Sunday, March 31, 2013

7 Ways to Grow from a Smart to a Wise Entrepreneur

prasad-kaipaMost of the entrepreneurs I have met are smart, but many are not always wise. That means they may show great insights into a new technology that has marginal business value, their passion may motivate team members more than customers, or they may allow themselves to be pulled over the ethical line in their success drive. Wise leaders are authentic, timeless, and enduring.

Of course, experience is the ultimate teacher of the differences between smart and wise. But none of us can afford to make that many mistakes, so it helps to understand the basic principles that are key to making wise, as well as smart, decisions. In a new book on this subject, “From Smart to Wise,” Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou offer some great observations, based on their years of research and consulting experience with hundreds of leaders.

I’ve summarized their basic principles here, in the context of early-stage entrepreneurs and startups, in the hope of providing a head start, and fewer mistakes to recover from, for every entrepreneur:

  1. Broaden your perspective for your passion, to the greater good. Perspective is what defines us, and shapes our thoughts and actions. For technologists it drives the passion to take new ideas to new realities. Wise leaders tend to connect their worldview and ideas, to help everyone find a larger meaning in life. Steve Jobs espoused this principle.

  2. Act authentically and appropriately as your perspective changes. Wise entrepreneurs are sensitive to the context they operate in and fine-tune their actions accordingly, while continuing to serve their higher purpose. They never forget their moral compass, and maintain credibility by always bridging the saying-versus-doing gap.

  3. Learn to perform any role well, without forgetting who you really are. We all know a smart entrepreneur who wouldn’t give up the CEO role, and lost the company. Wise leaders give up an existing role when it is time. They willingly act as trustees or servant leaders in whatever actions and roles they accept. Bill Gates seems to fit this model.

  4. Expand horizons to make every decision win-win versus win-lose. Smart leaders tend to make decisions instinctively, based on their own experience, with little attention to the larger context. Wise decisions win in the long run for the broader purpose, as well as problem at hand. Don’t let practical execution or emotions sway strategic deliberations.

  5. Know when to hold and when to fold, with flexible fortitude. Many smart leaders tend to stick with a decision, without any re-alignment to a rapidly changing external context. Wise leaders show courage in following the context, and grace in letting go when appropriate. This flexible fortitude keeps them aligned with the long-term benefit.

  6. Act and lead with enlightened self-interest, to serve others. This world is now too complex for one entrepreneur to have all the resources and products needed to satisfy their customers. That means nurturing partnerships and cooperation with competition, for the greater good. It’s a move from pure self-interest to enlightened self-interest.

  7. Strive to create your own authentic path to wise leadership. First adopt the six leadership elements including perspective, action orientation, role clarity, decision logic, fortitude, and motivation. Then integrate these in your own path to wise leadership, building wise cross-functional teams, wise organizations, and wise communities.

Smart people impress us all with their intellectual power and uncanny ability to achieve their goals. But smartness alone is not always sufficient to keep entrepreneurs out of trouble and sustain their success. Wise entrepreneurs ultimately are the ones that create lasting value for both stakeholders and society.

Evolving from smart to wise requires nothing more than reflecting on the best practices of other wise entrepreneurs and practicing them appropriately in your own personal journey and roles. Now is the time to measure where you are along the path, and build the roadmap for your journey. Have you assessed your leadership style lately against these principles?

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, March 30, 2013

How Entrepreneurial Instincts Can Boost Your Career

career-startupThe days when you locked and loaded your career in school, and then blasted away down that same narrow path the rest of your life, are gone, never to return. Career survival today requires thinking and acting like an entrepreneur starting a business, staying nimble and resilient, willing to pivot, and supersensitive to the market realities of supply and demand.

Over the years I have spent mentoring entrepreneurs and startups, I often notice the similarities between successful professionals managing their careers and successful entrepreneurs building a business. Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, helped me crystallize these similarities with his book “The Start-up of You.” Here are key survival skills for both lifestyles:

  1. Adopt the mindset of a permanent beta. Finished ought to be an F-word for all of us. We are all works in progress. Each day presents an opportunity to learn more, do more, be more, and grow more in our lives and careers. Keeping your career in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, and intend to improve yourself.

  2. Regularly assess and refine your competitive advantage. Your competitive advantage is the interplay of three different, ever-changing forces – your assets, aspirations and values, and the market realities of supply and demand. Smart professionals constantly assess the market, and strengthen and diversify skills.

  3. Plan to pivot as you learn. Change is the only constant in this world, and every change is an opportunity to learn. Plan to adapt, and start it every day on the side. Don’t wait for something to fail before you learn, or before you consider a change or pivot. The best pivots are to take advantage of an upside, rather than avoid a downside.

  4. Build and use your network. World-class professionals don’t try to take on the world alone. People playing a solo game will always lose out to a team. Successful entrepreneurs are ones who put together the best teams. Build your network with people smarter than you. With effective networking, who you know is what you know.

  5. Pursue breakout opportunities. Success begins with opportunities, but these mean nothing unless you execute on them. Others taking breakout opportunities can be dismissed as lucky, but more often it’s the result of their work to be at the right place at the right time, with the right mindset. Be curious, confident, and willing to learn.

  6. Take intelligent risks. We are all risk takers. But we are not all equally intelligent about how we do it. In a changing world, minimizing risk is one of the riskiest things you can do. The most intelligent risks are those where the potential downside is limited, but the potential upside is virtually unlimited. Those are the risks every business jumps to take.

  7. Maintain that sense of urgency. Entrepreneurs know that in business, change overtakes the best of big companies, and even startups have to maintain a sense of urgency to stay ahead of the curve. For every professional, opportunities come and go at an astonishing speed, so only a continuing sense of urgency will keep you alert.

In addition to you and the network around you, there is a broader environment that shapes your career potential. It’s the local culture and society around you. So think carefully about where you choose to live and work, or where you choose to start a business. Your maximum potential may be in another place in the global environment, or as a volunteer versus an employee role.

In the bigger picture, I’m convinced that we were all born as entrepreneurs, with the instincts listed above to survive, grow, and prosper. How many of these career survival instincts have you used lately to deal with the changes we all see?

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, March 29, 2013

Running Your Own Startup Comes With Accountability

accountabilityEveryone seems to like the aspect of being an entrepreneur that goes with “being your own boss” and “able to do things my way.” But sometimes they forget that this kind of freedom comes with a price of personal accountability. Accountability means “the buck stops here,” and “all the failures are mine.”

Too many people seem to do whatever it takes to avoid accountability, both before and after the fact. I suspect that this is largely caused by a fear of the unknown, and a lack of confidence in their own abilities. People with confidence problems and fear problems should avoid the entrepreneur role, since success without accountability is rare.

I’m sure you can think of better examples, but here are some comments that we have all heard from people who are trying to avoid accountability before the fact, who are setting themselves up for failure:

  • “I’d love to start a new company, but nobody will invest in me.”
  • “I’ll do the best I can, but the economy is totally unpredictable right now.”
  • “Investors always seem to put such unreasonable restrictions of me.”
  • “I can’t seem to find employees who are committed to my business.”
  • “Customer expectations these days can be unreasonable.”
  • “Every time I try outsourcing manufacturing, I get quality problems.”
  • “If there were just more hours in a day, I could get the job done right.”
  • “Investors want five-year projections, which is ridiculous considering all the unknowns.”
  • “My family expects me to always be there at a moment’s notice.”
  • “My biggest challenge is make sure everyone is carrying their weight.”

If you as the entrepreneur are willing to embrace accountability, here is how these same statements should come out:

  • “My idea is so big, I will bootstrap the business myself if I have to.”
  • “Even in a down economy, there are some things that everyone needs.”
  • “I really appreciate the real-world guidelines I get from my investors.”
  • “I couldn’t do this job without the full support of my team.”
  • “Exceeding customer expectations is my competitive advantage.”
  • “I select vendors carefully, and manage them well, to keep my costs down.”
  • “With limited time, I’ve learned to focus only on key issues, and delegate the rest.”
  • “I recognize that financial projections are commitments, so I don’t take them lightly.”
  • “With the support of my family, I can walk that fine line between family and business.”
  • “I trust my team, and I’m convinced that the total is more than the sum of the parts.”

If you are not yet ready to commit, you should consider getting more experience in your relevant business domain, or taking on a partner who has run a small business. Don’t assume that your perspective as an employee gives you a real view of the founder’s role. Also you shouldn’t assume that your experience in a large public company is applicable to running a startup.

Some entrepreneurs feel they can control other people by “holding them accountable.” This doesn’t work in the negative, because only personal accountability counts. It can work in the positive if you work in partnership with the team to get the outcomes you both seek, making you jointly accountable.

Entrepreneurship is all about assuming a risk for a reward, and accountability is core to generating the desired results. To make it work, you must trust yourself, your partners, and your startup. You should find there is a thrill and satisfaction to making decisions and standing behind them.

The next step is employee accountability. That’s the win-win combination that almost always leads to startup success. Are you there yet?

Marty Zwilling


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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Avoid Career Missteps From Employee to Entrepreneur

career-misstepMany people, especially those who have spent years struggling up the corporate ladder, dream of jumping ship and becoming an entrepreneur. But every job move is fraught with risk, and the move from employee to entrepreneur is on the high end of the risk curve. This is a big jump, especially in an unstable economy, so do your homework first on this one.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review a while back, “Five Ways to Bungle a Job Change,” there are at least five common missteps that professionals make when moving to a new job. I will assert that each of these has a comparable relevance for those of you contemplating leaving a company employee role to create or join an entrepreneurial startup as follows:

  1. Not doing enough research. In moving to a new company, the questions to ask are expectations, financial stability, cultural fit, and role responsibilities. All of these apply directly to starting your own company. Test your “dream” startup plans on some experienced entrepreneurs to get a reality check before you leave your current job.

  2. Leaving for money. Remember, the grass always look greener on the other side of the fence. More money in the short term is unlikely as an entrepreneur. In fact, most startup founders pay themselves no salary for the first year or two, and investor money is hard to find. I tell new entrepreneurs not to quit their “day job” until they have real revenue.

  3. Going “from” rather than “to”. If you are desperate to get out, you may just be lurching into entrepreneurship, only to find it more stressful and unsatisfying. People who feel competent but unsatisfied or bored in their current job make better entrepreneurs than people who feel overworked, under-appreciated, and over-stressed.

  4. Over-estimating yourself. Search consultants say that many job seekers have an unrealistic view of their skills, their prospects, and their culpability. If you have had problems with several companies, you may be part of the problem. That part will be amplified in any startup, since you are now the company, so the blame stops with you.

  5. Thinking short term. Moving from an employee to an entrepreneur is a lifestyle change, as well as a career change. Don’t make the misstep of assuming it is a short-term move to riches, or an escape from a problem. Starting a business is hard work, requires a lot of learning, and only pays off in the long term.

These missteps are obviously inter-dependent. When people overvalue themselves, they are prone to stress from job performance feedback and dissatisfaction with compensation. This leads them to jump, without real consideration of the fit and opportunity, into the entrepreneurial world, where they could be even more unhappy.

Every employee needs to evaluate these challenges, since the average baby boomer will have switched jobs 10 times, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The days are gone, when we commit early in life to a lifetime career with one company, or a lifetime of entrepreneurship. The business landscape is changing rapidly these days, so we need to be willing to change as well.

A good question to ask before finalizing a change is “What if I’m wrong?” Be ready to cut your losses and move on. Jumping repeatedly to another bad situation is not the answer. In every case, take a hard look at your real strengths and weaknesses. Be willing to listen to an advisor or mentor on how others perceive you, and be willing to correct for those weaknesses.

The most important element is to understand for yourself what elements of a job role are the most satisfying to you, and what constitutes a healthy work-life balance for you. You spend most of your adult life at work. Life is too short to let career missteps make it unhappy.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Winning Startup Team Takes a Learning Leader

dr-roger-schwarzStarting and running a company is a team effort. Yes, it takes a leader (entrepreneur), but you can’t do it alone, without a team. Maybe only you and a co-founder comprise the team at first, to provide key skills, back you up, and test your ideas. As the startup grows, the team has to be able to really push you in making growth decisions, rather than you pulling them along.

The responsibility for leadership rests on you as the founder or CEO, and your leadership style. Many entrepreneurs still fall back to the traditional “control” leadership paradigm, but I don’t see it working so well any more. I agree more with Dr. Roger Schwarz and his new book, “Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.” He outlines eight keys to an effective mutual learning approach as follows:

  1. State views and ask genuine questions. When you state your views and ask genuine questions, you are convincingly open and curious. Understand that curiosity doesn’t mean agreement, and all questions are not genuine. Recognize that rhetorical questions seek to make a point or make people do something, not come up with a real answer.

  2. Share all relevant information. All team members need all the right information, before they can make, understand, and implement forward-looking decisions. That means sharing timely information that doesn’t always support your view, or might upset others. You should disclose your feelings, and any limiting factors like privacy or legality.

  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean. If you hear someone on the team using a word or term that you think is unclear to others, ask for a specific example. This usually requires naming real names, rather than “someone,” and asking what you really want to know, without generalizing the question.

  4. Explain reasoning and intent. Teams are hardwired to make meaning out of problems. When you share your reasoning and intent, you reduce the need for others to figure out reasons, or assume something is being withheld. Start every meeting with one or two sentences that explain what you want to talk about and why.

  5. Focus on interests, not positions. Positions represent specific solutions from a given team member, whereas interests are the underlying needs that drive people to their position. You need a decision that meets all key interests, in order to get total commitment to the best solution from the team.

  6. Test assumptions and inferences. Assumptions are conclusions with no information. Inferences are conclusions about things you don’t know based on things you do know. Avoid assumptions, and test every inference by checking it against behavior confirmed by someone else. Untested inferences are among the main reasons a team gets stuck.

  7. Jointly design next steps. When you jointly design next steps, you design them with others instead of for others. It increases the chance that you will get a genuinely workable solution and that the team will be committed to implementing it. Keep in mind that joint design doesn’t mean that you give up your prerogative of making the final decision..

  8. Discuss un-discussable issues. These are topics relevant to a solution that team members won’t address in the team, due to fear or compassion. Examples include disruptive actions of a team member or a boss. Leaders may start the discussion outside, but must address it, with respect, inside the team for mutual learning and resolution.

Where you as the leader may be part of the problem in the mutual learning process, it may be necessary to ask a third party inside the organization, or a consultant from outside the organization to facilitate the transformation, or the resolution of a tough change issue. True leaders know how to move out of the way to let others do what they do best.

The results are improved performance, stronger working relationships, and greater well-being for you, your team, and your company. In the long run, every entrepreneur needs to remember that it’s the team, with their broader range of skills and experience, that builds the leader’s success – and not the other way around. This rarely happens with total control leadership.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Use Micro-Startup Principles to Skip Investor Pain

micro-startupThis past year, I’ve heard more and more about a new type of small business, called a “micro-business” (or micro-enterprise). These are usually characterized as owner-operated, with five employees or less, and less than $250,000 in sales. With the low cost of e-commence entry, and powerful Internet technologies, they require minimal capital to start, perhaps as little as $500.

I see the potential for these to become big business in this entrepreneurial economy. According to the Voice of Microenterprise (AEO) website, if one in three micro-enterprises in the United States hired an additional employee, the US would soon be at full employment. These businesses are usually run out of the home, and range the gamut from consulting services to e-commerce.

Dal LaMagna, in his humorous book “Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right,” leads with the foundational principle of micro-businesses, which is to start small. This allowed him to learn enough from all his early mistakes to hit it big ($10 million revenue) with a global beauty tools company called Tweezerman. He and I offer additional principles as follows:

  1. Tailor the business to you. Do you love antiquing? Fishing? Cars? Cooking? Now, think about what pursuing this passion might mean for your lifestyle. Think how you want to spend your day; where you want to live; whether you want to work with people or alone; in the morning or at night, and so on. Eliminate any aspect of your business that doesn't create your preferred lifestyle -- and will work against you.

  2. Be frugal. Don't spend money you don't have. Don't invest in anything you don't need. If this means baking cupcakes in the local church basement and delivering your signature pastries by bicycle to local stores -- two dozen at a time -- do it. Take the money you make and put it right back into the business.

  3. Record every expense. From the dollar you gave to the homeless guy on the way to meet a prospective client, to the new tie you bought to look professional, write down every single penny. The key to launching a micro-business is to keep expenses under control and fully accounted for.

  4. Keep a monthly profit-loss. For the first two years of your business, complete a monthly profit-loss statement. This helps you stay on top of where your business is going, where it could do better, and why it fluctuates.

  5. Find free stuff. Many items needed to start and run your small business are available for free or next to nothing. Be creative. Use freecycle.com; ask friends if they have an old computer or printer; or visit a thrift shop for office furniture or office supplies.

  6. Write down agreements. With a very small business, your clients sometimes make the assumption that they don't have to sign an agreement. Wrong. Get in the habit of thinking like a company founder and get promises in writing. And while you're at it, keep your side of agreements.

  7. Keep it simple. When Dal first started Tweezerman, he did nothing but focus on tweezers and selling them to cosmetic counters, one store at a time, which he did very well. If you can do one thing well, don't dilute your efforts until you have been turning a large profit over a consistent stretch of time.

My net recommendation is that if you consider yourself a do-it-yourself entrepreneur, preferring to do things yourself rather than forking over money to consultants, then definitely the micro-business approach is for you. The down side is that you business will probably grow slowly and more organically.

If you prefer to rely on others for most things, or want to get there fast, the investor approach may be the best answer, but the price is higher in time, dollars, and control. It’s your choice, but remember that the wrong choice probably won’t get you there at all.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, March 25, 2013

7 Worst Entrepreneurial Perceptions From Engineers

Larry-Page-reality-glassesEvery engineer who has invented some new technology, or is adept at creating solutions, believes that is the hard part, and it should be a short step to take that solution to market as an entrepreneur. In reality, that short business step embodies far more risk, and a poor technology solution is not near the top of most lists of common reasons for business failures.

In fact, a Duke and Harvard survey of over 500 technology companies showed that only 37% of their leaders even have engineering or computer science backgrounds. Clearly, engineers should think twice before assuming they have an advantage over the rest of us toward being an entrepreneur.

Now there are many resources out there to help engineer entrepreneurs, such as the book by Krishna Uppuluri, “Engineer to Entrepreneur: The First Flight.” He identifies the key business misperceptions of most engineers, and provides a workbook approach to provide a quick-start on various business lifecycle topics. I’ve summarized his points, and added my own, as follows:

  1. “Everyone loves ‘cool ideas’ and new technology.” Before investing a lot of time and money into any idea, entrepreneurs should assess the commercial viability. That means evaluating third-party market research, getting real customer feedback from prototypes, and listening to concerns of successful executives in the same business area.

  2. “I need to go-it alone to assure quality and elegance.” Engineers assume that the business issues can be resolved later. Working alone, or with other engineers, is great for the average engineer introvert, gives them better control, and minimizes distractions. A team with diverse skills is harder to manage, but more likely to build a thriving business.

  3. “Marketing is fluff and selling is black magic.” The old adage, “If we build it, they will come” came from engineers. In reality, building a solution won’t make it connect with customers, manage competition, or communicate and proselytize the offering in the industry. With today’s information overload, selling is always required.

  4. “We need to get functionality maximized before we focus on customers.” The business reality is that you can’t engineer the functionality right UNTIL you focus on customers. Superfluous functionality, from a customer perspective, is a failure. The mantra for an entrepreneur today should be to ship fast, make changes, and iterate.

  5. “A good engineer hates unpredictability and risk.” A good entrepreneur embraces risk as an opportunity, whereas most engineers are risk averse and cautious. The result is that engineer-driven solutions often are too little, too late, if they ever ship, in today’s fast moving market. Managing risk is good; eliminating risk is bad for startups.

  6. “We can’t worry about making money until we get it built.” If you can’t make money, it isn’t a business. Business constraints, such as market size, customer demographics, manufacturing, distribution, and support costs need to be set, or there is no context for getting it right. Getting it right at the wrong cost will get you no customers.

  7. “Outside funding causes loss of control and undue pressure to deliver.” Funding is like a turbocharger for a startup company, if used correctly. Investors love to fund growth and scaling of a proven business model for entrepreneurs, and they avoid at all costs funding research and development for engineers. Hence the pressure to deliver.

Certainly there are many examples of great companies led by engineers, including Microsoft with Bill Gates, Oracle with Larry Ellison, and Google with Larry Page. This is strong evidence that it is possible to make the step from engineer to entrepreneur, or team with someone who can provide the complementary skills and perspective.

In fact, as Krishna says in his book, the stars are uniquely aligned these days for engineers to be entrepreneurs. The Internet is the great equalizer, allowing all of us to develop broad, as well as deep, skills and insights quickly. With the economy on the rebound, we need more entrepreneurs to satisfy new demands and solve new problems. It is time for more engineers to take the first big step.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Semantic Web Opens a New Age for Entrepreneurs

semantic-webSomeday you will be able to ask your browser or smart phone open questions like "Where should I take my wife for a good movie and dinner?" Your browser would consult its intelligence of what you and she like and dislike, take into account your current location, and then suggest the right movies and restaurants. If you are the first to deliver this, your startup might be the next Google!

This has been a long-time dream of Tim Berners-Lee, the man who (really) invented the World Wide Web. He calls his dream the ‘Semantic Web’ (or Web 3.0), meaning it understands user context. He and many other experts believe that the Semantic Web will act more like a personal assistant than a search engine.

If you add the next generation of natural language processing (NLP), you will be able to ask Google Voice Search or Apple Siri the questions right through your smart phone. The system will compile your interests in your local storage, so the more you use it, the more it learns about you, and the more relevant will be the results.

These virtual personal assistants still have some work to do to meet the key attributes that we have grown to expect from a live personal assistant. Here is an entry-level benchmark for the new software personal assistants:

  • Simple and intuitive communication. A personal assistant must be able to understand intent and context, as well as learn common acronyms and shorthand phrases, whether written or spoken. Siri is a step in this direction, but still has very limited learning and context sensing abilities.

  • Technology environment savvy. A good assistant know how get things done efficiently, recognizing user hardware and software limitations. In today’s mobile hardware environment, that means able to set up meetings, convert text messages to voice, find contact information quickly, and search the Web intelligently for outside info.

  • Memorable personality. Every personal assistant has to deal with a variety of moods and people every day. This requires a pleasant, outgoing personality, with politeness and respect always. They must also be able to balance courtesy with assertiveness when necessary to insulate you from unwanted solicitation and other distractions.

  • Good organizational skills. A personal assistant must be highly organized and detail-oriented. That means total handling of the calendar, scheduling appointments, taking calls, logging messages, screening e-mail and doing other duties with some sense of priority and problem-solving.

I believe the current major drive to mobile devices and apps has slowed the progress toward this new semantic environment, but it’s coming. Of course, many are still fighting it as well, due to privacy concerns. In my view, the increasing consumer demand for personal marketing and personal assistants will soon overcome paranoia, and reasonable boundaries will emerge.

There are already many examples of startups edging into this space. On the basic search engine front, WolframAlpha is an amazing computational engine often used by Siri, which creates intelligent results, graphs, and reports from any natural language question. But we are a long way from agents that can do full natural language processing from voice and think on their own.

Google Voice Search is a tiny step in that direction. A bigger step is a recent personal assistant startup, Maluuba, an Android-based Siri competitor, who just unveiled a new platform to provide app developers with a natural language processing API. The new Dragon Mobile Assistant is fully location-aware and offers several additional proactive assistant features

Current advertising and public relations startups are already poised along these lines, all the way from clothes shopping, art galleries, online advertising, to managing press releases. In some ways, these aren't that different from the old Amazon.com "recommendation engine," which suggests new products based on your surfing and buying habits, but they go much further.

Just think of the fertile ground all this opens for startups! If you’re looking for that ‘million dollar idea’ to build a plan around, here is your chance. But don’t wait too long, because the din for the Semantic Web is getting louder and louder. Catch the wave soon or it will pass you by!

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Startups Stick with Organic vs Paid Search Results

seo-vs-ppcProbably every one of you who has a business and a website have been approached through email or personal contact, and asked to spend money on paid search results (appear on the first page of search results, right hand column, despite low SEO rank). What most people don’t realize is that, according to new research, 90% of search engine users rarely look at the paid results.

Paid search engine ranking (PPC) is buying advertising for your business from Google or another search engine company. Their computers then cleverly merge your ads with search results when users search words imply an interest in your products. If you sell widgets, and a user is searching for widgets, your ad will appear on the first page of search results for widgets.

This is NOT the same as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is not placing ads, but tuning your website so that it is more highly ranked by Google, and featured in the first page of results, not in an ad beside the results. PPC is sometimes called “buying your way into search results.” Both have the same end goal of getting people to your website.

With PPC, the goal is for the search user to not only see your ad, but to click on it to get to your website (click-through), and buy your widget (conversion to sale). In this context, there are many parameters and concepts you need to understand before you buy advertising:

  • Cost per impression (CPI). This cost model is the most like traditional newspaper and television advertising, where advertisers pay for each ad appearance or page-view (impression) on a search result page, even if the user pays no attention. For Google, this is pay per impression (PPI), or pay per mille (PPM) per thousand impressions.

  • Cost per click (CPC). In this more popular model these days, advertisers do not pay for each appearance of the ad, but only when a user clicks on an ad and is redirected to the advertiser website. For sites displaying the ads, this is called pay per click (PPC).

  • Cost per action (CPA). Another alternative was added a couple of years ago to mitigate the problem of people clicking just to get paid (click fraud). It pays only if a customer clicks through AND takes a further action (conversion), such as buying a product or filling out a web form. The display side is called pay per action (PPA) or pay per lead (PPL).

  • Keyword research and budget forecasting. All these models start with the advertiser choosing the right search keywords to match user searches. Popular keywords have higher costs. PPC experts charge you to research, analyze, and estimate hit ratios, to optimize your success and set a campaign spending budget for you.

  • Campaign setup and ad copy writing. There are many additional variables that the inexperienced marketer may not even think to consider: competition and positioning strategies, budgeting, match types, search and content syndication, and ad copy testing, as well developing the best ad wording and layouts.

  • Tracking and performance reporting. Advertising is all about getting the most results for the least cost. You may be getting great traffic, but poor conversions. Other PPC experts will track your campaign from click to transaction, providing you with detailed reports on and return on investment (ROI).

If you do all these things right as a search results advertiser, you will make money from selling your product. If you do all these things right by displaying other people’s ads on your website or blog, you will make money from advertising – like Google and Facebook, who offer services for free, and still make millions in revenue.

But either way, it requires big numbers to work (traffic), click-through rates are small, and the pay per click is tiny. Until your traffic is in the millions of page-views per month, don’t expect to live off the conversions or other people’s ads. For credibility with investors, stick to the organic SEO model and other revenue streams until you have the high traffic to survive on PPC revenue.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, March 22, 2013

Startups Must Adapt to New Customer Buying Dynamics

Brian-SolisMany entrepreneurs think that adapting to the new technologies, like smart phones and Internet commerce, are the key to attracting new customers. In fact, businesses need to adapt just as completely to the changes in the buying and social behavior of consumers. High-technology product startups, without customers, don’t make a business.

Today’s customer buying dynamics are all about “user experience,” according to Brian Solis, in his new book “What’s the Future of Business?.” This thought leader in new media asserts that every business needs to understand social psychology and rethink their business models, approach, and relationships in order to create unique and memorable experiences for both customers and employees.

Solis outlines the heuristics of social psychology that are key to building positive customer experiences today. These begin with the following Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence, that consumers use to make decisions, buttressed by results from various social media surveys he references in the book:

  1. Social proof – follow the crowd. During today’s dynamic customer journey, consumers often find themselves at a point of indecision. When uncertain of what to do next, social proof kicks in to see what others are doing, or have done. Survey results show that 81% of consumers now receive advice through social networking sites prior to a product purchase.

  2. Authority – the guiding light. Perceived authorities guide decision making, by investing time, resources, and activity in earning a position of influence, leading to a community of loyalists who follow their recommendations. 77% of consumers now research online product reviews, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, for authoritative guidance.

  3. Scarcity – less is more. Greater value is assigned to the resources that are, or are perceived to be, less available. Driven by the fear of loss or the stature of self-expression, consumers are driven by the ability to participate as members in exclusive deals. 77% of people like getting exclusive offers that they can redeem via Facebook or other sites.

  4. Liking – builds bonds and trust. There is one old saying in business that is still very true in this age of social media: People do business with people they like. We all have a natural inclination to emulate those we like and admire. Almost 50% of shoppers surveyed admitted to making at least one purchase based on a social media friend recommendation.

  5. Consistency. When faced with uncertainty, consumers tend not to take risks. Rather, they prefer to stay consistent with beliefs or past behavior. When these do not line up in the decision-making cycle, consumers feel true psychological discomfort. The result is that 62% of online shoppers are brand loyal due to other online satisfaction data.

  6. Reciprocity – pay it forward. Perhaps the greatest asset in social capital is that of benevolence. We have an innate desire to repay favors in order to maintain social fairness, whether those favors were invited or not. Every month, over 25 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook alone, with a major portion oriented toward reciprocity.

Social psychology in general deals with how individuals relate to one another. In today’s social networks, the social economy is defined by how people earn and spend social capital. Based on the commerce of actions, words, and intentions (or actions, reactions, and transaction), people build their own standing. Startups earn relationships and resulting stature the same way.

Another aspect of the social psychology of consumer buying today is the four stages where customers take actions that move them toward you or away from your startup. These are sometimes called the four moments of truth:

  • Zero Moment of Truth. The few moments before people buy, where impressions are formed and the path to purchase begins. It is that moment when consumers grab their laptop or mobile phone, and start learning about a product or service.

  • First Moment of Truth. This is what people think when they see your product and it’s the impressions they form when they read the words describing your product.

  • Second Moment of Truth. It’s what people feel, think, see, hear, touch, smell, and (sometimes) taste as they experience your product over time. It’s also how your company supports them in their efforts throughout the relationship.

  • Ultimate Moment of Truth. It’s that shared moment at every step of the experience that becomes the next person’s Zero Moment of Truth. This one is required to generating word of mouth, advocacy, and influence.

So for all you technologists, who routinely focus their resources on a great product (“if we build it, they will come”), it’s time to balance the business success equation. Learning how to craft and nurture great customer experiences around your product is critical. The future of your business these days depends on it.

Marty Zwilling


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Thursday, March 21, 2013

7 Leadership Behaviors Startups Must Never Tolerate

poor-leadershipMany professionals in business, from startups to multi-nationals, assume that team leader or executive is an appointed position, and the skills come with the title. In reality, leadership is best demonstrated while not in a position of authority, and is a skill that must be sharpened every day of your life.

Most experts agree that leadership, as perceived by people around you, is more about behavior than it is about specific skills or knowledge. Darryl Rosen, in “Table for Three?” illustrates this with humor for each of fifty dumb mistakes that smart managers don’t make. The leadership one is setting a poor example by your own actions (“Do as I say, not as I do.”)

His rendition, including the following seven examples of poor leadership behavior, that I have seen all too often in startups, illustrate how your actions affect others around you:

  1. Blame others for everything. An entrepreneur’s passion for an idea often prompts them to blame others or external events for setbacks, rather than themselves, so that they can maintain some semblance of self-esteem and control. This “attributional bias” may be understandable, but is perceived by associates as poor leadership.

  2. Worry and fret about everything. Precious little of what we worry and fret about ever happens, so don’t share every concern with associates. At best, it comes across as lack of confidence, or more likely sounds likely trying to make excuses for possible later failures. Team members want leaders who calm their worries, not amplify them.

  3. Criticize others and the company. Managers who speak critically of team members, customers, friends or family members, have something going on within them that needs to be examined. There is some aspect of self that they find unacceptable. Real leaders are recognized as willing to look in the mirror, and learn from what they see.

  4. Complain about being overwhelmed. Overwhelm is a feeling that always precedes growth, and is a state in which your brain is developing new pathways and connections. Starting a business or a new organization will always cause self-doubt and insecurity. Real leaders embrace and manage these feelings, rather than complain to associates.

  5. Do 10 things at a time in a mediocre fashion. Entrepreneurs or managers who claim to be able to do multiple things at a time must never use this as an excuse for poor quality. Associates will quickly conclude that mediocrity is good enough. Even one task done with mediocrity can be the kiss of death for any business, or any career.

  6. Appear disorganized and manage things haphazardly. Doing things haphazardly is prone to mistakes. In business, when you are making mistakes, it’s costing you time and money. With associates, making mistakes will cost you in productivity and morale, and will kill their image of you as a leader. Worse yet, associates will follow your example.

  7. Fail to see the positives in others. The key here is to maintain a positive mindset. Leadership is all about finding positives, for business growth, for competitive advantage, and people development in your organization. Managers and entrepreneurs need everyone in their organization accentuating the positive, not amplifying the negatives.

Leadership and improvement is about taking small steps forward, and evolving just a bit each day. Think evolution, not revolution. Anyone can change one behavior a month, or eliminate one mistake, and suddenly you too can be an “overnight success.”

Of course, correcting leadership mistakes is only the beginning. There are at least 49 other ways to go wrong in navigating workplace relationships, problem-solving approaches, time management, credibility, and business effectiveness. How many have you avoided recently in your startup?

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Create a New Business Bubble, Don’t Chase Old Ones

In finance, a bubble is too much money chasing assets, greater asset production and a herd mentality. In startup business plans, a bubble is too many entrepreneurs and too many investors chasing the latest “next big thing,” like Google search engine, Facebook social network, or Amazon e-commerce site. In all these cases, a bust is inevitable, and everyone loses.

The big question is how to spot these bubbles and jump to a better alternative, rather than get sucked into the vortex. Vikram Mansharamani provided some great insights on the financial side in his book, “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst,” and I believe these can be equally applied to bubbles for startup ideas as follows:

  1. Avoid the herd mentality. In theory, this is called the “emergence of group order” or swarm mentality, where everyone rushes in without regard to whether there is enough food to go around. For startups, investors usually toss business plans with ten or more real competitors, especially if a couple have the penetration of a Facebook or Google.

  2. Overconfidence. In finance, “this time is different” is the beginning of a new bubble. In startups, it is the idea that “this solution is different,” without sufficient analysis of base anchoring features, differentiation features, or no new early adopters. Change is always hard, so people already on Amazon are not easy convert to another e-commerce system.

  3. Supply and demand ignored. We all believe that supply and demand meet to create stable prices (reflexive). But sometimes higher prices create higher demand, causing a boom. Busts result when lower prices stimulate more supply. In startups, a great success like Google causes busts by stimulating more supply, without regard to demand.

  4. Cheap money. The Austrian school of economics asserts that “cheap money is the root of all evil” as an explanation for all boom and bust cycles. This also works for startups, where cheap money occurs when too many investors jump on a bandwagon. Experts argue that a higher percentage of startups fail with too much money, rather than too little.

  5. Policy-driven distortions. Government actions sometimes meddle with normal supply and demand equilibriums, or money allocations. In startups these days, governments are incenting green and alternative energy solutions, to intentionally create a bubble. All too often, that leads to a bust for startups who have not adequately prepared or executed.

  6. High valuation, low profit. A sure sign of a bubble is when assets are artificially valued high, without a corresponding intrinsic value or cash flow. Social media darling Twitter is the most fragile of these bubbles. In my opinion, now is not the time to bet your startup on a Twitter clone.

Every startup wants to be the one to start the next bubble, but these are impossible to predict. It’s much easier to spot current bubbles, and resist the urge to build a “me too” product. The focus should always be on execution, revenue, and profits. Vision, growth over profit, and eyeballs won’t do it this time. Startups that master iteration, momentum, and the ability to pivot will win.

I’m personally looking to Gen-Y as the source of the “next big thing,” that will become the next bubble. To the rest of us, new great things often start out looking like toys, and Gen-Y knows their toys. In addition, they have less baggage, more creativity, and already understand the market segments with the most buying power.

I also believe we are beginning a new wave of startup investing. Angels are becoming more liquid as their stock market and real estate assets recover, and institutions again have earnings to put into venture capital funds. It’s a good time to start some new bubbles and win. Don’t let the fragile old ones burst your bubble as well.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

‘Pull’ Customers to Website, Don’t ‘Push’ Messages

Attract New CustomersTraditional marketing says you have to “push” your message out to customers, over and over again, to get you remembered. A more effective approach in today’s Internet and interactive culture is to use “pull” technology to bring customers and clients to your story. You pull people in by providing new content with real value on your website at least every few days.

Guy Kawasaki, in his book “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions” provides some in-depth recommendations on the “how to” of pull technology. Here are some of his recommendations for web sites and blogs that I particularly recommend to entrepreneurs and startups:

  • Provide good content. This may seem obvious, but how many websites have you reviewed that are static and just plain dull? A website or blog without appealing or entertaining content for your market segment is not enchanting.

  • Refresh it often. Ideally, you should update content at least every two or three days. Good content that doesn’t change isn’t good for long, and customers or clients will not return to your website or blog if you don’t regularly provide something new.

  • Skip the flash (and Flash). You may think it’s cool that a sixty-second video plays when people enter your site, or pop-ups occur with every interaction. Most people come with a purpose, and if you won’t let them get to it immediately they won’t come back.

  • Make it fast. It’s a shame when anyone can get right to your home page, but then has to wait for it to load. With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for a website that takes more than a few seconds to load.

  • Sprinkle graphics and pictures. Graphics, pictures, and videos make a website or blog more interesting and enchanting. If you’re going to err, use them too much rather than too little, except for a Flash front-end and popups.

  • Provide a “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” page. People love FAQs because these cut to the chase. Figure out what the most common questions might be and answer them in one place to minimize hassle.

  • Craft an “About” page. Visitors should never have to wonder what your organization does and why you do what you do. Provide all this information in an About page. Confusion and ignorance are the enemies of enchantment.

  • Help visitors navigate. Enable people to search your website or blog to find what they are looking for. Also, a site map helps people understand the topology of your website. Forcing paging to complete a single message (to expose more ads) is not enchanting.

  • Introduce the team. Few people these days wants to deal with a nameless, faceless, and location-less organization. A good “Who Are We?” page solves this problem, and is necessary to establish trust and expertise.

  • Optimize visits for various devices. No matter what device people are using, your website and blog should look good. These days, 20% or more of your audience will be using smart phones or iPads, and they’re probably the most relevant customers.

  • Provide multiple methods of access. Some folks like websites and blogs, and others prefer RSS feeds, email lists, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Provide multiple methods to engage people and make these options easy to find.

Let’s face it, static websites are dead. You need a blog and social media interaction to keep your content fresh and responsive to the market. Interaction and repeated visits due to the pull of enchanting content will transform a potential customer transaction into a relationship. Everyone remembers a relationship.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, March 18, 2013

10 Entrepreneur Alternatives to Executive Isolation

young-steve-jobsOne of the toughest things about running a startup is the feeling of loneliness and isolation. You are on your own and nobody supports you because it’s hard for them to see what you see and feel the excitement that you feel at the critical stages. This is especially true if you run your startup from your garage.

The leadership position alone can cause loneliness and disconnectedness, and that sometimes results in self-defeating behaviors. If your personality already leans toward narcissism, being the boss will likely bring out the worst in you, leading to intimidation, deception, and the use of coercive power. Of course, that leads to further isolation.

It doesn't have to be lonely at the top. Here are some ways to burst through the loneliness of being a founder or top executive, and be the healthy and respected leader of your business:

  1. Join peer business groups. Join business organizations of like-minded executives. They provide a safe harbor to come talk about issues of leadership with other business owners. Groups like the Inner Circle and Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) are perfect.

  2. Build a trusted team. Most people by nature get some satisfaction from team interaction, working toward the same goal. Even if your startup is a one-man show, you can find an intelligent outside mentor or advisory board member to bounce ideas off.

  3. Balance home and family. The best leaders are able to maintain a balance in their lives. They have learned to say no. They accept that their families and their subordinates sometimes need to say no. They turn their work into play and then play hard.

  4. Don’t work where you live. Just being able to live and work in separate environments can really help. The change of scenery and external stimulation, whether a coffee shop or just the sunlight, will allow you to switch gears and keep a healthy attitude.

  5. Meet customers online. Use Twitter and Facebook to make connections with clients, customers, and peers online. It helps to socialize with several hundred people all at once, even if you never see them face-to-face, and you can “instant message” one-on-one.

  6. Plan regular networking lunches. Get out of the office on a regular basis to break up the frustrations of daily crises. This combats the isolation that sometimes comes with leadership, helps you broaden your perspective, and gives moments of pure relaxation.

  7. Nurture your charismatic side. Charismatic leaders don’t feel the loneliness, and use a wide range of methods to manage their image. If you are not naturally charismatic, practice diligently to develop these skills of body language and verbal language.

  8. Maintain non-business activities. Hearing about your virtual coworkers going hiking, or just spending some time resting and relaxing can be very detrimental to your self esteem. Work to keep up on your own hobbies, and participate in community action events.

  9. Let a select few see your frailties and fears. Pretending we have it all together only builds the walls of loneliness higher. On the other hand, opening the door to our frailties invites others in. A trusted team member is usually a safe start.

  10. Build a good board of directors or advisors. People under-estimate the value of a good board. Yes, a board does decide whether you stay or go. They probably won't be your friend all of the time. But a good board can collaborate with you openly, provide advice, and provide you back-up especially when taking a risk.

Entrepreneurial leaders can also become de-motivated after working so hard and so long on something for which the reward may be months or years away, or perhaps never to come at all. Motivation, momentum, and clear progress are strong antidotes to loneliness.

But the best antidote to loneliness is successful leadership. This will give you the positive feedback you yearn for, and will allow both you and your business to become more than you ever dreamed possible.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is Crowd-Funding the Answer When Investors Decline?

Crowd-funding-dark-sideMany entrepreneurs seems to be convinced that the “crowd” of regular people using the Internet will somehow solve their startup funding needs, when they sense a lack of interest from accredited investors. Professionals maintain that there is plenty of money for equity in qualified startups, and funding marginal startups via any source will only make more people unhappy.

Well-known crowd-funding platforms on the Internet, led by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, have worked for years to provide non-equity “funding” for many startups, as outlined in my previous article Will the Real Crowd Funding Model Please Stand Up?. But safely seeking equity investments from the crowd via the Jobs Act of 2012 is problematic and has still not been defined.

A lesser variation, called crowd-pitching, by organizations like Funding Universe, is an offline event, which give several candidates an opportunity to pitch to a crowd of interested people for a couple of minutes, after which the crowd “votes” with some play-money to pick the best candidate, who then wins introductions and guidance in getting loan approvals or equity funding.

Certainly both of these crowd-sourcing approaches provide the entrepreneur with an opportunity to hone their pitch, get some free consumer feedback on the idea, and maybe some introductions to funding sources. But from my perspective in really helping entrepreneurs, both fall short on several counts:

  1. Focus too much on the product, not enough on the business model. When pitching to consumers, online or offline, the feedback will likely be on features and design. The key success factors of the business model (how a business survives and grows), management expertise, and financial projections will likely get overlooked.

  2. Amount of funding provided is usually not enough. The amount of time and money required for publicity and promotion of any crowd-funding activities may be more than the return. In reality, a few thousand dollars to a few winners, is tantalizing but probably not a return on the investment required.

  3. Multiple micro-investments are not manageable. Investors know how tough it is to get a set of terms accepted by even two investors, much less hundreds. The administration of legal conditions, signatures, disclosures, and distributions is a nightmare. In my opinion, that’s why micro-finance has rarely worked, even for loans.

  4. Proposal content is too short to be meaningful. In all cases, to keep non-professionals attention, the content of the offer online, or pitch presented, is very limited. No one contemplates including a business plan, investor presentation, or even the equivalent of an executive summary.

  5. Crowd sample size and makeup not representative of market. If the pitch is offline, the audience is likely to small and mostly budding entrepreneurs. Even online, the type of people who may respond to social media requests may bear very little relationship to the intended market.

  6. Investors are not prepared for the high risk of startups. Crowd-funding investors are not constrained to be accredited professional investors. They may not understand that nine out of ten startup investments provide no return, and the risk of securities law violations is very high.

  7. Intellectual property is jeopardized. Non-disclosure agreements can’t be done in these environments. In an environment populated by entrepreneurs rather than investors, when you are new to the game, you are exposing your plan to your biggest potential competitors.

Crowd-pitching groups are making an effort to mitigate these problems by pre-screening the candidates, and providing an experienced panel of investors to do the judging. This helps by making sure the feedback is realistic, and the presenters have a rational business opportunity to present. I’m already working with a couple of organizations along these lines.

Overall, there is no question that crowd-funding makes sense for non-profits soliciting donations, artists seeking support from fans, and many small entrepreneurial efforts. But in the competitive world of “the next big thing,” with millions of dollars at stake to be lost, counting on these mechanisms when professional investors decline may be ignoring the real problem.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, March 16, 2013

10 Strategies to Make Startup Work Seem Like Play

star-performerEvery startup and every big business wishes that all their employees were star performers, but wishing doesn’t make it happen. Some coaches and leaders seem to have the magic for bringing out the best in everyone. Research has shown that it isn’t magic, but a focus on engaging people in their work, so that their work triggers the same emotions as play does for you.

Some of you cynics may think that such a thing isn’t possible, but Shawn Kent Hayashi, who has worked for years with entrepreneurs, as well as Fortune 500 giants, argues otherwise. In “Conversations for Creating Star Performers,” she offers examples and ten strategies to leverage conversations into game-changing moments for team members and your company:

  1. Build awareness of expectations. Conversations about what effective performance looks and sounds like are an obvious strategy, but too often found missing. No team member knows what they don’t know, so regular communication from leaders is key.

  2. Understand individual motivators. Star performers are always people who have aligned their work to their values so that they are passionate about what they are doing, and the work will feel like play. Great leaders align the values of work to their team.

  3. Capitalize on the strengths of each team member. When hiring or inheriting new team members, it’s important to discuss their strengths, development areas, and blind spots early. Always try to align people’s roles to their natural talents and interests.

  4. Help team members develop a plan for their future. Take the time to develop individualized development plans for every team member, as a joint effort. Focus should be on current strengths, blind spots, where they want to go, and how to get there

  5. Make new skill development an ongoing priority. Survival in today’s fast-moving business world requires continuous learning and broadening of your skills. You will need to be inspiring and connect the dots to show the benefits of new abilities.

  6. Get people unstuck and back on track. People don’t get back on track unless they know there is a problem. It’s up to you to give the tough feedback, without emotion, while keeping it in context. Then, with clarity, provide the next steps to get back on track.

  7. Support team members in being accountable. Communicate the measurable results expected, and get a commitment for specific action steps and timeframes. Remember that you must role model and reward accountability to get it from your team.

  8. Provide real feedback on their performance. Performance feedback works and is appreciated when it is done often, and in the context of specific accountable actions. Once per year discussions, only when there is a problem, don’t work.

  9. Celebrate successes and even small steps. Always affirm and reward team members often, and criticize infrequently. Experts say it takes five positive interactions to dilute one negative, if we want the relationship to thrive. Create a positive emotional wake.

  10. Develop future leaders early. Successful competition in the marketplace is correlated to a company’s ability to attract, retain, and develop talent. Develop a deep talent pool and it’s never too early for succession planning. This forces you to think about how team members can grow to satisfy their long-term objectives and yours.

A strong and positive business culture is instrumental in bringing out and retaining stars. Top executives and leaders set the culture, but every manager’s actions and interactions with top performers and every team member solidify and drive that culture.

During the recent recession, it was easy to conclude that you have other priorities, and team members would perform at their best to keep their jobs. But keeping a job and top performance at the job are two different things. Now, as business confidence builds, it’s time to double-check how you’re treating all your potential star performers. They will love it or leave it.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, March 15, 2013

Entrepreneurs are Starting Young and Learning Fast

young-entrepreneursI continue to see stories of really young entrepreneurs, like this article on Business Insider, with pre-teens as young as 9 years old who make millions more than their parents. This makes me wonder what starts that entrepreneurial drive in kids, and how early parents and schools should start teaching the basics.

There are already a couple of good books out there for youth entrepreneurs, such as one from my friends Adam and Matthew Toren, Kidpreneurs: Young Entrepreneurs with Big Ideas. They assert, "It's never too early! Even children can be introduced to basic business principles and the rewards of entrepreneurship”. Another one is The Little Entrepreneur by Michael H. and Jay Arrington.

Even if you are not sure that your child is a budding entrepreneur, there are several practical reasons to introduce him or her to the basics of business. Here are a few facts from the National Council on Economic Education emphasizing the need for more business training, starting much earlier:

  • Only 34% of teens can balance a checkbook.
  • The average teen thinks they will earn $145,000 per year.
  • 62% of 18- to 24-year-olds are saving very little or nothing at all.
  • The average college student graduates with $27,600 of debt.
  • 79 percent of high school students have never taken a course on personal finance.

As early as grade school, with parental guidance and resources like these books, kids can gain some valuable experience in starting, managing, and growing a successful business venture. The positives include:

  • Learn to make money. Even young children (ages 5-10) can and need to understand the concept of income – expense = profit. They need to understand that having money is not an entitlement, and not related to the volume of their demands.
  • Start a summer business. The best way to learn is a “hands-on” approach like creating a simple business to sell lemonade or deliver newspapers. In this context, parents can explain how their own business works, and where the family income comes from.

  • Bring the family together. All parents need to do things with their kids. A family that grows together, builds character and achieves financial success. The entire family can be active in the business venture.

  • Understand how business works. A place to start may be a reality game like ThriveTime for Teens Board Game, where they will be faced with money and life decisions like buying cars, managing expenses, paying for college, using credit cards, buying stocks and starting businesses.

  • Able to invest money wisely. Several companies, like Charles Swaab, offer programs like Money Matters: Make it Count, which teaches the financial basics to teens through Boys & Girls Clubs across the country.

If your child is old enough to get on the Internet, he or she is old enough to start learning business skills. Many education organizations provide free online tools to help students explore the world, increase intercultural awareness, and participate in a community of like-minded international teen leaders. It’s not a big jump to e-commerce and the costs and decisions of running a business.

We all know that technology comes naturally and early to this generation. Gen-Y is already showing us new ways to use it to grow and profit in business. I can’t even imagine what the next generation will bring. You better start your business now, and have fun while you can, before we are all branded as ancient relics.

Marty Zwilling


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Thursday, March 14, 2013

8 Steps to a Startup That Can Transform the World

walt-disneyEvery entrepreneur has an idea for transforming a market with innovative new technology, or transforming society with a new process. But unfortunately, most of these ideas fail at the execution level, or are not truly innovative. Entrepreneurs who have been really transformative, like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, seemed to know how to deal with all the right elements.

Jeffrey A. Harris, in “Transformative Entrepreneurs,” provides examples of key elements of transformative ideas and leadership abilities that separate the winners from the losers. I found his observations, like the following, to be inspirational for those of us chasing an entrepreneurial dream:

  1. It’s all about the people. Ideas have to be implemented well to change a market, or the world. Good implementation requires a plan, and a great plan and great operational decisions come from great people. That’s why investors look for entrepreneurs who have true grit, dogged persistence, and a disdain for the status quo.

  2. Seek innovation that begets invention. It doesn’t always work the other way around. According to a recent MIT study, only about 10% of patents granted in the United States have any meaningful commercial importance and less than one percent are of seminal importance. True business titans deliver both invention and innovation.

  3. Find enough venturesome capital. Nearly all new businesses aspiring to reach meaningful scale require some sort of outside funding to finance a competitive growth trajectory. The objective must be to get sufficient capital, with experienced and motivated counsel, to make the venture succeed.

  4. Create a formidable and durable business model. Your business model is your value proposition. “Free” sounds like a great model, but it doesn’t imply value. Look for customer-focused value creation. Make your business model your competitive differentiation, like Fred Smith with Federal Express, or Ingvar Kamprad with IKEA.

  5. Grab the next-mover advantage. First-movers have an initial advantage, but this position is fraught with risk, and often comes with a high price. Herb Kelleher, who started Southwest Airlines, wasn’t the first in the airline business, but he saw the need for low-cost short hauls, with exemplary customer service, and transformed the industry.

  6. Failure is an option. Building a business from a raw start is hard, risky work. That means that the process of innovation is not always pretty and rarely successful. The best entrepreneurs always regroup after a failure, learn from prior mistakes, persevere, and launch a new venture with considerably improved odds of success.

  7. Government matters. Government policies, initiatives, and leadership set the stage for economic growth, and provide resources for improving living standards, and enabling technological advantage. Transformative entrepreneurs pay attention and capitalize on these cues, rather than ignore or fight them.

  8. Innovate or die. In a world connected through a broadband Internet and mushrooming social networks, information flows quickly and relatively seamlessly, expediting the pace at which new innovations gain traction and speed. Standing still is tantamount to giving up. It is not an option.

These elements and the people stories in the Harris book highlight just how difficult it is to build a truly transformative business, yet at the same time illustrate that it can be done, and has been done many times, with no correlation to geographic, ethnic, age, or sexual boundaries.

In fact, I’m convinced that it needs to happen more often, with all the challenges we have in our modern world. So it’s up to each of you to assess your activities, and your potential, to be transformative. The investors I hear from want to see more innovation, and fewer “me too” startups. Can your idea generate some excitement to really change the world?

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

10 Entrepreneur Quotes Leading to Hiring Mistakes

hiring-mistakeEvery startup with any traction quickly reaches a point where they need to hire employees to grow the business. Unfortunately, this always happens when pressures are the highest, and business processes are ill-defined. At this point you need superstars and versatile future executives, yet your in-house hiring processes and focus are at their weakest.

The result is a host of hiring mistakes that sink many young companies, or take years to fix. The solution is to never forget that hiring is a top priority task for the CEO, which should never be delegated, and which often has to supersede the urgent crises of the day.

A key success element is to start by avoiding the known list of interviewing and hiring mistakes that have been documented many times by human resources professionals. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek summary of ten big ones to jog your recollection:

  1. “I’m not quite sure what we need, but this guy sounds like a miracle worker.” The message here is that if you don’t know exactly what help you need, you probably won’t get it. Do your homework on a proper job description, and make sure the applicant credentials on the resume are a fit before you proceed to interview.

  2. “He’s not quite what I’m looking for, but I think he is trainable.” This is the inverse of the first problem – you know what you want, but you are trying to force fit the candidate into the position. Maybe you are desperate to fill the position, or he’s related to the boss.

  3. “I’m confident this candidate can learn a lot from me.” This is the arrogant position that you know more than anyone you could hire, so all you need is a helper, not help. Helpers are expensive, since it often takes longer to jointly do a job than it would take one qualified person to do it alone.

  4. “I didn’t have time to read the resume, but he has great answers.” Some people talk a good story, but can’t produce results. Resumes won’t give you the positive conclusion, but they can highlight negatives, like job gaps, bad writing, and minimal experience.

  5. “He couldn’t keep up with me on results, but we have to start somewhere.” It’s always a mistake to judge a candidate by using yourself as the bar. You should assume that you are looking for someone who has skills you don’t have.

  6. “This one is such a good fit that I don’t need to waste time on a second interview.” No matter how good you are, we can all miss things the first time around. Never hire someone without a second interview, and without having a second interviewer verify your assessment. Everyone you hire has to fit effectively with many others on the team.

  7. “After my sales pitch, he was so excited I knew he could do the job.” Some hiring managers spend the interview selling the company under some mistaken impression that the level of candidate excitement they can generate is indicative of future performance.

  8. “He’s not perfect, but our only alternative is to let the work stack up even more.” This is pure desperation, guaranteed to have bad results. If you hire someone who can’t do the job, the work backs up more, and your work doubles to get them replaced.

  9. “His experience is light, but he seems like a good guy.” Avoid evaluating just personality in lieu of job skills. All the statistical research shows that there is very little correlation between a good personality and any specific job. Look for job knowledge first.

  10. “Based on the glowing terms I heard from my friend, I’ll just skip the reference check.” There are lots of factors that can’t be assessed in an interview, or by listening only to an advocate. In this litigious society, reference checks are more productive if you also listen to what is not said.

Another element is admitting that there are things you don’t know, and identifying what they are. Too many executives let their ego stand in the way, either in admitting that there might be things they don’t do well, or in identifying and communicating specific job requirements.

Take a lesson from an old Business Week article by entrepreneur Andy Dunn, aptly named “To Recruit the Best, Admit Weaknesses” where he admitted to the best applicants “I am not good at what you do, I need your help.” In my view, if every CEO and hiring manager followed this advice, as well as good hiring practices, their business would scale a lot faster with a lot less headaches.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Predictive Analytics is a Goldmine for Startups

predictive-analytics1Traditional business intelligence (and data mining) software does a very good job of showing you where you’ve been. By contrast, predictive analytics uses data patterns to make forward-looking predictions that guide you to where you should go next. This is a whole new world for startups seeking enterprise application opportunities, as well social media trend challenges.

According to Eric Siegel in his new book “Predictive Analytics,” it’s the power to predict who will click, buy, lie, or die. He calls his book a primer, but his real-life examples illustrate well how predictive analytics unleashes the power of data, and how “big data” embodies an extraordinary wealth of experience from which to learn.

Eric provides many examples of potential and real application areas that are ripe for predictive analytics, but my view is that smart entrepreneurs can extrapolate these to hundreds more, just waiting to be tapped. Here are ten examples to get your creative juices flowing:

  1. Targeted direct marketing. The challenge is to increase response rates and propagate a single view of the customer, by integrating customer data from multiple Web and social media interactions. Then companies can determine promotional effectiveness by narrowly defined customer segments, by location, or by delivery channel.

  2. Predictive advertisement targeting. Online, everyone wants to know which ad each customer is most likely to click. Then they can display the best ad, based on the likelihood of a click, as well as the bounty paid by its sponsor. Everyone wins, since consumers hate being presented with ads that are irrelevant to them.

  3. Fraud detection. We all want to know which transactions or applications for credit, benefits, reimbursements, refunds, and so on, are fraudulent. On the other side of the table, businesses need to minimize false insurance claims, inaccurate credit applications, and false identities.

  4. Investment risk management. Whether you are contemplating an investment in your favorite startup, or a little-known stock on a public exchange, there is “big data” out there that can’t possibly be evaluated by you without predictive analytics. Companies need the same service on partner and acquisition candidates, even vendors.

  5. Customer retention with churn modeling. Every business wants to predict which customers are about to leave, and for what reasons, so they can target their retention efforts. New one-time customers may be incented to return. Without predictive targeting, a retention campaign may cost more than it gains.

  6. Movie recommendations. Movies are selected, or recommended to customers, based on past reviews, related interests, or analysis of Twitter comments. On the movie production side, it’s time to start doing analyses on movie scripts, based on reaction to similar movies, to predict box office revenue and cities to hit.

  7. Education – guided studying for targeted learning. Every quiz show aficionado would like some guidance on which question areas need more study, and every student needs help on how to spend his limited study hours more effectively. Schools need the same analysis to provide more effective teaching media and techniques.

  8. Political campaigning with voter persuasion modeling. I’m sure every campaign would love to know which voters will be positively persuaded by specific contacts, such as a phone call, door knock, flier, or TV ad. The rest of us would rather not be annoyed by the multiple contacts of the wrong type.

  9. Clinical decision support systems. With costs escalating in healthcare today, it’s more important than ever to determine which patients are at risk of developing certain conditions, like diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and other lifetime illnesses. Additionally, predictive analytics can help make the best medical decision at the point of care.

  10. Insurance and mortgage underwriting. Predictive analytics will allow auto insurance companies to accurately determine a reasonable premium to cover each automobile and driver, which helps their bottom line, as well as ours. A financial entity needs the same ability to more accurately assess a borrower's ability to pay before granting a mortgage.

Some experts group predictive analytics in the new term “business analytics” intending to define an umbrella term including data warehousing, business intelligence, enterprise information management, enterprise performance management, and analytic applications. But whatever the name, the opportunity is still there, and it’s large.

According to a recent Gartner report, the business intelligence market is growing nine percent per year, will exceed $80 billion by 2014, with about 50 percent from predictive analytics by that time. Despite all this, the best opportunity for you is still the one you love and know the best, that no one else has recognized. The possibilities are endless, so why haven’t you started yet?

Marty Zwilling


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