it.
  • “Sales will be the organization’s sole focus.” Again, you get what you demand and reward. If sales are the only way to get rewarded in your organization, then sales will take precedence over other activities. Motivate for a spectrum of entrepreneurial behaviors, and you will see results.
  • “We don’t need to reward lead generation.” For a startup, you don’t have a recognized brand to bring in the leads. All businesses need to proactively seek leads, rather than simply attract them, with the creativity and initiatives of every employee rewarded for every contribution.
  • “There is too much risk associated with decentralized decision making.” When you have to move and change quickly to survive, centralized decision making is too slow. You become the bottleneck. If you train people properly, empower them, trust them, and they understand the business, your evolving business can become a revolution.

Every large company wishes they could harness the power of a thousand entrepreneurs within their employee ranks to re-create the exceptional business growth they once knew. Instead, for growth, most have resigned themselves to buying startups that exhibit these characteristics.

Thus, the last thing you need as a growing startup is a “regular employee.” Hire entrepreneurs like you, grow like an entrepreneurial company, and stand above competitors in the acquisition process to carry that fire forward. That’s a win-win for everyone in this new culture and new economy.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, February 16, 2013

9 Entrepreneur Lessons Not Taught in the Classroom

Robert-MurrayEntrepreneurship is all about leading – leading customers to a new product or service, leading a startup team to peak performance, and leading a new business to the market opportunity, while providing maximum return to stakeholders. Most entrepreneurs feel they have innate leadership talents, but struggle with how to nurture these abilities and measure their effectiveness.

Since I believe that a large part of leadership is personal confidence and initiative, I was drawn to a new leadership book by Robert S. Murray, “It’s Already Inside.” His focus and belief is that anyone can nurture their innate leadership abilities, to achieve business and life success. The key is learning from the life lessons of others, something you never get in classrooms.

He hits many of the key lessons that I have learned from my own experience, and feedback from great leaders, in both large businesses as well as startups. These include the following:

  1. Practicing authentic leadership versus fake leadership. Authenticity requires honesty, self awareness, and a selfless perspective. Authentic entrepreneurs lead through the power of personal influence, rather than coercion. Fakers rely on position, authority, and manipulation – leading to short-term gain and long-term loss.

  2. It all starts with a vision, but you have to execute. Vision provides direction so your startup won’t just flail about. As you communicate your vision to stakeholders, you will strengthen your own belief and get buy-in from them. But above all, leadership is defined by action. You have to execute to succeed, so trust yourself and start moving forward.

  3. The importance of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, reflectively, and independently. Critical thinking is not just accumulating information, and should not be confused with being critical of other people. Entrepreneurs need to practice critical thinking to be leaders, rather than following conventional wisdom.

  4. Leadership comes with building and nurturing the right team. Entrepreneurs not only have to pick the right team members, but have to continually communicate the vision, tasks required, and provide mentoring and feedback to each member. Don’t focus on the product, and assume the team will come along by osmosis.

  5. Pretend to be a customer or client of the business you lead. Successful entrepreneurs practice stepping back to look at their business the way customers see it for the first time. It obviously helps to ask new customers what they see. Then it takes humility to swallow your pride and your biases, and make improvements regularly.

  6. Coaching and mentoring are key to the leadership role. A good leader will make sure that each person is getting exactly what they need for their role and their maturity. Depending on the individual, the entrepreneur may look like a dictator, a high school coach, a mentor, or a country club host. People ignored see no leadership.

  7. The importance of listening well. More entrepreneurs need to practice leadership by walking around (LBWA), and truly listening to the people on their frontline, as well as listening to customers, partners, investors, and vendors. It’s hard to listen while you are talking, and many people seem adept at listening without really hearing anything.

  8. Time for solutions versus problems. It’s easy to become so overwhelmed by the day-to-day problems of running a business that you have no time to work on solutions or strategy that will give you greater leverage and long-term success. Ask each member of your team to be the CEO of his own problems, and you will take time for the solutions.

  9. Know when to overreact or under-react. Real leaders stay in control of their emotions, and use reactions to highlight a point. For example, startup leaders should probably overreact to values violations, and under-react to the next crisis. Always reflect before you react. You don’t learn that in the classroom.

World-class entrepreneurship will never be learned totally in the classroom. It takes hard work, lots of practice, and lots of mistakes. It takes focus to become both a student and a teacher of leadership. You will soon be amazed by how things start to fall into place, despite what you don’t know. That’s the innate leadership coming out. Enjoy it.

Marty Zwilling


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Thursday, February 14, 2013

7 Steps to Achieving Entrepreneurial Lifetime Goals

Brian-Tracy-speaksSuccessful entrepreneurs are usually hard-driving, and highly focused on some specific goals, like being the dominant player in a given domain, or the low-priced provider of their product. Yet other entrepreneurs will talk for hours about all their ideas, and how they intend to change the world, but I don’t hear any specific goals or milestones.

Many people are very hesitant to set specific goals, due to lack of self-confidence or whatever. The result is that they don’t ever get anywhere, because they never really knew where they wanted to go. If you find yourself in this category, try the following simple steps highlighted by Brian Tracy in “No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline”:

  1. Decide exactly what you want. If you want to increase your income, decide on a specific amount of money, rather than just “make more money.” Without precise goals, you can’t measure progress, and you miss the real satisfaction of knowing when to declare success.

  2. Write it down. A goal that is not written down is like cigarette smoke; it drifts away and disappears. It is vague and insubstantial. It has no force, effect, or power. It’s too easy to forget or push aside when outside forces arise that you hadn’t anticipated – and they will. On the other hand, most people don’t hesitate to write down excuses.

  3. Set a deadline with specific milestones. Pick a reasonable time period and write down the date when you want to achieve it. If it is a big enough goal, set intermediate milestones for measurement reference points. The rule is “There are no unrealistic goals; there are only unrealistic deadlines.” Don’t be afraid to change the deadline – for cause.

  4. Make a list of things you need to do to achieve your goal. The biggest goal can be accomplished if you break it down into enough small steps. Make a list of obstacles and difficulties, knowledge and skills required, necessary people, and everything you will have to do to meet the goal. Add to these lists as you learn more.

  5. Organize your list by both sequence and priority. A list organized by sequence requires that you decide what you need to do in what order. A list organized by priority enables you to determine what is more important. Then develop a business plan which embodies all of the above.

  6. Take action on your plan immediately. Don’t delay. Move quickly. Procrastination is the thief of time, and it shortens your life. Winners in life take the first step now. They are willing to overcome their normal fear of failure and disappointment, and take a small step, and then other one, until they reach the goal.

  7. Do something every day that moves you in the direction of your major goal. This is the key step that will guarantee your success. Do something every day that moves you at least one step closer to the goal. In this fashion, you develop momentum, which further motivates, inspires, and energizes you. Soon it becomes automatic and easier.

You can’t control the future, and that’s not the purpose of goal setting. It’s also a recipe for failure to assume that the path to your goal will require suffering and sacrifice. In fact, the whole objective of all steps above is to allow you to avoid stress and suffering, and be more fully motivated by your progress.

As you adopt a goal-setting mindset, you will find yourself setting different kinds of goals. These are lifetime goals, not just a collection of near-term objectives. It’s these really big objectives, that seem unachievable even to you right now, that will inspire you the most, and motivate you to real success and happiness.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Government Grants Cost No Equity, But are Not Free

government-grantIn the US, many entrepreneurs see grants as “free money,” since they are not loans and don’t have to be repaid. A grant is not an equity investment, so the entrepreneur doesn’t have to give up a stake in the company either. Typically they can be used to fund product development and commercialization that would otherwise require outside investors.

A good place to start looking is the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is a lifeline for high-tech startups. A more general approach is to check out Grants.gov, which is a searchable directory of more than 1,000 federal grant programs. An advanced search tool is provided to search for a grant by eligibility, by issuing agency, or category.

Grants start as small a few thousand dollars, but can provide millions of dollars in capital to new ventures. But before you conclude that your funding problems are solved with grants, you should consider the direct and indirect costs of grant funding:

  • Grant applications are bureaucratic. Even experienced people dealing with grants tell me that it can take a couple of months of concerted effort to gather data, fill out the forms, and get the necessary certifications to submit a credible grant application. That is time and resource that you must add to the million other high-priority startup tasks.

  • Processing and approvals take time. If you meet all the requirements, complete all the paperwork, and submit your grant application today, it will likely be six to nine months before you see any money. In today’s fast moving technology world, that may give your competitor the edge, or your startup may wither and die waiting.

  • Professional help costs money. Of course, there are “experts” at grant preparation, available for a fee, and even people who can introduce you to key decision makers in the grant approval process. For all the value of a large grant, isn’t it worth a small investment to get your application “on the fast path,” and optimize your selection probabilities?

  • Stringent spending controls. Since government grants are funded by tax dollars for specific industries and research, usage of grant funds is carefully monitored. For example, federal and state governments don’t provide grants for starting a business, paying off debts, or covering operational expenses. Violations can lead to jail time.

Here are a few tips that I would recommend to startup clients, on how to position themselves for funding success through grants:

  1. Use local university connections. For university professors, grants are their lifeblood, and they know the process well. They need you, since grants associated with commercializing products are favored over ones allocated simply for academic study and papers. If they do the application for you, and get to publish the results, that’s a win-win situation.

  2. Pursue grants and investors in parallel. Putting your grant application intent and status in you business plan will greatly enhance your potential to get Angel funding for the interim. To the investors, it means less dilution and lower overall risk.

  3. Research related tax credits and incentives. You need to enhance your business plan and marketing with all the benefits to your customers of the multiple “stimulus” plans and tax breaks now being put together, especially related to alternative energy products.

  4. Extend your networking. Let’s face it, the business world and the political world are getting tightly intertwined. It’s time for you to meet state and local government officials, make them aware of what you are doing, and get them excited and working for you.

Money has always been tight for high-tech entrepreneurs who need to raise capital from investors willing to gamble on a new idea. But the situation is more critical now, with venture capital flat or down, and Angels still in short supply. Now is the time to get on the grant bandwagon, but do it with your eyes open, and budget for it.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Women Bring Their Own Style to the Startup World

Ginni-RomettyDo you think men make better entrepreneurs than women, and why? I did some research on this subject a while back, and I found some interesting perspectives. Everyone seems to agree that women think differently than men, and run their businesses differently, but there is a lot less agreement on which styles are better or worse.

First of all, it is evident that there are far fewer women entrepreneurs today than men. According to a recent article in the Huffington Post, last year marked a new high for female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, but the percentage big companies run by women is still less than 4%. In startups and small companies, the numbers are much better, but still estimated to be below 25%.

Yet, according to a study by the Center for Women’s Business Research, the number of female-run firms is growing twice as fast as all the rest, so women are catching up. The latest big-company addition was Ginni Rometty, who was promoted into both top titles at IBM in 2012.

Back to how entrepreneurial styles differ between the sexes, here are some observations I found from various sources on styles, not necessarily better or worse:

  1. Leadership style. There are clear differences between males and females in their management and leadership styles, probably reflecting their genetics. Distinguishing traits of male leaders are autonomy, independence, and competition, while those of women are relations, interdependence, and cooperation. Both have their advantages.

  2. Operational style. For operational purposes, men move quicker, are more analytical, more focused and concentrate more on the short term and on rules. In contrast, women generally gather more data, consider their context, think more long-term, and rely also on their intuitive and sympathizing characteristics. No comments on which is better.

  3. Organizational style. Status and rank are important for men, whereas women are more comfortable working in a flat hierarchy. The structure of preferred by males resembles a hierarchy or pyramid, where authority stems from one’s position within the hierarchy, and emphasis is more upon goals and objectives than on the process.

  4. Business relationship style. For men, business relationships are more competitive, and power is enhanced through control of information, which may be hoarded rather than shared. Women have larger social networks, for advice and resources, and relationships with other business women are more nurturing than competitive.

  5. Emotional style. The biggest surprise for me was the finding that men seek larger "emotional" networks - the complex of associations that provide warmth, praise, and encouragement. Also men tend to show more emotion in business than women do, as a form of domination and intimidation.

  6. Investment style. Most of the venture capitalists and angel investors I know are male. Women seem to network for the sake of relationships, and they will invest in support of these relationships, but have less interest in business opportunity investments. Men network for the sake of utility.

  7. Motivational style. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women’s self-image seldom includes entrepreneurship. Women are more likely to be motivated to pursue an startup career to balance family and career, while men are more likely to be motivated by wealth accumulation and career advancement.

We know, of course, that in the real world, it all comes down to the individual, not how many X chromosomes that he or she has. As I contemplate the differences in style listed above, it seems that in fact they are complementary – yin and yang – like masculine and feminine, rather than right or wrong. Societal trends actually seem to be favoring the women these days.

The implication is that entrepreneurs of either sex would do well to find a business partner on the other side, capitalizing on the other dimension, rather than engage in a battle of the sexes. Wars are no fun for either side.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, February 11, 2013

10 Sage Quotes From $100M Entrepreneur Winners

Robert-JordanEntrepreneurs are a notoriously stubborn (some say confident) group of people, so I see many of them making the same mistakes that predecessors have made. Thus I’m convinced that it’s useful for all of you to step back from time to time, and listen to some sage advice from people who have been there and enjoyed success.

Recently, as I was perusing a book by Robert Jordan, titled “How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights” I saw some wisdom and inspiration that made sense. All the quotes come from entrepreneurs who have built and sold at least one $100 million company. Of course, you can always argue that each was just in the right place at the right time, or was lucky, or had a rich uncle to get them started, but it would be smarter to listen to the messages:

  1. You need enough capital and a little more. “Everything isn’t going to go well in the first couple of years, and you need to get to cash flow positive. You don’t want to be going back for a second round when everything isn’t going well” (J William DeVille, Health Personnel Options).

  2. You need to see the glass half full, rather than half empty. “You have to have the perspective and the personality that, when these bumps, mountains or doglegs happen, you don’t focus on everything that’s wrong. You continue to be optimistic and to move forward to solve the problems” (Bonnie Baskin, ViroMed Laboratories, AppTec).

  3. Surround yourself with great folks, and it gets a lot easier. “You’re very hesitant to fire your first employees, but a lot of times the company outgrows their abilities or takes on a different direction. I tell everyone that the only constant around here is change” (David Becker, Virtual Financial Services).

  4. You can be a leader without being the best at everything. “Like in basketball – you don’t need to be the best outside shooter or the big guy. You can play a role. Working with others, giving people credit. Give and take. Knowing how to make hard decisions” (Jeff Aronin, Ovation Pharmaceuticals).

  5. Execution is everything. “Even if you start a business with the wrong idea or too many competitors, you can out-execute all the other ideas in the right market. What I mean by execution is the ability to do what you’re setting out to do and then being able to zig when the market zags” (Dick Costolo, FeedBurner).

  6. You learn more from bad times than from good. “You learn more from complaints than from compliments. I always discount compliments I get from customers because I think a lot of times they’re just being nice. The complaints – those are real” (Jim Dolan, The Dolan Company).

  7. At some point, you need to let go of control. “Many founders think they need to be in control even when the company has evolved beyond them. You need to know your limitations and, if necessary, find people who are more adept at running the company and taking it to the next level” (Tony Faras, MGI Pharma).

  8. You are who you hire. “If the person who hired you is smart and nice, the people that person hires will be smart and nice. If the person who does the hiring is smart and a jerk, you’re going to end up with a log of smart jerks” (Ron Galowich, First Health).

  9. A business needs momentum. “You try to think ahead and be sure that whatever surprises come up, you are prepared to move ahead aggressively and positively. The last thing an entrepreneur wants when starting a business is to lose momentum” (Bill Bantz, Pathogenesis).

  10. Ship early and iterate. “Get some kind of product out early so that you start getting feedback from customers. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket because you’re doomed if that launch fails. With feedback you can hone your products” (Roland Green, NimbleGen)

Robert interviewed a total of 45 successful entrepreneurs responsible for $41 billion in value, so this is just a sample of the insights he found. I certainly don’t advocate that you take all the advice you hear from these leaders, but it always pays to listen for a nugget that fits your case. Underneath every nugget, there’s likely more buried treasure hiding. Go for the gold in your company!

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Even Virtual Startup Teams Must Work Closely

Yael ZofiAlmost every startup is a virtual team these days, since most don’t start out with dedicated office space, and some or all members of the team work part-time or out of their own home. It’s a small world, so these team members may not even be in the same town, or the same country. Outsourcing is just another extension of the virtual team concept to people you don’t even know.

Working effectively with a virtual team of any sort has many challenges. How do entrepreneurs establish and maintain rapport with people they rarely see, and team members who have never met? How do they keep track of what everyone is doing and assure effective communication between all team members?

Experts on this subject, including Yael Zofi, in her recent book, “A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams,” has identified eight key characteristics of high-performing virtual teams, which every startup founder should understand and enable:

  1. Members exhibit a global mindset – they look outward, not inward. Effective virtual leaders widen their focus from the local to the global, which implicitly creates an environment of respect. Respect engenders buy-in, without which members can’t take ownership of work product and work toward a common goal.

  2. Members share responsibility for achieving the mission. High performing teams have a sense of purpose where members internalize their piece of the mission, thereby transcending the isolation that defines working in a virtual environment. Team members develop an understanding about their mutual dependence to achieve objectives.

  3. A culture of openness facilitates trust and authenticity. Effective founders work to create and maintain an environment of team trust to defuse miscommunications. They focus on behaviors, not on personalities, because they know this engenders trust. Then they “say what they mean and mean what they say” to model authenticity.

  4. Members engage in meaningful communication with each other. High-performing virtual teams establish and maintain standards on frequency and modes of communication, and hold members accountable for acting accordingly. They also regularly use synchronous communication at critical points to speak with each other.

  5. An easy flow of information exists using various forms of technology. Everyone must have access to appropriate technology to enable reliable, current exchanges of information. The amount of “pushed” information (unfiltered e-mails and phone calls) to team members is lower than “pulled” data (e-bulletin boards and intranets).

  6. A conflict management mechanism. Conflicts are inevitable, and when even simple miscommunications don’t get acknowledged and fixed, trust gets eroded. The founder or leader must actively engage team members early, and follow up to ensure appropriate resolution. When this happens, lengthy energy-draining confrontations are avoided.

  7. Work systems produce deliverables within defined constraints. When team members are geographically dispersed, a rigorous effort is required by all team members to coordinate and align components of critical work systems to meet deadlines within time and budgetary constraints.

  8. Members have a positive “can do” attitude that spans time and distance. They must all assume their efforts will lead to success. When conflicts and tensions arise, as they inevitably do, members hold these situations within the context of the larger picture and look to quickly find solutions, rather than assign blame.

Technology has made virtual teams an everyday reality for entrepreneurs. Your challenge is to reduce the “virtual distance” between team members to zero, using personal communication, appropriate technology, and clear goals to maintain member satisfaction, collaboration, and innovation. Have you measured the virtual distance to your team members lately?

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, February 9, 2013

5 Ways to Keep the Right Customers for Your Startup

pumpkin-planMost startups are happy to find any customer, and will hang on for dear life to every one. Only later do they realize that some of these cost more than they are worth, or lead into commitments they can’t sustain, but no business wants to violate the golden rule that every customer needs to be treated as if they were the only customer.

In reality, the real world is full of pragmatics. Every smart entrepreneur needs to realize that trying to treat every customer the same, with limited resources, may mean that you are treating them all poorly, or at least limiting your own growth. Mike Michalowicz, in his latest satirical book “The Pumpkin Plan,” makes some excellent points with the analogy of how growing a business is like a farmer who struggles to grow championship-size pumpkins.

They generally treat all pumpkins with respect, but they don’t treat them all the same. Likewise, you have to rank your customers, fire the troublemakers, and eliminate unfit ones. Then you can focus your energy on the core client group, and keep these folks so happy that they will never leave you for the competition. Here are some key principles he recommends along the way:

  1. Favoritism . . . it’s a good thing. Playing favorites is nothing to feel guilty about. It’s simply good business, and mandatory for your success. Your top clients or customers need to know they are special, to feel special. Go out of your way to help them grow their own business. Don’t try to make every pumpkin a giant pumpkin, because it never works.

  2. The customer isn’t always right. But the right customer is always right. Make them your favorites. Think of your business as a membership organization, with reasonable rules to join. The rules are for you and your team only, so no potential customer needs to feel excluded. Your goal is to grow every joining member into a record-breaking pumpkin.

  3. Under-promise and over-deliver. This ability seems to be a lost art these days, which makes it so powerful in making your special customers feel special. Masters of this process plan to have the work done before it’s due, so there is no panic and no freaking out. Remember, you will be measured by your actions, not your words.

  4. Don’t hide the secret sauce. With the Internet, the days are gone when you could hide your key advantage, to keep competitors from catching up. Be the first to share the knowledge that demonstrates you are better. Secrets make people nervous. The more they trust you, the more they rely on you, buy from you, and sell for you.

  5. Keep yourself an inch ahead of your competition. It only takes an extra pound to beat the world record. Equal isn’t good enough. But manage your focus and resources carefully to be a little bit better, a little bit more helpful, and a little bit more creative for the long haul, as well as for the moment. Both you and your customers will be the winners.

On the other side of this equation, how do you fire a customer that doesn’t fit your business? Mike suggests the following approaches, which do take effort and discipline, and need to work within accepted norms and legal business practices:

  • Prioritize the stars. When the best clients call, they get services first. The cringe-worthy customers get pushed to the back of the line. Each will get the message you are trying to send, and you will have the differentiation you want.

  • Eliminate services. Sometimes this simply means you need the will power to not accept customer requests that you can’t satisfy. Another approach is to explain that you have shifted all your resources to another segment, and can no longer help this customer.

  • Raise prices. If you really want to see bad clients run for the hills, raise your prices. If your prices go up, your perceived value will go up, and you may no longer be the whipping boy of commodity customers. Point them to big-box providers for low prices.

  • Refuse to two-time. Another way of breaking ties with a demanding client is to explain that you have an agreement with a major client that prohibits you from servicing anyone else any longer. Introduce them to an alternate vendor, to make it positive.

The net message from “The Pumpkin Plan” is to plant the right seeds, weed out the losers, and nurture the winners, for maximum growth. Discover the unfulfilled needs of the customers you want, innovate to make their wishes come true, and over-deliver on every single promise. Just be aware that it’s easier said than done. Maybe it’s time to take an audit in your own startup, to check your own words versus actions, and the results.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Not All Entrepreneurs are Cut From the Same Cloth

entrepreneur-dnaAnyone who works with entrepreneurs will tell you that all are different. Some are really inventors, who view the challenges of building a business as a necessary evil. Others are really marketers out to make money fast, and believe that they can entice customers to any offering. Some just want to change the world and make it a better place. But none have any lock on success.

I’ve always wondered if there was some way that I could quickly deduce a new entrepreneur’s “sweet spot,” and optimize my mentoring to those strengths and weaknesses, maybe similar to the Myers-Briggs type indicator for business professionals. I just saw an interesting step in that direction via a new book “Entrepreneurial DNA,” by Joe Abraham, with his assessment web site.

His framework seems to be picking up some traction, and is already in use informally by several entrepreneurship platforms, including StartupAmerica, and CoFoundersLab. His methodology measures an entrepreneur’s fit or DNA in each of four quadrants – Builder, Opportunist, Specialist, and Innovator (BOSI), defined at a high level as follows:

  1. Builder. The Builder loves building a business from the ground up. These are the ultimate chess players in the game of business, always looking to be two or three moves ahead of the competition. They are often described as driven, focused, cold, ruthless, and calculating. Many might say Donald Trump epitomizes this category.

  2. Opportunist. The Opportunist is the speculative part of the entrepreneur in all of us. It’s that part of our being that wants to be in the right place at the right time, leveraging timing to make as much money as possible. If you ever felt enticed to jump into a quick money deal, like a real-estate quick-flip, or an IPO, that was your Opportunist side showing.

  3. Specialist. The Specialist entrepreneur will enter one industry and stick with it for 15 to 30 years. They build strong expertise, but often struggle to stand out in a crowded marketplace of competitors. Picture the graphic designer, the IT expert, or the independent accountant or attorney. We all know many good ones here.

  4. Innovator. You will usually find the Innovator entrepreneur in the “lab” of the business working on their invention, recipe, concept, system, or product that can be built into one or many businesses. The challenge with an Innovator is to focus as hard on the business realities as the product possibilities. Too many Innovators are like Dean Kamen, still struggling with the Segway Human Transporter, while holding 440 other device patents.

Of course, discovering your entrepreneur type is only the beginning. After that, it’s all about capitalizing on your strengths, shoring up your weaknesses, and building a personal plan that doesn’t work against you. The drivers for your strategic plan come from at least four directions:

  • World of experts (books, consultants, webinars). You go all over the country, the world, and the Web searching for “best practices” in marketing, finance, planning, and funding. Ultimately, most get the best help from business advisors and mentors.
  • Internal forces (your startup team). Every human being internal to your business and investors bring a certain culture. Some are very positive. Others are more conservative or even negative. Sometimes you inherit the culture from family and predecessors.
  • External forces (competitors and customers). All too often, entrepreneurs set their strategy around what competitors are doing. Or they get strong feedback from early adopters and outspoken customers who may not be representative of the real potential.
  • Prospects (potential opportunity). In the pressure of early revenue, it’s easy to be bent toward what’s in front of you today, rather than follow your strength and your vision. Serving prospects that don’t fit your entrepreneur type, like moving away from your specialty, can be a disastrous strategy.

Overall, I see real value in using this methodology in conjunction with incubators, business accelerators, and mentoring. I’m not yet convinced that anyone has a fully automated system that will nail your entrepreneurial DNA, and make you succeed, despite the unpredictable business and personal realities.

But I see a real opportunity here for every entrepreneur to optimize his impact, and his personal satisfaction, with a minimum of effort. I challenge each of you to take a hard look at what makes you tick. Is your strategic plan (if you have one) a wishful dream or a perfect match for your DNA?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Young Entrepreneur on 01/28/2013 ***


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