Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What Does It Take To Get Lucky In Your New Startup?

business-luckIf you have had some success in a business, I’m sure you bristle just like I do when someone says “You were just lucky…” I’m a strong believer that we all make our own luck, which means that the harder we work, the luckier we get. In reality, “hard work” is just a catch-all term for a list of principles that good entrepreneurs follow, allowing them to work smarter and improve their odds of success.

A short list of these “hard work” principles, published by Anthony Tjan in the Harvard Business Review summarizes them as heart, smarts, and guts. I agree with these, and most people recognize them when they see them in others, but the terms are still a bit abstract for learning purposes.

Therefore, other experts, like professors Alex Rovira and Fernando Trias de Bes, authors of “Good Luck: Create the Conditions for Success in Life & Business,” have identified five more definitive principles that seemingly lucky and successful entrepreneurs have in common:

  1. Accept responsibility for your actions. Business owners who feel that they have had good luck also feel responsible for their own actions. When things go wrong or the outcome of any given situation is other than intended, they never point the finger of blame at external factors or other individuals. Instead, they look to themselves and ask, "What have I done for this to occur?" Then they act accordingly to solve the problem.

  2. Learning from mistakes. Creators of good luck don't see a mistake as a failure. Instead, a mistake is an opportunity for learning. Thomas Edison is the classic example. The very first light bulb was invented by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, who demonstrated the theoretical concept but gave up trying to develop a practical application after only three attempts. By contrast, Edison made his own good luck and designed a working light bulb after over 1,000 failures.

  3. Perseverance on all goals. Creators of good luck don't give up or postpone. When a problem or situation arises, they act immediately to either solve it without delay, delegate, or forget about it. This enables their energy to be fully focused on their work and avoid conscious or unconscious distractions, which only generate inefficiency.

  4. Confidence in yourself and others. The most powerful principle is often the most overlooked. Confidence in yourself is essential, and those who create their own good luck have high degrees of assertiveness and self-esteem. Closely linked to assertiveness and self-esteem is trust in others and respect for them, seeing other people as major sources of opportunity.

  5. Cooperation with others in your network. Synergy is key. Trust in others leads to a solid network of work colleagues and friends, which, in turn, provides more resources to carry out projects than if they were managed alone. Think cooperation rather than competitiveness. At the most basic level, any project or undertaking takes place in the context of the broader group, and everyone should have the chance to emerge a winner.

With these attributes and the right attitude, I believe that most of "business luck" can be meaningfully influenced. That lucky attitude, according to Tjan, is a combination of three traits – humility, intellectual curiosity, and optimism.

Therefore, the basic equation of developing the right lucky attitude is quite simple. It starts with having the humility to be self-aware of your own limitations, followed by the intellectual curiosity to ask the right questions and actively listen to input, and concluding with the belief and optimism that something better is always possible.

Any entrepreneur can have this mindset if they just believe that luck is not random. They need to realize that they alone are the creators of the conditions that foster the achievement of specific, visualized goals. Then, having seen it work, they will know how to repeat the success. Overall, that really is “hard work.” Are you doing the right hard work to get lucky in your business?

Marty Zwilling

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

8 Tips On How Much Money To Ask For From Investors

investment-amountStartups ask me “How much money should I ask for?” The simple answer is the absolute minimum amount you need to make your plan work. Some entrepreneurs try to start with a huge number, hoping they can negotiate and close on a smaller one, while others understate their requirements, in hopes of getting their foot in the door with an investor.

Neither of these strategies is a good one, as both are likely to damage your credibility with potential investors, even before they look hard at your plan. Here are the parameters you should use in sizing your request, and be able to explain in justifying your request to investors:

  1. Consider implied ownership cost. If your company is early stage and has a valuation under $1M, don’t ask for a $5M investment. The investor would be buying your company five times over, and he doesn’t want it. If your valuation is around $1M, you can validly ask for $200K-$300K, and offer 20%-30% of your company in exchange.

  2. Type of investor. Angel investment groups usually won’t consider a request over $1M, while venture capitalists won’t look at anything under $2M. Amounts of $100K or less, are usually relegated to “friends and family.” Approaching any one of these groups with a funding request outside their range is a waste of your time and theirs.

  3. Company stage. If your company is still in the “idea” stage, you have no valuation, so size your investment request on the basis of “goodwill” that you have with your rich uncle, and your business track record. Angels might be interested during “early stage” if you have a prototype, but VCs won’t bite until you have a product, customers, and revenue.

  4. Calculate what you need, and add a buffer. Do your financial model first with the volume, cost, and pricing parameters you want. See where your cashflow bottoms out. If it bottoms out at minus $400K, add a 25% buffer, and ask for $500K funding. The request size must tie into your financials to be credible.

  5. Investment terms. The most common case is an equity investment, but there are many terms that can impact what request size is credible. I’m talking about things like anti-dilution clauses, preferred versus common stock, valuation tied to later round, warrants, and bridge loan options. More restrictive terms reduce the credible investment amount.

  6. Single or staged delivery. In many cases, a single investment request may be scheduled for delivery in stages, or tranches (often misspelled as traunchs or traunches), based on milestone achievement. Obviously, this reduces investor risk and allows a larger commitment, since they can limit their loss if you fail to meet key objectives.

  7. Use of funds. Investors expect to see a “use of funds” list, and they expect the uses to apply only to your core mission. In other words, don’t tell investors that you intend to buy a fancy office building or executive cars with your funding. Even executive salaries should be minimal at this stage.

  8. Projected return on investment. Most entrepreneurs skip this step, but it helps your credibility to include it. Estimate a return on investment (ROI) by projecting company valuation at exit, to show the investor who has 20% what he will get back for that initial investment. He’s looking for a 10x return, since he assumes only one in ten survive.

Obviously, determining the proper size of your investment request is a non-trivial exercise, but it’s one of the most critical factors for investors in making a decision to invest or not to invest in your company. You need to get it defensibly right the first time, because changing your request under pressure definitely will kill your credibility.

The days are gone, if they ever existed, when you could present an idea and a vision, and have investors throw money at you. Now you have to do your homework. Get busy, and have fun.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 25, 2013

9 Tips To Business Success By Anticipating Problems

brian-tracy-self-disciplineCreating a startup, or managing any business, is all about problem solving. Some people are good at it and some are not – independent of their IQ or their book smarts (there may even be an inverse relationship here). Yet I’m convinced that problem solving is a learnable trait, rather than just a birthright.

Entrepreneurs who are great problem solvers within any business are the best prepared to solve their customers’ needs effectively as well. In fact, every business is about solutions to customer problems – no problems, no business. Problems are an everyday part of every business and personal environment.

Thus it behooves all of us to work on mastering the discipline of problem solving. Here is a formula from Brian Tracy, in his book “The Power of Self-Discipline” that I believe will help entrepreneurs move up a notch in this category:

  1. Take the time to define the problem clearly. Many entrepreneurs like to jump into solution mode immediately, even before they understand the issue. In some cases, a small problem can become a big one if you attack with inappropriate actions. In all cases, real clarity will expedite the path ahead.

  2. Pursue alternate paths on “facts of life” and opportunities. Remember, there are some things that you can do nothing about. They’re not problems; they are merely facts of life, like natural disasters. Often, what appears to be a problem is actually an opportunity in disguise.

  3. Challenge the definition from all angles. Beware of any problem for which there is only one definition. The more ways you can define a problem, the more likely it is that you will find the best solution. For example, “sales are too low” may mean strong competitors, ineffective advertising, or a poor sales process.

  4. Iteratively question the cause of the problem. This is all about finding the root cause, rather than treating a symptom. If you don’t get to the root, the problem will likely recur, perhaps with different symptoms. Don’t waste time re-solving the same problem.

  5. Identify multiple possible solutions. The more possible solutions you develop, the more likely you will come up with the right one. The quality of the solution seems to be in direct proportion to the quantity of solutions considered in problem solving.

  6. Prioritize potential solutions. An acceptable solution, doable now, is usually superior to an excellent solution with higher complexity, longer timeframe, and higher cost. There is a rule that says that every large problem was once a small problem that could have been solved easily at that time.

  7. Make a decision. Select a solution, any solution, and then decide on a course of action. The longer you put off deciding on what to do, the higher the cost, and the larger the impact. Your objective should be to deal with 80% of all problems immediately. At the very least, set a specific deadline for making a decision and stick to it.

  8. Assign responsibility. Who exactly is going to carry out the solution or the different elements of the solution? Otherwise nothing will happen, and you have no recourse but to implement all solutions yourself.

  9. Set a measure for the solution. Otherwise you will have no way of knowing when and whether the problem was solved. Problem solutions in a complex system often have unintended side effects which can be worse than the original problem.

People who are good at problem solving are some of the most valuable and respected people in every area. In fact, success if often defined as “the ability to solve problems.” In many cultures, this is called “street smarts,” and it’s valued even more than “book smarts.” The best entrepreneurs have both.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Investors Look First At The Founder, Then The Idea

James_H__ClarkInvestors are people too. They evaluate you like you should assess a possible co-founder or first employee. What are your credentials? What have you done that would convince me that my money is safe in your hands? Only after they see you as fundable, do they want to assess your plan for fundability, not the other way around.

Even with great credentials, it is all too possible for an entrepreneur to come across as a high risk investment. Here are some “rules of thumb” that indicate a marketable and experienced entrepreneur:

  • Highlights team strengths, more than his own. Some entrepreneurs seem to never stop talking about themselves, and all their accomplishments. The best ones talk more about how they have assembled a well-rounded team, and will continue to fill in the gaps.

  • Talks about the implementation plan, not the idea. Most entrepreneurs are great at envisioning their business idea, but the implementation is fuzzy. Experienced entrepreneurs talk about their implementation and rollout plan, with real milestones and quantifiable results.

  • Customer needs and benefits first, then product features. The best entrepreneurs show that their market domain knowledge is as strong as their product technology knowledge. They are able to weave their solution into the market, the opportunity, and customers, in a way that sounds like a natural fit, rather than a product sales pitch.

  • Focus is clear, not all over the map. Success means the entrepreneur must be laser focused on driving the business, passionate about a product, and passionate about a specific set of customers. If the business plan reads like a smorgasbord of offerings, there are probably not enough resources to do any well, and customers will be confused.

  • Rational business model, with prices and volumes. Unless the business is a non-profit, the entrepreneur needs to show how he will make money. The days are gone when investors want only to see a large market share or growth in eyeballs. Are revenues and costs reasonable and projected for five years?

As an entrepreneur, don’t let your ego get in the way, or believe you can take the world on by yourself. If you want to attract investors, you must be willing to listen and work with others, as well as share your ideas or your knowledge. Loner entrepreneurs won’t get their foot in the door with any investor I know.

If you are young or inexperienced, and don’t have business credentials yet, don’t hide this fact. I recommend a proactive approach, to highlight the accomplishments you have, the power of other team members, and show some humility in admitting a search for the rest of the team.

So you might ask, how do first-time entrepreneurs ever get the funding they need to prove that they can perform at the next level? The best answer is to team yourself with someone who has “been there and done that.” After a team success, you’ll find all members are “promoted” to the next level.

Another common approach is to bootstrap your first startup to success, possibly with some help from friends and family. As I said in the beginning, investors are people too, so get out there and make them your respected business friends before you try to sell your idea. Business networking is not the same as cold calling with a hard sell.

Every investor knows a few good entrepreneurs, like Marc Andreessen of Mosaic and Netscape fame, who could get millions of dollars of funding for just about any idea. He needed Jim Clark to help him get a first investment, yet now Marc is a major VC in his own right.

In fact, I don’t know one investor who has funded a “million dollar idea” without regard to the person and the plan behind it. Think about that the next time you pitch your idea, and never mention the people.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Start Business Planning Now For The Holiday Season

holiday-planningIn the US, the holiday season of Thanksgiving and Christmas is fast approaching. But no matter where you live in the world, you should use the holidays to give thanks for the positives in your life and your business. Yet you can never forget the seasonal business cash flow and activity demands that are approaching, so to be prepared – you need to start the planning now.

Even though these last few years have not been great financially for entrepreneurs, it always helps to look at the cup as half full, rather than half empty. We often forget that one person’s loss is a gain for others. Here are a few of the many things that entrepreneurs should be thankful for this holiday season, to keep the challenges in perspective:

  1. The economy continues to rebound. The stock market reached a new all-time high in 2013, and is finally providing some liquidity relief to concerned investors and startups alike. Home prices are slowly coming back, and consumer spending reached a new high of almost $11 billion in May 2013.

  2. Venture capital investments are returning to startups. Venture capital firms raised $4.1 billion for 35 funds during the first quarter of 2013, an increase of 22 percent compared to the level of dollar commitments during the fourth quarter of 2012, according to a report from Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA).

  3. New focus on a sustainable planet. The continuing rise in the price of fuel, combined with the ongoing evidence of global warming, has highlighted the need for alternative energy sources, and green products. Startups are springing up all over to capitalize on these opportunities.

  4. Incentive to do something you love. Lots of people tell me they are sick of the corporate grind, and they long for the opportunity to take their favorite activity or hobby, and make a business of it. Now many of them are doing it. Some are finding something more exciting after being laid off dead-end jobs.

  5. Holidays mean more time for the family. Keeping a sense of balance between work and family is always a challenge. With the workload reductions, some of you now have had the time to re-introduce yourself to your family and friends.

But remember, nothing happens in your business unless you make it happen. In all businesses, especially startups, cash-flow is king. Here are some key tips to optimize your cash flow in anticipation of these busy holiday periods:

  • Start with re-sizing per-unit profitability. Margin is everything. Unless your volumes are in the millions or higher, the difference between manufacturing cost and customer price better be 50% or greater. That should be true even if your customer is really a distributor. Otherwise, sales, marketing, and operational costs will kill you.
  • Next comes sales volume by channel. Here is where you need a “bottoms-up” estimate from the people in your organization who have to deliver. This forecast is really their commitment. It’s tempting here to simply calculate one percent market share, and assume anyone can do at least that much. It’s not credible and won’t happen.
  • Don’t forget that pesky overhead. Even with a slow economy, it’s amazing how fast office space costs add up, in conjunction with insurance, utilities, and administrative help. Then there are computer costs, trade shows, inventory, and special holiday promotions. Check industry average statistics to make sure you are in the right range.
  • Holiday sales fluctuations eat cash. Sales surges means more inventory is required to cover the ups-and-downs. Every dollar in inventory is a dollar less in cash available, maybe even two dollars less if your gross margin is 50%. If you try to vary the number of employees to match, that costs even more cash for hiring, and later resizing.

As I suggested in the beginning, the business year has been a good one so far, and the coming holiday season has the potential to make it even better. Don’t let the demands of seasonal fluctuations spoil the party. Do your planning now, and drive your business to new highs, rather than letting the demands drag you down. How prepared are you to make this season a success?

Marty Zwilling

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

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

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

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How and Why To Do Your Own Business Financial Model

Start-up ExpertMost entrepreneurs tend to avoid this area of the business, and as a result are badly surprised by cost realities, and investor expectations. They seem to think that financial projections are simply invented numbers for investors, and not useful. In reality, it’s like jumping in your car for a long hard drive with no destination in mind. Chances are, you won’t enjoy success from the trip.

What is a business financial model, really? In most cases, it is merely a Microsoft Excel spread sheet loaded with your cost and revenue projections for your startup, starting now in time and extending at five years into the future. For more value, a few variables can be added, like product volume growth rate, and number of salesmen, for “what if” analyses.

Why? For you to make decisions and manage the business - because we are all mere mortals and can’t possibly keep all these numbers and calculations in our head – to decide whether and when the business is going to be profitable given rational projections of costs and income (these assumptions are referred to as your business model). Secondarily, it will be required by potential investors to validate how much money you need to get started, and how much return they can expect on their investment.

When? The financial model should be running even before you incorporate the business and build prototype products (would you start driving your car on a long trip before you knew where you were going?). If you can’t make that objective, then at least don’t approach potential investors until your model is working – investors have little tolerance for startups with no financial plan.

How? Start with a “sample” business model, available in generic form or customized for specific industries, from many sources on the Internet. Another alternative is to download from my website a free sample model that I built for a specific startup, with elements suggested by Angel investors and venture capitalists, ready to be customized to your business.

If you are not computer literate in Microsoft Excel, your first task is to find someone who has the time and expertise to convert your base set of costs and revenues into projection formulas, cash flow summaries, and a profit and loss statement.

Do your own, if you can, because you know the numbers. In fact, this is the easy part. More challenging is ‘defining’ the business model (assembling all the real variables of your projected business, pricing assumptions, staffing requirements, marketing costs, sales costs, and revenue flows).

This business model can then be used for many purposes, such as risk and profit assessment, projecting the values of assumptions that are made based on existing market conditions, calculating the margins that are needed to avoid adverse situations, and various forms of sensitivity analysis. These are necessary to estimate capital investment requirements, plan capital allocation, and measure financial performance.

Creating financial projections allows you to see areas of strength and weakness in your proposed business model, enabling you to make critical changes that will allow your business to run more successfully.

While people start businesses for many reasons, making money is usually important. Even a non-profit can’t afford to lose money. You won't know if you can meet these expectations until you build a financial model with reasonable financial projections.

It’s a great learning experience, and you can do it yourself, but don’t hesitate to ask for help from a professional if you need it. You will be amazed at how clear the relationship becomes between pricing, cost, and volume. When you lose money on every item, it’s hard to make it up in volume.

Marty Zwilling

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Startups Need Mergers And Acquisitions For Growth

startup-growth-partnershipsEvery entrepreneur tries to maximize his startup growth by building and selling more product and services for the widest geographic area that he can support. This strategy is called “organic growth,” yet it alone may yield only a fraction of the potential you could achieve, unless you add the additional strategies of partnerships and M&A (mergers and acquisitions).

Many entrepreneurs are paranoid about the partnership approach, and think that M&A is only an alternative for large companies who are flush with cash. Both of these qualms are wrong and shortsighted. Laurence Capron and Will Mitchell explain why in their book, “Build, Borrow, or Buy: Solving the Growth Dilemma.” I like their recommended framework for emerging firms, as well as large multinationals, to help build an optimal growth strategy for your company:

  1. Evaluate internal development versus external sourcing. Building through internal development, or organic growth, makes the most sense when you have a core set of skilled internal resources. Use external sourcing to fill in the non-critical gaps.

  2. Add basic partner contracts or alliances. Using contracts with partners for growth resources (“borrowing”) is best when you can both define the resources clearly and protect them with effective contractual terms. Don’t use alliances for core competencies.

  3. Invest in selective strategic alliances. Borrowing by way of a more engaged alliance helps you obtain targeted resources when you and a partner collaborate through limited points of contact and have complementary goals for your joint activities.

  4. Actively pursue mergers and acquisitions. M&A is “buying” resources for growth. This makes sense when you anticipate needing the freedom and control to make major changes to enhance growth, with a credible integration path while retaining key people.

The real challenge here is balance. Too much emphasis on organic growth can become a straightjacket that leads only to incremental innovation and limited horizons. Too much reliance on growth via contracts and alliances makes you vulnerable to partners’ actions and conflicts of interest. Overreliance on acquisitions drains resources and de-motivates internal teams.

In every startup, as well as in mature companies, there is no substitute for constantly maintaining a pipeline of alternatives. This requires constant focus, as well as maintaining the skill set to do things like the following:

  • Locating and not losing knowledge from within. Startups often find it difficult to retain key personnel and to control proprietary ideas. Rather than push non-compete agreements on your superstars, it’s more productive to create incentive systems and creative ways for them to work more independently, just for you.
  • External scanning for resources. Startups can’t usually afford a business development team, so that effort is just one of the measurements that should fall on every CTO and CEO. Here is also an ideal opportunity to use your external advisors and Board to help identify external resources, potential partnerships, and acquisition opportunities.
  • Partial acquisition. Budget relatively small “educational investments” at early stages, to learn from a target firm without a full commitment, or without leading either partner astray. These can reinforce the operational and financial linkages through licensing or alliance agreements, and allow the relationship to develop prior to an acquisition commitment.
  • Spin-ins. This is a transaction whereby two firms agree on a set of milestones that would trigger a partnership or acquisition, if the innovator achieves the specified goals. The initiator funds the innovators’ development activities and gives them the flexibility to work independently.

There is no question that startups which manage the broadest alternatives for growth will gain competitive advantages. This selection capability is a skill and a discipline that every entrepreneur needs to nurture and develop over time. The world and current economic environments have changed. The past can be a deadly rear-view mirror. Look for new horizons.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Real Entrepreneurs Need to Accentuate The Positive

Trevor-BlakeEntrepreneurs need to listen to constructive criticism, but ignore negative vibes and complainers at all costs. If you are a complainer, and you are thinking of becoming an entrepreneur, think again. The world of an entrepreneur is tough, unpredictable, and fraught with risk. Most importantly, the buck stops with you, so there is no room for excuses and negativity.

Even listening often to negative team members and partners will reinforce negative thinking and behavior, and turn your normally positive perspective toxic. I’ve seen it too often in real life, and it was reinforced to me a while back in a book by Trevor Blake, “Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life.”

Trevor is a highly successful serial entrepreneur and success coach who has studied this phenomenon for many years, including the latest findings in neuroscience. Reviewing dozens of autobiographies of great entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie, it seems that all had an unshakable belief in their ability to control their lives, with no excuses.

Here he offers, with some startup adaptation from me, ways that every entrepreneur needs to defend themselves against negativity – yours and others – so you can rewire your brain and boost the occurrence of positive thoughts and behaviors:

  1. Become self-aware. When you feel an excuse coming on, no matter how trivial, stop yourself. You can’t delete the thought, but you can revise it before saying it aloud. So instead of saying, “I’ll never get the funding I need in this economy,” you might say, “Let’s try this new crowdfunding approach, since our solution value is so easy to understand.”

  2. Redirect the conversation. When you participate in negative dialog with a complainer, you’ll walk away feeling depleted. If he says, “I hate demanding customers,” counter his negative thoughts with a positive image: “At least we have customers – how many of our competitors wish they had the backlog that we do?”

  3. Smother a negative thought with a positive image. If a negative thought pops into your mind, immediately input a different image. This is the process of “neurogenesis” – creating new pathways in your brain that lead to positive behaviors. So if you think “I’m working late again,” replace this with a pleasant image of the restful weekend ahead.

  4. Don’t try too hard to convert others. When trapped in a blatant complaint session with members of your team, simply choose silence. Let their words bounce off you while you think of something pleasant. If you try to stop them, you may end up alienating yourself and becoming a target. Let your positive results do the work in time.

  5. Distance yourself when possible. When you hear insiders criticizing your startup, excuse yourself and take a break somewhere quiet. Think of something pleasant before returning. You have to take this seriously, because negative people can and will pull you into the quicksand.

  6. Wear an invisible “mentality shield.” Imagine that an invisible shield like a glass cloak made of positive energy lightly covers your whole body. You can see perfectly well through it but it protects you from others’ negative words and emotions. This technique is used by professional athletes to deflect the negative energy of a hostile crowd.

  7. Create a private retreat. When you are stuck with a cohort who is spewing vitriol, you should mentally retreat to a private, special place where you plan to enjoy the successful fruits of your entrepreneurial labor. Concentrate on your vision of making the world a better place.

  8. Transfer responsibility. On occasions when you’re pressed against a wall while someone rants about all the injustices in their role, throw the responsibility back at them by saying, “So what do you intend to do about it?” If they just want to vent rather than find a solution, this tactic will stop them in their tracks.

  9. Forgive your lapses. Everyone complains sometimes. Your computer crashes. Deadlines pile up. It’s human to vent once in a while. Be kind to yourself and start afresh. The less frequently you complain, the more time will pass between lapses into negativity. This is how rewiring the brain works.

Trying to live with complainers in your startup is not only unpleasant, but it’s bad for your own well-being, and bad for everyone’s performance. New research shows that if they keep hearing negative messages, your team behavior will change to fit these new perceptions, and not in a good way. You can’t survive with that kind of help in today’s competitive environment.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Entrepreneurs Must Measure ROI On Social Media

ROIIf you are an entrepreneur today, and not using social media to promote your business, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. But, contrary to what most people preach, it isn’t entirely free. Most social media outlets don’t require a subscription charge, but they certainly require an investment – in people, in technology, your reputation, and your time.

There are hundreds of consultants out there who will take your money for guidance in this area, but I recommend that you start with some free resources on the Internet, or one of the many recent books on this topic. One I read a while back, “How to Make Money with Social Media” by Jamie Turner and Reshma Shah, Ph.D., hits all the right points from my perspective:

  • There are risks as well as benefits. As with many startup activities, you only have one chance for a great first impression. You can jump into social media with a poor brand definition, poorly focused content, unrealistic expectations of customer service, or be killed by malware or viruses.
  • Assess social media relevance to your product or service. If your business is industrial B2B products, social media should be low on your list. Spend your time and money on other platforms. If you are selling to consumers, especially younger ones, your business won’t survive without an effective social media presence.

  • Attracting key stakeholders requires sensitivity. For some customers and many investors, a heavy focus on social networks and viral marketing may be a negative, rather than a positive. A balance of conventional and social communication and marketing is always advised.

  • Pick the right platform for your business. Within each of the platform categories defined above, there is a right one and a wrong one for your audience. For example, LinkedIn is attuned to business professionals, Facebook is dominated by the social and upwardly mobile crowd, and the fading MySpace is for tweens and creative types.
  • Communication and writing skills are required. Heavy texting experience is not a qualification for communicating via social media. In additional to strong journalistic writing and storytelling, you need business acumen, strategic thinking and planning, and the ability to do the right research. These days, video production is also a useful skill.
  • Make social media an integrated part of an overall strategy. An integrated marketing strategy starts with an overall brand management strategy, delivered through online and offline communications, promotions, and customer engagement vehicles. Your Twitter and YouTube messages better match your print advertising message.
  • Find the right tools to analyze the ROI. Return-On-Investment metrics are not new, but the tools are different. Get familiar with current social media tools, such as Google Analytics, SproutSocial, and HootSuite analytics. Over time, put together the data you need to measure your progress on a weekly/monthly/yearly basis.

The key social media platforms today include communications (Wordpress blogs, Twitter), collaboration (Wikipedia, StumbleUpon), and multimedia (YouTube, Flickr). In looking ahead, don’t forget the mobile platforms (iPhone, Android), and location-based services (Foursquare, ShopKick).

As with any resource or tool, you need to optimize your social media costs against a targeted return. That means first setting a strategy and plan for what you want to achieve, then executing the plan efficiently, and measuring results. It’s not free, but it’s an investment that you can’t afford not to make.

Marty Zwilling

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Do You Have The Moxy To Be A Parallel Entrepreneur?

moxie-parallel-entrepreneurWith the cost of entry at an all-time low, and the odds of success equally low, more and more entrepreneurs are starting multiple companies concurrently. This “parallel entrepreneur” idea has been around since at least the days of Thomas Edison, and for the new generation of entrepreneurs, who have been multi-tasking since birth, it’s probably not even a stretch.

Some entrepreneurs, like Paul Graham of Y Combinator, and Dave McClure of 500 Startups, mask their focus on multiple startups by running an incubator or accelerator, and providing seed funding for a number of individual efforts. They skip from one to the next, providing expert guidance and money, getting their satisfaction (and reward) from the best of the best.

For entrepreneurs who really try to be the CEO of multiple early-stage startups concurrently, the hot new term for this practice is “multi-table” entrepreneurs. I suspect this term is derived from the common online gambling practice of playing multiple poker games at the same time. In fact, I think that’s a great analogy, since the odds in a poker game may be similar to those of a startup.

Yet there are clear advantages to the parallel approach, if you have the moxy, resources, energy bandwidth and the ability to multi-task effectively:

  1. A portfolio approach versus all eggs in one basket. Investors have long argued the value of a portfolio to hedge and leverage the risk, so why shouldn’t entrepreneurs do the same? With the current low capital requirements for smartphone and Internet apps, and high market volatility, it makes sense to spread the risk around as much as possible.

  2. Optimize your advisers and investors. Advisors and mentors are busy people. In your weekly meetings, it’s as easy to cover multiple company issues as one. Investors building their portfolio love to hear about multiple startups in one sitting, to select the best fit. Investors look at the people first anyway, so a strong team is good common ground.

  3. Many entrepreneurs love investing in other startups. Most Angel investors I know have previously founded and run at least one startup. Both these roles require unique skills, but both can benefit from operating in the other mode. Multi-table investors are the norm, and the investment process is good training for multi-table entrepreneurs.

  4. Learn to manage resources like multi-divisional corporations. Allocating resources, financial and operational, between divisions has long been a strategy for conglomerates, and can work just as well for savvy entrepreneurs. Revenue from one startup can be “invested” in another, and assets like buildings and computers can be shared.

  5. Attract and share specialized talent and skills. It’s very hard to attract talented people to a single product startup, but much easier if the entrepreneur has a bigger vision, with several entities producing complementary products. Expensive “lean startup” specialists can see a career potential, work full-time, and drive multiple successes.

  6. Cross-fertilization from current market feedback. One thing that you learn in one company, at a given moment in time, is equally valuable or leveragable in a different way at your other companies. As your customer list grows in one, you own it for the second. The cost of finding new markets can now be split among multiple entities.

  7. Foster and enforce the art of delegation. For long-term success, every entrepreneur needs to know when to step in, and when to delegate. That’s a skill that may not get enough attention until too late by a single startup entrepreneur. With parallel startups, delegation is a requirement for entry, and a valuable skill for all environments.

  8. Multiply the pay-back. Many parallel entrepreneurs have already achieved financial security through earlier efforts. Now they may see a way to multiply pay-back and spread the risk by active involvement with multiple startups. Of course, it’s like a double-down in gambling as well, which can quickly turn into a double loss.

  9. Products need not be tied to a given company. With open-source tools and public APIs, every product is no longer owned by a given company. The company entity is now primarily used to allocate ownership, accountability, and tax consideration, and need not be bound to a given product or operational structure.

  10. Burns off high energy and bandwidth. Now we are back to the fact that there are people who love to multi-task, and anything less is simply boring. This is especially true of Gen-Y entrepreneurs, with fire in the belly to change the world. Some see startups as a lottery where more tickets mean a higher probability of winning.

Of course, there are huge risks when you try to ride multiple horses at one time. At the very least, you may not do either well, or won’t be fully there when the going gets tough. Even single entrepreneurs who maintain a day job, for a steady paycheck, feel the pain of juggling multiple initiatives.

The hard part is getting the management part right. Every startup has to have someone minding the store, and a clear path to “the buck stops here.” No one can be a full-time CEO and work “in” the business of multiple companies. Plus there is the challenge of making sure the multiple roles do not conflict, legally or otherwise. Tread carefully there.

The most common way people move into the parallel entrepreneur environment, if they are so inclined, is to start another one, while still exiting the current one. The risk here is that winding down one takes much longer than you would expect, and starting something new consumes more energy than anyone predicts.

Overall, for the first-time entrepreneur, my sense is that trying to focus on more than one equally exciting idea is a recipe for failure. But with the cost of entry going down, and the multi-tasking bandwidth of each new generation going up, I suspect parallel entrepreneurs may soon be the norm rather than the exception. Are you ready to step up to this table?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 09/24/2013 ***

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