Thursday, October 31, 2013

10 Myths About Creativity Can Derail Your Startup

Creativity_is_boundlessEvery entrepreneur believes in their heart that their startup is more innovative and creative than their competitors. Yet none knows exactly where creativity comes from within, or how to pick and motivate the most creative people for the team. Most believe and follow one or more of the popular myths on business creativity, even though none of them have much scientific evidence.

Like most people, they think of creativity as something divinely-inspired, unpredictable, and bestowed on only a lucky few. A new study based on the latest research, “The Myths of Creativity,” by David Burkas tries to demystify the processes and forces that drive innovation.

His research supports what I have always believed, that anyone with a practical and common- sense mindset, grounded in reality, with the proper training, can deliver creative and innovative new ideas, projects, processes, and programs. The first step is to resist the urge to limit your thinking to the following long-standing myths:

  1. Eureka myth. This myth arises from the fact that new ideas can sometimes seem to appear as a flash of insight. Research shows that such insights are actually the result of hard prior work on the problem, usually followed by time to incubate in the subconscious mind as we connect threads, before the ideas pop out as new innovations.

  2. Breed myth. The belief here is that creative ability is a trait inherent in one’s heritage or genes. In fact, the evidence supports just the opposite; there is no creative breed. People who have the confidence in themselves and work the hardest on a problem are the ones most likely to come up with a creative solution.

  3. Originality myth. This myth is fostered by the long-standing emphasis on intellectual property, making a creative idea proprietary to the person who thought of it. The historical record, and empirical research, shows more evidence that new ideas are combinations of older ideas, and sharing those helps generate more innovation.

  4. Expert myth. Many companies rely on a technical expert, or team of experts, to generate a stream of creative ideas. Harder problems call for more knowledgeable experts. Instead, research suggests that particularly tough problems often require an outsider’s new perspective, or people who don’t know all the reasons why something can’t be done.

  5. Incentive myth. The expert myth often leads to another myth, which argues that bigger incentives, monetary or otherwise, will increase motivation and hence increase innovation productivity. Incentives can help, but often they do more harm than good, as people learn to game the system.

  6. Lone Creator myth. This reflects our tendency to rewrite history to attribute breakthrough inventions and striking creative works to a sole person, ignoring supportive work and collaborative preliminary efforts. Creativity is often a team effort, and recent research into creative teams can help leaders build the perfect creative troupe.

  7. Brainstorming myth. Many consultants today preach the concept of brainstorming, or spontaneous group discussions to explore every possible approach, no matter how far out, to yield creative breakthroughs. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that just “throwing ideas around” is enough to consistently produce innovative breakthroughs.

  8. Cohesive myth. Believers in this myth want everyone to get along and work happily together to foster innovations, so we see “zany” companies where employees play foosball and enjoy free lunches together. In fact, many of the most creative companies have found ways to structure dissent and conflict into their process to better push the creative limits.

  9. Constraints myth. Another popular notion is that constraints hinder our creativity, and the most innovative results come from people with “unlimited” resources. Research shows, however, that creativity loves constraints, so perhaps companies should do just the opposite – intentionally apply limits to leverage the creative potential of their people.

  10. Mousetrap myth. Other people falsely believe that once we have a new idea, the work is done. In fact, the world today won’t beat a path to our door, or even find the door, on an idea for a better mousetrap, unless we communicate it to the world, market it, and find the right customers. We all know of at least one “better mousetrap” that is still hidden.

If these are indeed the myths of business creativity, then what are the true components? Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard, asserts that creativity is really driven by four separate components: domain expertise, a defined creativity methodology, people willing to engage, and company acceptance of new ideas. Where these components overlap is where real creativity happens.

Thus if you believe that your startup success really depends on more creativity and innovation than your competitors, it behooves you to spend the time needed to understand and nurture the components of creativity in your environment, and not blindly following the historic myths. How creatively are you pursuing innovation in your business?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 10/25/2013 ***


Share/Bookmark

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


Share/Bookmark

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


Share/Bookmark

Monday, October 28, 2013

7 Myths About Ethics Which Will Hurt Your Business

ethical-leadershipNew entrepreneurs tend to focus only on getting the product right, and assume that the right culture and ethics will come later simply by hiring good people. In fact, they need an early focus on developing their moral compass, as well as setting the right ethical tone. Building an ethical business is more than just compliance and meeting legal requirements, and it has big paybacks.

One 11-year study of over 200 companies, detailed in “Corporate Culture and Performance,” found that those working on their culture improved revenue by 516%, and increased net income by 755%. Conscious Capitalism, a new business movement which includes a large focus on culture and ethics, claims 3.2 times the return of other companies over the last 10 years.

One of the keys to setting the right ethical tone is understanding and avoiding the myths and pitfalls of others. I saw a good summary of these in a new book, “Ethical Leadership,” by Andrew Leigh, an expert in this area. I like his specifics for business leaders on improving and sustaining the best company cultures, and his summary of the culture myths facing new business leaders:

  1. It’s easy to be ethical. This myth ignores the complexity surrounding ethical decision making, particularly within business organizations. Ethical decisions are seldom simple. For example, people often do not automatically know that they are facing an ethical choice. Any given individual may not recognize the moral scope of the issues involved.

  2. Business ethics are more about religion than management or leadership. Behind this myth lies the confused belief that ethics are a means of altering people’s values. The reality is different. An ethical culture deals with managing values between the individual and the company, to best handle the inevitable conflicts that crop up in every business.

  3. Hire only ethical people, so further time on business ethics is not needed. This is usually an excuse for not developing ethical policies and practices. These can be as simple as how to handle customer over-payments, or more complex in how to handle the choices every employee may face between conflicting customer and company interests.

  4. Business ethics are best left to philosophers and academics. Deal with this myth by sharing with colleagues some of the highly practical tools for making sense of the issue – such as ethics audits, behavior codes, risk strategies, targeted training and leadership guidance. Business ethics is a discipline that must be practiced every day by everyone.

  5. Ethics can’t be managed. While codes of behavior do not guarantee an ethical culture, they do clarify desired behavior and articulate for employees what is expected of them. Every business has complex and diverse dilemmas which are not specifically covered in documented procedures, so employees need clear values leadership for guidance.

  6. We’ve never broken the law so we must be ethical. Many perfectly legal actions can still be deeply unethical. As an example, companies often realize that faulty products are slipping out, but they delay a recall, sighting that strictly legal requirements are being met. Unethical behavior can even with something low key which initially goes unnoticed.

  7. Unethical behavior in business is just due to a few ‘bad apples.’ In reality, most unethical behavior in business happens because the environment tolerates it, usually through benign neglect. When it comes to ethics, even good people tend to be followers, and if told to do something, they will do it, without considering the ethical implications.

Company ethics are a prime example of where you and your company only get one chance for a great first impression, and if you lose it, it’s almost impossible to regain. Don’t follow the examples of institutions in the recent financial meltdown, or certain oil companies working offshore, or the many smaller company examples we have seen in our own neighborhoods.

Every business, new or old, needs to remember that an ethical culture, or lack of it, shows in the actual behavior and attitudes of all team members, rather than just in policy documents and videos from the top. A successful business is far more than a good product and a good business model – it’s equally about projecting and executing with a great culture. Can you vouch for the ethics of your company, from top to bottom?

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How To Find An Angel Funding Match For Your Startup

paulgrahamFundraising is brutal. Actually, according to Paul Graham of Y-Combinator fame, “Raising money is the second hardest part of starting a startup. The hardest part is making something people want.” More startups may fail for that reason, but a close second is the difficulty of raising money.

A while back, I outlined “The 10 Best Sources of Cash to Start Your Business” for startups, listing angel investors as alternative #6. I still get a lot of questions on these mysterious and often invisible investors, so here is another attempt to bring them out of the ether.

By definition, an angel investor is not an “institutional investor.” Venture capitalists (VCs) are paid to invest other people’s money, and measured on the rate of return they get. Angels are typically high net worth individuals who are investing their own money, for a wide range of motives.

So “good” angels are ones with motives that are consistent with what you bring to the table. This means they usually invest in people who have the right “chemistry”, and areas of business they already know. They tend to work locally, so they can “touch and feel” their investments.

Angel investors also tend to limit the size of individual investments to $250K or less. If you need more, you need VCs or a flock of angels. So how do you find those good angels?

  • Use personal networking. The best angels you will find are the ones who know you personally, or know a member of your team or advisory board. If a potential investor gets to know you BEFORE you are asking for money, your credibility and investment probability will be improved by an order of magnitude.
  • Entice angels to play along. Of course, angels are really mortals. They want to make a difference. Asking an angel to work with your company in an advisory role is a great way to establish a relationship that may lead to a cash investment. If you impress the angel, it will likely make her at least an archangel (advocate) when it comes to funding.
  • Court local angel groups. Since angel investors most often focus only in their own geographic area, it’s most effective to court the local group, or even make a guest appearance with an archangel. If you can earn an archangel's confidence, he or she will invite you to pitch the group, and you'll have an edge in the voting.
  • Mine national databases. If you are still alone, submit your application to the leading online website national databases of angel investors, Gust (USA) and National Angel Capital Association (Canada). These sites have arrangements with hundreds of local groups and individual investors that you might otherwise have missed.
  • Remember angels beget angels. That means that once you get the first one, he or she becomes your best advocate for finding more. Investment angels don’t like to travel alone, so they will bring in others if they can (it’s called share the risk).
  • Don’t forget passive angels. These are angel investors who are private, meaning they don’t go to meetings, but will invest if someone they trust brings them an attractive opportunity. Find the right investment advisor, or member of your advisory board, and the “match-making” will happen.

Remember that angels have a culture all their own, and it pays to understand how to deal positively with them after you find one. There are some books out there to help, like the one I published with Joe Bockerstette “Attracting an Angel - How to get Money from Business Angels and Why Most Entrepreneurs Don't”, and an old standby “The Art of The Start”, by Guy Kawasaki.

Even if you follow this recipe, you are likely to find that fundraising is a brutal challenge. But if it results in a good angel or two watching over your startup, you will definitely be one step closer to heaven.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Saturday, October 26, 2013

10 Steps To Maximize Clout In Your Business Today

gina-carr-terry-brockSuccessful entrepreneurs often start with a “random” idea, but they quickly focus their efforts and follow a “system” to organize their startup and maximize the clout of their activities. Too many entrepreneur “wannabes” never get past the idea stage, or strike out randomly in many directions, hoping that their passion will convince people to follow them and make their business grow.

There are many systems for business out there, but all of them need a way to keep score on progress and impact. If your business is to be a thought leader in the social media world, the dominant system of grading how much influence you have online today is your Klout score, as explained in a new book, “Klout Matters,” by Gina Carr and Terry Brock.

I’m not convinced that maximizing Klout will maximize your clout in every business, but I do agree that social media must be a part of the system that every entrepreneur needs to implement today to build their business. I also agree with the ten steps that these authors outline for building systems leading to businesses with clout in today’s world:

  1. Clearly define your purpose. You have to clearly understand what you want to achieve before you are likely to achieve it. If you can’t write it down, you probably don’t understand it. Key factors gating your success will always be your level of competency in your chosen field, level of demand for that skill, and how easily you can be replaced.

  2. Find those arenas where your needs are met. If you want to be a thought leader, find where your potential followers hang out. If you have something to sell, build relationships in the community of buyers. Experimentation is an important part of this process. You will need to test groups constantly to make sure you are in the right one.

  3. Allocate some time to spend on social media. Social media is critical today to almost every business. But make sure the time you spend is quality time, focused on your objectives, and balanced in relation to all your other business requirements. Spend time learning new techniques, and time measuring the return from your efforts.

  4. Be a great resource for others. What we all need is trusted advisors who can help us decipher the clutter. As you become an expert in your field, you need to offer yourself as a trusted advisor, and you will quickly gain a loyal following. Writing, audios, and videos are all great ways to do this, since these all facilitate the one-to-many multiplier.

  5. Provide a unique point of view. Be creative and add value to what you offer your target market. This is true for thought leaders, entrepreneurs, as well as anyone who is looking to be hired in a job. Adding value builds influence and subsequently can build your business, as well as your Klout score. People don’t follow followers or repeaters.

  6. Continue to learn and grow. One of the most important skills that every leader must nurture is how to learn. Some people learn best from conferences, while other learn best from blogs and other information online. Standing still is falling behind, and you can’t afford to fall behind in today’s fast paced business environment.

  7. Forget the old “spray and pray.” A popular old marketing concept was that if you did enough broadcasting of your message to enough people, you would find success. Today you need to talk with, not at, your customers and constituents to get ideas. The best thought leaders have learned how to listen and acknowledge their community.

  8. Build a team. Operating alone in today’s complex business world, including the many social media channels, is not physically possible as your business grows. The good news is that with new technology and the Internet, you can tap into the services of, and build relationships with brilliant people around the world, to build an integrated virtual team.

  9. Seek exposure to new people who are relevant. People come and go in the real world and on social media. Thus it is important that you continually expand your network to engage new people who are building influence in your community. Only in this way will you be exposed to new thoughts and ideas, and enhance your own digital influence.

  10. Focus on a specific niche. You need to find a niche where you have both passion and competency. More passion is not a substitute for focus and competency. Make sure the niche is large enough, and includes people with money, enough to provide an income for you to continue your efforts and be successful.

Influence is more important than ever in today’s connected world as brands, companies, and individuals vie to become the next big phenomenon. Do you have any idea how much influence your company commands today, and what is your business doing to extend that influence to the bottom line?

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

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


Share/Bookmark

Thursday, October 24, 2013

10 Ways Self-Promotion Drives Entrepreneur Success

promote-yourselfToo many entrepreneurs I know still believe that that their great idea will carry the startup, and they may even minimize their own value, especially if they have introvert tendencies. Yet most investors agree that the “idea” is worth nothing alone, and it’s the entrepreneur execution that counts. That means that selling yourself is more important than selling your idea.

In the corporate world, experts have recognized for a long time that how people perceive you at work is vital to your career success. No matter how talented you are, it doesn’t matter unless managers can see those talents and think of you as an invaluable employee, or a game-changing manager, or the person whose name is synonymous with success.

In the entrepreneur world, your perception is equally critical, except the “managers” in this world are your investors, customers, vendors, business partners, and team members. I just finished a book by Dan Schawbel, “Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success,” which will help you maximize these perceptions, and applies equally well entrepreneurs as well as professionals.

Everyone needs to realize that whether it’s in the workplace or in the startup community, business is a new world today with new rules. Whether you are a new young Gen-Y entrepreneur, or a Baby Boomer who is struggling to stay relevant, here is a quick guide to some of the changes that Schawbel sees in the workplace requiring self-promotion, that I have updated for entrepreneurs:

  1. Your startup “idea” is just the beginning. Your startup idea only scratches the surface of what is required to build a successful business. Use the idea to kick-start your relationships with co-founders, investors, customers and business partners. Your ability to promote yourself and learn from these will determine your ultimate success.

  2. You are going to need a lot of skills you don’t have right now. A recent Department of Education study shows that soft (interpersonal) skills have become more important for success than hard (technical) skills. Entrepreneurs need leadership, teamwork, listening, and coaching skills, which you can learn from advisors and networking with peers.

  3. Your reputation is the single greatest asset you have. Your CEO title might be good for your ego, but in the grand scheme of things, what matters more is how much people trust you, whom you know, who knows about you, and the aura you give off around you. What other people think you can do is more important than what you have done.

  4. Your personal life is now public. With the Internet and social networks, things you do in your personal life can affect your success in a big way. Manage your whole image, rather than ignore it. Even the smallest things, like how you behave, your online presence or lack of it, and whom you associate with can help build your brand or tear it down.

  5. You need to build a positive presence in new media. There are plenty of benefits to new media, if you maintain a positive presence. Your online social networks enable you to build your reputation, connect with people who have interests similar to yours, find educational opportunities, and put you in touch with people who can help your startup.

  6. You will need to work well with people from different generations. Because the combination of economic need and increasing life spans is keeping everyone in the workplace longer, you will need to work well with people of all different ages. Each generation communicates differently, and has a different view of the marketplace.

  7. The one with the most connections wins. We have moved from an information economy to a social one. It’s less about what you know (Google search will help you in seconds), and more about whether you can work with other people to solve problems. If you don’t get and stay connected, you’ll quickly become irrelevant to the marketplace.

  8. All it takes is one person to change your life for the better. Remember the rule of one. All you need is that one investor, that one major customer, or that one distributor to keep you ahead of competitors. It’s up to you to get that key person on board to support your business. Self-promotion in the right way can make all the difference.

  9. Hours are out, accomplishments are in. If you want to grow your business, stop thinking about how many hours you work, and aim for more milestones and traction. Success is more results, not more work. Measure your results and promote them to every constituent. Help them to realize your value.

  10. Your startup is in your hands, not your investors or even customers. Be accountable for your own business success, and take charge of your life. Look for win-win business relationships, since people won’t help you if you are not helping them. If you aren’t learning and growing, you have nothing to promote and aren’t benefitting anyone.

The challenge for all entrepreneurs is to gain visibility and show value without bragging and coming off as self-centered. Take personal credit where credit is due, but also share the successes of the team and the business milestones with everyone. Success leverages success.

Now, how do you start? I like Schawbel’s recommendation to do one thing every day, like add a new skill, or build a new relationship that will advance you. Developing this “One Step Forward a Day” habit will keep you current, make you feel more fulfilled and confident, and increase your ability to promote yourself. Are you promoting yourself today, or demoting your startup by default?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 10/10/2013 ***


Share/Bookmark

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


Share/Bookmark

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How Entrepreneurs Can Be Business Leaders And More

StandOutfromCrowdStarting and building a company is all about leadership – formulating an idea, building a unique plan based on vision and experience, and forging a path over and through all obstacles. Yet the image of leadership in business is at an all-time low, according to national leadership experts, considering the political debacles, record business bankruptcies, and executive fraud cases.

If the country is to recover financially and politically, new leaders will have to emerge to fill the leadership deficit – new leaders who understand that leadership is a privilege, not an entitlement, according to executive coach Michael Schutzler, author of the book “Inspiring Excellence – A Path to Exceptional Leadership.

Entrepreneurs are well positioned to become the new leaders, because they perceive problems as opportunities, and have the mental mindset to innovate and execute. They have the required passion, perseverance, and work ethic. What they don’t have by default are the skills required, or the relationships. These don’t come automatically with the CEO title.

Schutzler’s view of leadership is different than many academics and executive coaches, who feel that leadership is an innate character trait. He urges people to focus on developing a few key relationship skills, and I agree. Here are some key conclusions:

  • Leadership is a learned behavior, not a character trait. Good judgment, for example, is certainly a hallmark of exceptional leadership, but it isn’t something you are born with. “More than anything, good judgment comes from listening,” he says. It also comes from paying very close attention to every situation, and learning from it.
  • Listening is the most important skill for a leader. We need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? Because as leaders, if we speak too soon, we shut off creation. We shut off contribution. We force the adoption of our ideas.
  • Communicating and storytelling. This is not a skill everyone is born with, but it’s a skill we can all develop. People on your team want to believe! They want to believe you know where we are going, or you will get us there even if you aren’t sure of the exact path at this moment. They want stories that compare what they are doing with others.
  • Acknowledging contribution. This is necessary to sustain motivation during the hard times. It’s not hard to do and doesn’t require a lot of effort or expensive gifts. A thank-you note or peer recognition is enough most of the time.
  • Negotiation is a practical skill for every leader. Negotiation is often misunderstood to be the domain of clever deal makers. It’s actually really simple. Make very clear requests for a promise. Understand exactly what the promise is - what is being done, when, and what the standard of excellence is, and then check up on the status to make it happen.
  • Too many leaders are focused on personal ambition. He believes that we need leaders who use power as a tool for inspiring others to create a better future, not as a tool for retaining their position or perks.

The middle four points are the essential skills for great leadership, inspiring excellence, and building a successful business. They are easily practiced, and serve as the foundation for successfully attracting talent, reaching consensus, making tough choices, and harnessing ambition.

In this fashion the general leadership deficit is really an “opportunity” for new aspiring entrepreneurs in business. So practice the leadership skills needed, and step in when you are ready. Now is your golden opportunity – let’s see how many of you are up to the challenge. We need you all.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Monday, October 21, 2013

Startups Must Tout Market Needs Before Technology

technology-robotEven though I love technology, I always cringe when an entrepreneur starts his pitch by touting his new technology. He has forgotten that new technologies are perceived by most customers as causing more pain than the problems they hope to eliminate. I chastise these startups to highlight the solution created by the technology, rather than highlight the technology itself.

I usually get pushback about the success of all the great technology companies, like Intel and Apple. Let me be clear – technology and market-driven need not be mutually exclusive! The best companies find a way to drive the market with a solution based on their technology, rather than push their new technology as the solution for the marketplace.

Yet we all know that many customers delay their adoption of the latest software platform, and fancy new hardware, for a year or two until all the “kinks” are worked out of them. In reality, new technology alone is often assigned a negative value, as startups push out alpha and beta products earlier and earlier in the competitive rush.

Of course, there are always a few early adopters who love change and need to have the latest technology, but early adopters don’t make the market. Here are a few thoughts on a process that will keep you on the right track for the majority of your real customers:

  • Get real customer input. Is your product tempered with actual market and customer feedback? Everyone's personal perspectives and interests are different, so the key is starting from market problems, and going from there to technology - not vice versa.
  • Quantify the pain points. What are the major points of pain experienced by the intended users of your product or service? Users with no pain who say “nice to have” will not likely pay money or endure change for your product.
  • Keep it simple and easy to use. Are the user problems being solved in the simplest possible way, with the fewest possible features? Or have many features been thrown in, just because the technology can deliver them?

The easiest way to start this process is by starting from the market drivers and working forwards, not backwards. Don’t make the mistake of looking at market needs or requests as an afterthought to verify what's already been planned.

Companies that are market-driven are externally focused: they identify opportunities and then capitalize on them. Technology-driven companies are internally focused: they identify what is possible with the technology and then look for customers who might like the results.

Market-driven also means knowing the overall dynamics and forces in the marketplace and understanding how those forces might impact the business – marketing and sales driven. A technology-driven business is driven by engineers. A great company finds a balance between these two forces, but makes the business side the driver.

In fact, technology is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. We all know that very few customers will buy technology, simply for the sake of technology. Technology tools and platforms are hard to sell, because the people who love and understand them are not usually the decision makers, or the budget owners.

But how do you manage “disruptive” technologies, where people don't even know they have a need? Many entrepreneurs are convinced that they have the greatest invention ever, and others will believe when they see it. Investors know better, since dramatic changes in technology historically take a long time and lots of money go gain a foothold – with a few rare exceptions.

If you are looking for external investors, my advice is to take a hard look at your business plan and investor presentation. If they highlight your technology first, you will likely be tagged as a solution looking for a problem. Start by quantifying a customer problem, and show how you are using technology innovatively to solve this problem. That’s market-driven technology providing solutions, and every investor and customer will want a piece of that action.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Startups Need To Embrace Zero Paid Media Marketing

zero-marketingThe power and influence of paid media advertising, including print ads, TV commercials, radio, and even online digital campaigns is waning, in favor of unpaid earned and owned messaging from your website, social media, key market influencers, and existing customer word-of-mouth. But startups need to remember that even zero paid media doesn’t mean that marketing is free.

The case for zero paid media as the new marketing model was highlighted in a new book, “Z.E.R.O.” by Joseph Jaffe and Maarten Albarda, both experienced marketers working with new companies, as well as larger firms. They advocate investing in their new framework, where the Z.E.R.O. initials take on meaning as follows:

  • Zealots, disciples, and influencers. New products and startups often require a culture shift to drive acceptance, which can best be accelerated by zealots or a visible chief disciple, like Steve Jobs. Other sources stronger than paid media today include key social media influencers, such as “mommy bloggers” and popular YouTube events.
  • Earned media. This is media exposure from a neutral third-party, such as an unpaid news story on your product or service to highlight innovations or social value. This exposure is highly credible, since you don’t control the message, and extremely valuable since it is not viewed as part of any advertising context.
  • Real customers. Marketing media content from real customers in real time is now commonplace via sites like Yelp, Foursquare, and online reviews. This word-of-mouth media source is also highly credible and valuable, since it comes from “peer” customers, rather than you as the source, or any paid source.
  • Owned media. This includes your website, blog, and presence on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, and many more. These usually provide a customer’s first impression of your offering, and should not be blatantly self-promotional, but instead informative, educational, and even entertaining.

As I mentioned, this framework is powerful, but none of these elements are free. A while back in a blog article, I pointed out that none of these justify a startup business plan with little or no budget for marketing. All require planning, deliberate actions, and quality content and event creation which will likely absorb all the savings from reduced paid media campaigns.

In any case, reframing the conversation from paid media marketing to the new framework requires a balance, and measurements along the way to better manage return on investment. In the book, Jaffe introduces three new sets of metrics for gauging progress:

  • Medium-term metrics. This is essentially a series of interim forecasts not dissimilar from mile-markers in a marathon race that advise whether it’s time to pick up the pace or slow down to smell the roses. Examples include counting members of an advocacy program, app downloads, tenured customers, or subscribers to an e-mail list.
  • Long-term sales. We often talk about short-term sales and long-term relationships in mutually exclusive terms. They are polar opposites in terms of their time frames, but how about building a bridge of compromise between them? Whereas every short-term initiative is akin to a traditional campaign, the long-term sales effort is the commitment.
  • Short-term wins. Accountability is not optional, as it’s still important to have something to show for your efforts quickly. Only this time, consider the large “W” (big win), the small “w” (small win) or in some cases even the small “l” (small loss), which represents failing fast or failing smart, insights, lessons, learnings, or pleasing initial results.

I’m not suggesting that paid media channels should be seen as dead to young companies, since even the revolutionaries, like Google, Facebook, and Apple, still rely on paid media to optimize their own efforts. And paid media are hardly standing still, continually figuring out ways to be more effective, using big data and other innovations to get more customer attention.

Thus while I see startups quick to jump on the zero paid media bandwagon (for budget reasons), I recommend a balance. First, go for that earned and owned media channel, using the same budget parameters you might have previously allocated for paid media. Later, you can lower the budget as the metrics show results, or apply the remainder to paid media as a follow-on step.

In all cases the tone and resources must be focused on capturing today’s customers, who are looking for engagement and connection, rather than the traditional loudest noise. Z.E.R.O. marketing is not zero marketing.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Saturday, October 19, 2013

More Features Kill More Startups Than Lack of Money

wenger_giant_swiss_army_knife“Scope creep” (or feature creep) is an insidious disease that kills more good startups than any other, especially high-tech ones, and yet most founders (who may be the cause) never even see it happening. This term refers to the penchant to add just one more feature to the product or service before first delivery, just because you can.

The instigators are all well-intentioned – executives talk to potential customers who “must have” a few more things; or the technical team edicts some “technically elegant” options that they can’t resist adding before release. The result is a bloated first product which finally collapses under its own weight, or is too late and too expensive for the intended customer.

The best product is one that is highly focused, and has the absolute minimum number of features to do the job. The solution is to do the right job up front on requirements, document and approve specifications, and have the toughest person you know do the project management. Here are five basic rules to live by:

  • Document the requirements. A well-run requirements phase is your best chance to ensure that scope creep will be recognized when it happens, and it will. If initial requirements are not documented, then there is no base, and no one can recognize that the stack is getting higher as time passes.
  • Lock down the sign-off authority. In all documents, clearly define who must sign off on content and provide business-side feedback. If you are the sign-off, don’t be afraid to say “no.” Draw the line between need versus want. Founders who constantly give in to changes will get more until the startup breaks.
  • Final features approval event. Make a visible event at the executive level out of the final specification approval, detailing features, costs, and time frames. Make sure everyone knows that changes after this point will have personal consequences, and will delay the product and increase the cost.
  • Define milestones for cost review and sign-off. Milestones are for early warning, because there is no recovery when you are out of time and money. Good milestones include completion of specifications, prototype, beta testing, final documentation, and final delivery.
  • Implement and enforce a change process. Changes will be required to every project, so plan for them. The market changes, executives learn new things, customers demand changes, and technology changes. Change requests should be documented, sized, and tradeoffs presented for approval or disapproval.

Efforts to discourage scope creep are not designed to punish creativity. Rather, team members should be encouraged to contribute to a database of additional features that they think would be interesting and useful, and submit them as change requests on a weekly basis.

Change requests must be visibly reviewed by executives frequently. If the features are interesting but not necessary for initial release, they can be scheduled for further development on later releases of the project, whether it be new software, a car, or any other sort of device.

There's always going to be something newer, something faster, something bigger; and the perfect product is a never ending chase — but only if you allow it to be. Remember that in new product development, as in writing, addition by subtraction is the Golden Rule.

Scope creep causes your project to become slowly less elegant and very un-simple, which is a startup’s worst nightmare. Startups need to know when to stop chasing the leading edge, or they will be cursed to live and die on the bleeding edge.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

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.


Share/Bookmark

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Startup Stock Options Are Not Reliable Compensation

stock-pricesWouldn’t you like to be one of the lucky people who joined Google and Facebook when these were startups, and now be a multi-millionaire? So people ask me “How many shares should I ask for when I join a startup today?” In reality, the number of shares doesn’t mean anything – it’s your percent of the total that you need to negotiate.

For example, 200,000 shares may sound like a lot, but if the startup has issued 20 million (a common starting point), that’s just 1% of the company. By the way, you will normally only be offered “options,” which vest over a 4-year period after a 1-year “cliff.” That means you will get none of these until after you work for one year, and the total only if you stay for four years.

Plus you have to remember that these 200,000 shares could still be worth nothing in four years, depending on the “strike price” today, compared to the market price four years from now. Many employees forget that there isn’t even a market for stock, until after the company has gone public, which hasn’t happened positively to many companies in the last few years.

Thus, stock doesn’t “pay the mortgage” today, so to speak. Unless you have a sizable nest egg, or a working spouse with an income to support you, I would recommend that you consider any stock options as a “potential bonus,” rather than a key part of your compensation for joining a startup.

With all that said, here are some “rule of thumb” guidelines on what might be a reasonable offer, as extracted from an old article by Guy Kawasaki, and based on discussions I hear rattling around the investor community.

  • CEO brought in to replace the founder, 5 - 10%
  • CTO, CFO, VP of Marketing or Sales, 1.5 - 3%
  • Chief Engineer or Architect, 1 - 1.5%
  • Advisory Board Member, 1%
  • Senior Engineer, .3 - .7%
  • Product Manager, .2 - .3%

If you are not on this list, just worry about getting whatever your peers are getting. It never hurts to ask in a job interview what stock options are available, and don’t fall for the offer which promises to “work out the equity terms later.”

Obviously, what you get will vary depending on what you bring to the company, and what the market will bear. The numbers I mentioned don’t have a level of precision that can be associated with a particular geography, or a particular business type. Offers near the high end of a range will come with a lower cash salary, maybe even 50% of the going rate.

Any offers of equity compensation before the first round of institutional capital should be considered purely speculative. You should also assume that your percentage will go down through dilution as the company raises additional rounds, and offer sizes will go down as the company grows.

Your compensation is the total package of stock plus salary plus benefits. At best, you should view stock as “deferred compensation” or a “bonus,” which has no value today, and a risk for the future that is much higher than mutual funds, or a conventional balanced public stock portfolio. Yet it has been a source of great wealth to a tiny percentage of people.

Couple all this with the fact that working at a startup is much tougher than working at bigger companies – despite all the hype you see about startups which provide free food, foosball tables, and totally flexible hours. Generally, less structure means more stress, and fewer people means higher expectations, longer hours, and a job that may be gone tomorrow.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t even think about joining a startup, stock or no stock, unless you believe in it and are ready for the adventure of your life. It will always be a learning experience, but it may be a bumpy ride to nowhere. It’s a huge gamble. How many gamblers do you personally know that have won big?

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Startup Founders Need To Manage Their Optimism

John-BradberryI’m sure we have all seen entrepreneurs with high levels of passion and confidence touting an idea that seems to make very little sense to us. Of course, we never see ourselves in this mode, yet we need to recognize that all humans see reality differently through a built-in set of “cognitive biases,” based on their own unique background of experiences, training, and mental state.

These biases are good, in that they allow us to quickly filter and make decisions in the constant barrage of information we face each day, but bad because they often lead to errors in reasoning and emotional choices. The worst case is called the “passion trap,” where a pattern of beliefs, choices, and behaviors feel good and become self-reinforcing, but lead to disaster.

John Bradberry, in “6 Secrets to Startup Success” identifies five key biases that sabotage many passionate entrepreneurs in their startup decision making. I challenge any entrepreneur to honestly tell me that they have never fallen victim to any of these while making startup decisions:

  • Confirmation bias. This refers to the human tendency to select and interpret available information in a way that confirms pre-existing hopes and beliefs. The antidote is to look for dissenting views that seem to form a pattern of concern. Then what you perceive as isolated exceptions, might indeed appear as a clear majority.
  • Representativeness (belief in the law of small numbers). Many entrepreneurs tend to settle on conclusions they like, based on only a small number of observations or a few pieces of data. The new founder who hears positive reviews from three out of four friends may assume that 75 percent of the general population will react similarly.
  • Overconfidence or illusion of control. Overconfidence leads founders to treat their assumptions as facts and see less uncertainty and risk than actually exists. The illusion of control causes startup founders to overrate their abilities and skills in controlling future events and outcomes. Both result is “rose-colored” plans, rather than realistic ones.
  • Anchoring. This refers to our mind’s tendency to give excessive weight to the first information we receive about a topic or the first idea we think of. It encourages founders to cling to an original idea or, if pressed, to consider only slight deviations from the idea instead of more radical alternatives. The ability to pivot sharply and timely is at risk here.
  • Escalation of commitment (“sunk cost” fallacy). Startup founders often refuse to abandon a losing strategy in an attempt to preserve whatever value has been created up to that point. They feel that they have put so much money, time, and energy into an idea or plan, that it must be the idea. Investing more into a bad idea doesn’t make it good.

Optimism, for example, is a typical entrepreneurial trait that improves performance, but only up to a point. In fact, moderately optimistic people have been shown to outperform extreme optimists on a wide range of task and assignments. There are a number of similar entrepreneurial characteristics that are recognized as good, but can be amplified to unhealthy levels, resulting in passion traps, or so-called “Icarus qualities.”

Every entrepreneur needs to be on the lookout for early warning signs of biases and passion traps that signal that you are in danger of undercutting your odds of startup success. Obvious ones are founders who are thinking or saying, “This is a sure thing,” or executives losing patience with advisors who point out risks or shortcomings in your plan.

In my experience, a great startup is more about great execution, rather than a great idea. It’s about converting your passion into economic value. To counter-balance the biases in your passion, the best approach is to look beyond your own mind and actively listen to your customers, your advisors and your team. When was the last time you really listened?

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

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


Share/Bookmark

Monday, October 14, 2013

Company Lifecycle And Culture Change Too Fast Today

fish-cant-see-waterSuccessful startups seem to follow similar paths to greatness, and unfortunately all too often that path leads them back down the hill much faster than they went up. Big company powerhouses, like IBM and Xerox, took fifty years to make the cycle, but new companies today, in the age of the Internet, often make the cycle in five to ten years, or even less. Consider MySpace and Webvan.

Thus it behooves every entrepreneur to start watching these things more carefully from the very start. By definition, most startups begin as a result of some innovation in product, process, or service. The problem is that innovations in most business areas are coming so fast these days that yours can be overrun while still be scaled across geographies and other products.

In other words, the challenge today is to build a culture of continuous innovation, as well as continuous scaling, and continuous consolidation, all concurrently. That’s a tall order, especially when your business culture has to fit into the myriad of international and local cultures that are part of every market these days.

In a new book, “Fish Can’t See Water,” Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis explore these culture issues, both national and international, that can make or break your company strategy. Incidentally, I love that book title, which seems to me applicable to most aspects of business (and even people), as well as business culture.

To set the stage for all the cultural issues and timing, the authors start with a summary of the five lifecycle phases that every company is likely to experience over the long-term or short-term, regardless of culture:

  1. Innovation. This business phase is where every entrepreneur starts. It’s a volatile period for every company, where most struggle with getting commercial and technological traction, usually based on a single product or service. A particularly critical moment is when the founders hand over the leadership to a more managerial regime.

  2. Geographic expansion. This phase is characterized by rapid expansion either regionally or globally for growth (scaling up). This is where the culture of the startup has to adapt to the cultures of the markets served. A common practice is to hire local employees who know the geographic culture, even though this may well dilute the company culture.

  3. Product-line expansion. For additional growth, most companies expand the product portfolio to cater to more customers, and sell more to existing customers. The challenge during this phase is to stay innovative and agile. This usually marks the end of organic growth, as partnerships and alliances aid growth, but again dilute the focus on culture.

  4. Efficiency and scale. As the business matures, there is a natural drive towards more efficiency often through sheer scale and a desire for a stronger market share. Companies with an innovative and creative bias, which thrived during the innovation phase, usually struggle in this period. The emphasis is on global processes and tight execution.

  5. Consolidation. This is the end game for an industry, and many companies, characterized by mergers and acquisitions to a few dominant players. Value creation for major shareholders is frequently hampered by integration issues and culture clashes. The crises definitely hits here, if not earlier, and even the survivors can be dragged down.

In fact, crises can and do hit an any phase, due to poor execution, complacency from success, less competitive strategy, change of leadership, and many other reasons. It’s important to note that a company under crisis often will revert to its core national culture, which only further exacerbates the problem.

Thus it’s important to set your company culture early to be a global company, without a specific national bias, since the speed of change is so great. You need the global outlook, even though digitalization and Web 2.0 means you don’t have to have a physical presence in other countries to participate in the global market.

As companies grow in today’s high-speed Internet environment, with constant pivots and new products, they won’t even see the lifecycle phases flashing by, and in fact may be experiencing all of them concurrently. There is no time to be changing your culture to match the lifecycle. How hard are you working to avoid the “fish can’t see water” syndrome?

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Don’t Expect An Equity Investor For Your Non-Profit

funding_nonprofitsAngel investors and venture capitalists don’t invest in non-profits. The simple reason is that it’s impossible to make money for investors when the goal of the company is to not make money. Yet I still get this question on a regular basis, so I’ll try to outline the considerations in common-sense terms.

A non-profit organization is generally defined as an organization that does not distribute its surplus funds to owners or shareholders, but instead uses them to help pursue its goals. Examples include charitable organizations, trade unions, and public arts organizations. In the US, a non-profit is technically any company who qualifies as tax exempt through IRS Section 501(c).

Obviously, these companies still need money to get started, or finance growth, just like a for-profit company. What options do they have available to them, since they can’t sell a share of the company (no equity investment)?

  • Individual and institutional donations. For a non-profit, bootstrapping is self-funding from donations and fund-raising. The advantage is no time and effort is spent searching and preparing for the other alternatives, and no repayment terms or collateral are required. There is no discussion of equity, or return on investment.
  • Loans from a bank or other financial institution. Non-profits can apply for a bank loan or line-of-credit, just like any other individual or company. However, like anyone else, they will first need some collateral, or someone to guarantee the loan, and some evidence of a viable business, like receivables and inventory.
  • Personal loans from individuals, employees and board members. Personal loans are certainly an option, but should be avoided if possible. As in any company, they can lead to employee problems, or messy legal issues. A non-profit can also issue bonds to board members and members as a way of borrowing funds from those same people.
  • Government grants. The grant source often gets overlooked, but it should be a major focus these days when relevant due to the Obama administration initiatives on alternative energy and healthcare. The down side here is that real work is required to put in a winning application, and the award may be a long time in coming.
  • Private endowments. This is a funding source for non-profits that is made up of gifts and bequests subject to a requirement that the principal be maintained intact and invested to create a source of income for an organization. Endowments are usually limited to a specific area of interest by a philanthropist, and have many qualifications, so be careful.
  • Bartering services. Bartering occurs when you exchange goods or services without exchanging money. An example would be getting free office space by agreeing to be the property manager for the owner. This could work to get you legal or accounting services, but won’t get you cash to pay employee salaries.

Hopefully you can see from this list that the people and processes involved in financing a non-profit have little in common with Angel investors, or the venture capital process. You still start the process with a business plan, but then you look for a philanthropist rather than an investor.

Some non-profit entrepreneurs think they can skip the whole plan, rather than just the sections on valuation, equity offered, and exit strategy. All other sections, starting with a definition of the problem and the solution, opportunity sizing, business model, competition, executive team, and financial projections, are just as critical for non-profits as for-profits.

A non-profit is still a business, maybe even tougher than for-profit to run successfully, so the best angel is a great entrepreneur at the helm for fund-raising, as well as operations. In addition, the best non-profits turn out to be the angel, rather than require one. That’s a higher calling.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark

Saturday, October 12, 2013

10 University Classes For Business I Really Needed

sandals-at-workI’m sure that every one of us who has been out in the business world for a few years can look back with perfect hindsight and name a few college courses that we should have taken. What’s more disconcerting to me is that I can name a few that weren’t even offered, and more than a few students who graduate are ill-prepared for the real world!

I won’t even try to cover here the ones you didn’t find for your personal life, like managing personal finances and credit. But on the business side, here is my list of useful courses that we wish existed, but as far as I know, still aren’t generally available:

  1. Basic Office Politics. Office politics involves the complex network of power and status that exists within every business, large and small. Don’t you wish that someone had prepped you on how to read the body language, interpret office gossip, and when to hit the delete key on your email rather than the send key?

  2. Business Writing for Email. Writing in business is not the same as in an academic environment. In school, you're taught to stretch weak ideas to reach your document page limit. The business world expects exactly the opposite. The challenge is to communicate your idea in one page, and close the deal quickly without a big slide presentation.

  3. Touch-Typing for Dummies. How many hours a day does the average professional and executive today spend hunched over a computer keyboard “hunting and pecking”? Throughout a career lifetime, just think of the return on that investment.

  4. Dress for Success. “You are what you wear” works in business, just like it did in high school. But no one tells you the business norms, so Gen-Y’ers come to work in jeans, baseball caps, tattoos, flip-flops and expect to be treated as executives.

  5. Demystifying Business Logic. Another term for this is how to be a skeptic. Understand the ways people can mislead deliberately or accidentally with numbers, bad logic and rhetoric. There's some untruth hidden in 99% of everything you're told. Can you find it?

  6. Business Budgets and Benefits. The focus here would be on the actual nuts and bolts of how things get budgeted and financed in business. This will pay big dividends in getting your favorite project funded, or justifying your own salary, or negotiating a bonus.

  7. Business Sales Techniques. We can find tons of "marketing' courses in colleges and universities but everyone must think that “selling” is intuitively obvious. The art of selling is complex blend of relationships, persuasion techniques, negotiation, and knowledge.

  8. Root-Cause Problem Analysis. Business professionals need to analyze problems from a big picture perspective. Most classes in college focus on a narrow area of interest, which just teach students to focus on problems through one lens. That's how unforeseen consequences go unforeseen.

  9. Minimizing Business Workloads. In the office world there's always way more work than there is time to do it. You need to be able to figure out what not to do, and how to not do it, by organizing and prioritizing, and still impress your boss with your thoroughness.

  10. Job Hunting Basics. People need realistic expectations about how much effort and time it takes to get just about any job. Atrocious resumes and social network antics will kill your career. The difference between job descriptions and accomplishments seems to elude most people.

The real problem for many of these, I suspect, is finding qualified instructors to teach. Until then, the best alternative I can recommend is to sign up for job internships at every opportunity, while still in school. You might find on-the-job experiences more valuable than all your other courses, or you might change your major.

Amazingly, it seems that people in business are more highly educated these days, but less well prepared than ever before. What’s another course that you wish you had taken in school, but didn’t realize was missing until too late? There’s another generation right behind us that needs to know.

Marty Zwilling


Share/Bookmark