Monday, December 30, 2013

7 Questions Test Entrepreneur Focus Before Funding

snail-moneyThe first question most people seem to ask when contemplating a new startup is where they will get investor money. That’s certainly a valid question, but all the money in the world won’t make your business work if you don’t have a plan to use it, or hate what you are doing. I suggest that there are several important questions before assuming that funding is the gate to your success.

In reality, the best way to assure the success of your startup is to do something you love, as opposed to something that you think will make you a lot of money. Of course, all these things and many more are critical, so it’s important that you keep your priorities straight. Here are some key questions to ask yourself, before asking others for money:

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

  2. Do you have a viable plan? If you haven’t yet written down a business plan, you probably have no idea how much money you really need, or even if the opportunity is real. I believe the process of writing the plan is more valuable than the result, because it forces you to think through all the elements, and make sure they fit together and fit you.

  3. What level of experience and training do you have for this business? Be wary of stepping into an unknown business area, just because it looks easy or promises a big return. The real secrets of any business are not in textbooks, and you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Experience is the best teacher.

  4. Do you have real self-confidence and self-discipline? Starting a business is hard work and will require sacrifices. You will be operating independently, making all the decisions, and shouldering all the responsibility. Will you be able to persevere and build your new venture into a success?

  5. Do you have passion for this idea and this business opportunity? There is no joy in starting a business, if you can’t stand the people, business climate, or the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. Some people relate to service businesses, while others are more comfortable with manufacturing or construction.

  6. Do you really understand and aspire to entrepreneur lifestyle? Being a startup founder is not a job, but a lifestyle, like getting married versus staying single. In fact, it’s more like being single, since founders usually have no one to lean on, no one to make decisions for them, no one to blame, and no vision to follow but their own.

  7. What type of business startup best fits your mentality? Beyond the traditional new product or service model, you can always buy an existing business, purchase a franchise, join a multi-level marketing (MLM) company, or simply go out on your own as a consultant. Each of these has their unique challenges and payback. Ask around.

If you have made it this far, it’s fair to now start asking people where and when you can find the money you need (if any). Professionals will tell you that the sequence is friends and family first, angel investors second, and only then venture capital. Each of these has a cost in time an effort.

The process for all of these is networking (not email blasts or cold-calling investors). Start with the local Chamber of Commerce, industry associations, or investor seminars. Just attending doesn't work. Use your entrepreneurial spirit to start some exchanges and relationships that can lead to your next step.

Starting a business is a marathon, so do your preparation and training before you ask for that bottle of water. Finding money is tough, but it’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is to do it all while enjoying the journey. Start slow like a snail, and make sure you enjoy the walk before you start running after money.

Marty Zwilling


Sunday, December 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


Friday, December 27, 2013

Startup Early Execution Can Be Better Than Planning

Lonnie-SciambiI know entrepreneurs who have suffered from the dreaded premature execution syndrome often associated with the ready-fire-aim approach. Yet I believe that many more have benefited from this approach, especially in early startup stages. If your product is highly innovative, and speed to market is critical, you won’t get it right the first time anyway, no matter how cautiously you plan.

The ready-aim-fire traditional approach works best in more mature markets, where your strategy is to add features and value to competitive products, or address an underserved new segment of the marketplace. These are the environments where you really need extended planning to ensure proper positioning before launching the product.

But Lonnie L. Sciambi, in his book, “Secrets to Entrepreneurial Success,” reminds me that premature execution will doom even a good ready-aim-fire plan. This most often happens due to impatience, which is not typically an entrepreneurial virtue. It also happens due to overreaction to some market surprise, a last-minute input, or a squeeze on cash.

Even when a good plan is possible, I believe there are many circumstances where the ready-fire-aim approach is the best alternative, even though it may be counter-intuitive that one can fire without having aimed precisely. Here are the key parameters that can swing the pendulum:

  1. Engineers have an uncontrolled ability to add more features. Many good ideas never get off the ground, simply because the product or service is never “finished.” Some entrepreneurs don’t believe in the “minimum viable product (MVP)” approach, and they keep thinking they need to get the vision absolutely perfect before launching it.

  2. Entrepreneur confuses sense of urgency with sense of emergency. Urgency comes from an outbound purpose to get market returns quickly, while handling emergencies is a reactionary inward approach to saving ourselves from the daily crisis. It’s easy to be too busy to aim, so ready-fire can get you moving, but may generate the next emergency.

  3. Impossible to get adequate market information for any given plan. For innovative new products in a "fast-paced culture," entrepreneur leaders can’t count on conventional market research or expert consultants to give them the data to build a plan. After you've "fired" once, you have some actual data with which to adjust your aim.

  4. The target market is moving in unpredictable ways. Marketing is inherently a trial and error process in new and unknown environments. The ready-fire-aim approach works best here, but must be used with a plan to learn from misses and feedback, rather than random shots into the dark. Be prepared for pivots and mistakes.

  5. Planning cycle for determining certainty is too long. Too many entrepreneurs get bogged down in planning and thinking and never get to the point of action. This leads to another dreaded syndrome, called analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim...). If they don't fire before they aim, they may never take action at all.

  6. Cost of a planning cycle is greater than cost of an execution iteration. Start with a strategic plan that embodies an iterative launch cycle, with a minimum viable product to a focused and limited domain, and the cost of execution will be low. That limits the scope of your plan, makes is more measurable, and forces you to plan for change.

It was Tom Peters and Bob Waterman (“In Search of Excellence”) who first came up with the “ready-fire-aim” go-to-market strategy. I like it in most cases, since it is action-oriented, helps streamline and decrease product development time and costs, and focuses the product and the firm on customer needs rather than technology.

Of course, if you fire without aiming, there’s always a greater chance that you will shoot yourself in the foot. I’ve even seen some entrepreneurs who quickly reload, only to shoot themselves in the other foot. Making your business a game of Russian Roulette is not the way to success. If you can’t plan ahead, at least plan to learn from your mistakes.

Marty Zwilling


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Smart Entrepreneurs Don’t Overstay Their Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


Monday, December 23, 2013

The Smartest Entrepreneurs Bootstrap Their Startup

bootstrapThere is so much written these days about how to attract investors that most entrepreneurs “assume” they need funding, and don’t even consider a plan for “bootstrapping,” or self-financing their startup. Yet, according to many sources, over 90 percent of all businesses are started and grown with no equity financing, and many others would have been better off without it.

According to the book, “Small Business, Big Vision,” by self-made entrepreneurs Adam and Matthew Toren, it’s really a question of need versus want. We all want to have our vision realized sooner rather than later, but it can be a big mistake to bring in investors rather than patiently building your business at a slow, steady pace (organic growth).

In fact, most of the rich entrepreneurs you know actively turned away early equity proposals. Too many founders are convinced they “need” equity financing, for the wrong reasons, as outlined in the book and supplemented with a bit of my own experience:

  • Need employees and professional services. Of course, every company needs these, in due time. In today’s Internet world, enterprising entrepreneurs have found that they can find out and do almost anything they need, from incorporating the company to filing patents, without expensive consultants, or the cost to hiring and firing employees.
  • Need expensive resources up front. Many people think that having a proper office and equipment somehow legitimizes their business, but unless your business requires a storefront, everything else can be done in someone’s home office, or a local coffee shop, on used or borrowed equipment. Consider all the alternatives, like lease versus buy.
  • Need to spread the risk. Some entrepreneurs seem to get solace and implied prestige from convincing friends, Angels, and venture capitalists to put money into their endeavor. If nothing else, these make good excuses for failure – no freedom, wrong guidance, etc.

On the other hand, there are clearly situations where your needs call for investors. Even in these cases, all other options should be explored first:

  • Sales are strong – too strong. If you are not able to keep up with demand due to lack of funds for production, and your company is too young for banks to be interested, you will find that investors love these odds, and are quick to go for a chunk of the action.
  • Your company has outgrown you. Some entrepreneurs are quick with creative ideas, and even excellent at managing the chaos of initial implementation. That’s not the same as instilling discipline in a larger organization, where most the challenge is people.
  • You need a prototype. When you have invented a new technology, you need expensive models and testing, including samples for potential customers. If you don’t have the personal funds to make these happen, investors might be your only option.
  • You need specialized equipment. If your solution depends on high-tech chips, injection molding, or medical devices, and you can’t get financing from suppliers, giving up a portion of the company to investors is a rational approach.
  • General startup expenses are beyond your means. Investors are not interested in covering overhead, unless they are convinced that you have already put all your “skin in the game” (not just sweat equity), and have real contributions from friends and family.

When deciding whether and how an investor can help you, remember that finding outside investors requires a huge amount of time and work, perhaps impacting your rollout more than working with alternate approaches and slower growth. Perhaps you really need an advisor rather than an investor.

Even under the best of circumstances, working with an investor requires give and take. More likely, you now have a new boss – which may be counter to why you chose the entrepreneur route in the first place. Maybe that’s why bootstrapped startups are the norm, rather than externally funded ones. You alone get to make the big decisions on your big vision.

Marty Zwilling


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Entrepreneur Happiness Is An Elusive Achievement

markzuckerbergBuilding a startup is hard work for low pay, it’s risky, and it requires total responsibility to make it work. Yet, many entrepreneurs are the happiest people I know. On the other hand, I know many unhappy individuals who are always partying, have minimal commitments, and little responsibility. I suspect the real parameters of happiness have eluded these people.

According to one of my favorite authors, Brian Tracy, in his book “The Power of Self-Discipline,” happiness is not even a goal that you can aim at and achieve in and of itself, but it is a by-product that comes to you when you are engaged in doing something you really enjoy while in the company of people you like and respect.

He defines the five key ingredients of happiness that every potential and existing entrepreneur, including Mark Zuckerberg (and every non-entrepreneur), should evaluate relative to their own situation:

  1. Happy relationships. Fully 85 percent of your happiness – or unhappiness – will come from your relationships with other people. For entrepreneurs, that includes business colleagues, but it also still includes spouse, children and friends.

  2. Meaningful work. You must be doing things that you love and give you a sense of fulfillment, as well as making a contribution. Studies have shown that the three most motivating business factors include challenging work, opportunities for growth, and pleasant coworkers.

  3. Financial independence. The happiest of all people are those who have reached the point at which they no longer worry about money. That doesn’t mean unlimited funds, but enough that they don’t fear being destitute, without funds, or dependent on others.

  4. Health and energy. It is only when you enjoy high levels of pain-free health and a continuous flow of energy that you feel truly happy. For many, health is only a “deficiency need,” meaning you don’t think much about it until you are deprived of it.

  5. Self-actualization. This is the big one, the feeling that you are becoming everything you are capable of becoming. Before this can happen, you must first feel that all deficiency needs are satisfied, and you have achieved self-esteem:

    • Survival. Basic survival is the top deficiency need, meaning sufficient food, water, clothing, and shelter to preserve your life and well-being. You cannot be happy, and you will experience tremendous stress, until survival requirements are met.

    • Security. The second deficiency need encompasses financial, emotional, and physical security. You have to have enough money, security in your relationships, and physical security to assure that you are not in imminent jeopardy of any kind.

    • Belongingness. The final deficiency need reminds us that we are social people, and we need social relationships with others, both at home and at work. You need to be recognized and accepted by other people who count in your world.

    • Self-esteem. Your self-esteem is the core of your personality and largely determines how you feel about everything that happens to you. Are you liked and appreciated by peers, doing a good job and being recognized for it, and achieving your ideals?

According to Abraham Maslow, a noted psychologist, less than two percent of the population ever reaches this height of self-actualization and personal fulfillment. But the wonderful thing about self-actualization needs is that they never need to be completely satisfied. As you stretch yourself in this direction, you experience a steady flow of happiness and contentment.

In all of these areas, you need to exert self-discipline and willpower to overcome the tendency to take shortcuts. When you keep going in spite of all obstacles and hardships, you feel powerful. Your self-esteem and self-confidence increase, and then as you move, step by step, toward your ideals, you feel genuinely happy. Are you a satisfied entrepreneur?

Marty Zwilling


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Smart Entrepreneurs Anticipate Market Segment Gaps

innovation-adoption-lifecycleEveryone in the business world has heard of the old bestseller by Geoffrey A. Moore titled “Crossing the Chasm,” but most entrepreneurs have no idea how it relates to them. In fact, it’s all about the “focus” required to get early stage technology products across the deadly chasm from early adopters to mainstream customers.

Most investors and startup professionals expand this concept of focus to apply to key issues of every aspect of strategic and tactical planning in a startup. Missions and products that are too broad confuse your team, your customers, and potential investors. There are other chasms out there just as deadly as the technology one, such as the ones below:

  • Market requirements chasm. The first chasm is getting the customer requirements right, product or service, to satisfy a real need that a large number of customers will pay real money to satisfy. It takes focus to resist adding a long list of features that seem to make the opportunity larger, but dilute to focus of both you and potential customers.
  • Product development chasm. Another common chasm is never-ending product development. Focus is required to resist adding a few more neat features, made possible by the new technology, which in fact make the product more complex to use, impossible to test, and very expensive in time and cost.
  • Marketing and sales chasm. Lots of people still believe the major cost of a new product is development. These days, with all the clutter in the marketplace, the highest cost is usually marketing. Focus is required here to pick the low-hanging fruit, break through the clutter, and then move on to the next segment. Marketing costs can be a deep hole.
  • Customer support chasm. Products that have features which are unfocused, or aimed at too broad an audience, can be almost impossible to support. Customers need lots of help with installation, or can’t make the product work the way they expect. The result is that customer satisfaction in unachievable or at least very expensive.

In his book, Moore limits his discussion to the transition between customers that are visionaries (early adopters) and customer pragmatists (early majority), in the context of high technology products that appear “disruptive,” meaning they move innovation in that arena to a new level.

Here are the five customer segments outlined in his analysis:

  • Innovators – they love the challenge of a new technology and expect problems
  • Early adopters - customer visionaries driven by technology who expect it to work
  • Early majority – pragmatists that buy only with peer review, references and support
  • Late majority – conservatives who wait until the product is no longer state-of-the-art
  • Laggards – skeptics who will only adopt when forced or the need is critical

The reason that his book was so popular, and is still studied in MBA programs and talked about by investors, is because his analysis has proven to be right so many times. There is a big gap between people who love to try new technologies, and the rest of us, who tend to be much more “technophobic.” Startups need to show real traction before attempting to cross the chasm.

I always recommend focus as the key to avoiding Moore’s chasm, as well as the others highlighted here. Start your business with a narrow niche and a focused strategy, but don’t stay there. As the company matures, and you learn more about your customers and your market, then it is time to go broader or deeper.

Build an overt strategy with feedback triggers to enhance the product to meet the needs of another segment of customers, and add more features to serve additional needs for the customers you already have. With this approach, you will find it a lot easier to jump all the chasms without crashing or breaking a leg.

Marty Zwilling


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

10 Metrics To Drive Your Annual Business Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

Disclosure: This blog entry sponsored by Visa Business and I received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa's. Visit 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


Monday, December 16, 2013

8 Key Questions To Expect In Investor Due Diligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


Saturday, December 14, 2013

5 Key Steps For Every Startup Roadmap To Revenue

KristinZhivago-RoadmapToRevenueEntrepreneurs always work hard to create an innovative product or service, but often count on standard seller marketing for sales. But the reality is that sellers are no longer in charge of the customer buying process. Reports suggest that 90% of today’s shoppers skip marketing pitches, to research online before they buy, and over 50% check user reviews before making a decision.

The Internet and smartphones have changed everything. Kristin Zhivago, in her book “Roadmap to Revenue,” makes the point that the selling system is broken, since sellers no longer sell the way customers are buying. Here is my summary of her roadmap which I believe can get you back on the right track with a “customer-centric” approach rather than a “company-centric” approach:

  1. Find out what customers want and how they want to buy it. The best way to do this is with real customer interviews. Customers will tell you things when being interviewed that they will never tell you while you are selling to them. She recommends phone interviews by you, by appointment, with structured questions, and you document results.

  2. Debate and adjust your offering to better match what customers want. Distribute an Executive Summary and Recommendations report, as well as transcripts of your interviews, to all the key players in your company. Schedule and run the necessary sessions to update strategic product offerings, processes, and marketing programs.

  3. Align your business model to how your customers want to buy. Don’t start from how you want to sell. Start with a new understanding of the real customer need, their search process in finding you (referral, website, social media), and most desired payment model, like one-time payment versus subscription, or lease versus purchase.

  4. Integrate the customer buying process into your support operation. Decide which parts can be automated, people resources required, and customer service points of contact. All of these processes should be documented, and should explicitly include the customer buying process and perceptions as the base. Their perception is your reality.

  5. Build and deploy a revenue growth action plan. This is your rollout of the new product offerings, business model updates, and process changes to map to the new understanding of the customer buying process. Include planned measurements and metrics. Start where the customer wants you to be and work backwards.

As you start making the shift to customer-centric, if your team doesn’t “get it,” then you haven’t communicated effectively. Communicating change is always hard, so pay careful attention to the central message, repetition opportunities, and “walking the talk.” People are quick to make things up to fill a vacuum, and rumors or myths die hard.

Make sure your own motivation is strong, and don’t let anyone view these efforts as a one-time push. It has to be managed and sold internally as a culture change, requiring everyone’s help. Experience has shown that the best way to change a process is to set up the new way of doing things, then flip the switch (flip method), rather than making incremental changes (drip method).

Every business needs to take advantage of the new tools and technologies which can assist you in making this shift in strategy and measuring effectiveness. These range from basic search engine optimization (SEO) tracking, like Google Analytics, to a new generation of marketing platforms, like HubSpot.

There are multiple benefits to both you and your customer. The customers will get what they want, when they want it, and you will see more revenue, greater brand loyalty, real relationships, and a competitive edge. That sounds to me like the recipe for business success that every investor is looking for.

Marty Zwilling


Friday, December 13, 2013

Growth Without Profits Isn’t A Sustainable Business

empty-pocketsA question that I often hear debated these days is whether a new startup should focus on growth or profits. First of all, the glory days of “dot.coms” are gone, when investors “didn’t care” about profitability, and all the money went to growth.

In the long run, everyone wants both profitability and growth, but the question is still which comes first. Most startups and investors I know don’t have unlimited funds, so the first question they should ask and do ask today, is “When is your company going to be profitable (self-sustaining)?”

Of course, growth is implied in that equation, and is also required for maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage. The challenge is not to undermine growth by a blind focus on profits. You might sell one of two of your widgets for $1 million each, entering profitability immediately, but then die because you can’t grow sales at that price.

I think you will find that most investors will relate to the following formula for keeping the right perspective and getting the profit versus growth balance right:

  • Pick an idea that has the potential to make money. That means it solves a real problem for real customers who are ready and able to spend real money. The number of current potential customers is large and growing. Solutions that may be viewed as “nice to have” or “satisfies a higher-level need” won’t get funded.
  • Design a product or service that you can sell. Sure, you may need to give the product away for free to get traction, but assume you will have to sell something someday to get profitable and stay alive. Myspace, for example, launched in 2003 and boomed for five years without a revenue model. When their deep pockets went empty, Google stepped in, but demanded revenue from ads. Myspace wasn’t ready for this, and it soon crashed. Don’t count on finding investors supporting growth alone on your new startup.
  • Build a business plan for profitability in your lifetime. This simply means you need to be sensitive to costs, revenue projections, and a timeline, such that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Most Internet businesses should show profitability in two years, while new medicines may take ten years to pass FDA and other safety tests. Investors will look at competitors in your industry for the norms.
  • Identify the total investment required for profitability. A very common mistake of early stage startups is to request a small investment to get started. They are usually thinking only of costs required to get “in business,” rather than the total costs of marketing, scaling up, and going international. Be ready to answer the investor question “Is that all you need to get profitable?”

So unless you are building a non-profit, I say focus on profit all the time, every time. Of course, growth is implied in every focus, and profit enables growth. But some of you will surely say “What about Facebook and Twitter, who focused on growth first and are clearly successful?” So let’s take a look.

Facebook is indeed the largest growth site on the web, with more than a billion user accounts, all free. Yet it took almost six years to become profitable, with revenue only from advertising. What most people don’t realize is that the total outside funding to get it there is estimated at over $800 million, which is a bit more than you will get from any Angel investor.

Yet I can’t argue their success in the value proposition, since they turned down a billion dollar offer from Yahoo way back in 2006, and their market cap today is about $126 billion. It has taken some very deep pockets to get to this point, so now you know why I smile when you tell me your plan emulates the Facebook model. Even Twitter is now trying hard to generate revenue.

I’ve heard all the arguments that a push for early profits on new business models will lead a company to fall back to a lesser model that provides short-term results, but short-circuits risk-taking that could lead to more long-term value creation. That’s a great argument if you have unlimited funding, but if you are just one of the “rest of us,” I suggest you focus on getting to cash-flow positive first.

Marty Zwilling


Thursday, December 12, 2013

7 Startup Co-Founders To Avoid And Keep Your Sanity

bill-gates-paul-allenMost entrepreneurs who start a company alone soon come to the conclusion that two heads are better than one – someone to share the workload, the hard decisions, and the costs. In a moment of crisis, you may be tempted to take on the first person expressing interest as a co-founder. This would be a mistake, and could easily cost you your startup.

If you think about it, you should realize that not everyone is ‘ideal partner material.’ Most of us learn that fact from other partner relationships, like dating and marriage. First you have to be clear on who you are, and who you can co-exist with, what complementary skills and resources you need, and what decisions in the business you are willing to relegate.

Second, in your search for partners, you need to be aware of the many considerations that can make the difference between success and failure in the business, as well as your satisfaction with the relationship. Bringing money and connections is great, but other less tangible things can rip the business apart. If you catch yourself thinking any of these thoughts, it’s time to re-think:

  1. “Let’s keep it in the family.” On the surface, this seems like a great strategy, with a “share the pain, share the gain” outlook, or just cheap labor. In reality, the pressures of a relationship break up more startups, or vice versa, than running out of money. Investors routinely decline to fund co-founders who are siblings, or in a romantic relationship.

  2. “We both have the same vision.” There is usually only room for one in a vision. Even if the endpoint is the same, there are many different roads to get there, and it’s hard for a startup to be on two roads at once. It works much better when one partner is the visionary, and the other is the pragmatic “get it done today” kind of person.

  3. “All decisions will be made jointly.” Two people making a decision need a tiebreaker, and three or more take too long. There is certainly no problem with each partner making decisions in his area of expertise and responsibility, but one has to be in charge. VCs routinely ask “Who is the final arbiter?” and the answer better not be ambiguous.

  4. “We are so alike, we finish each other’s sentences.” You really need a partner who is complementary, and can tackle the operational roles, like marketing, finance, and sales. A partner who is a carbon copy of you will likely mean two people working on every problem, rather than a natural separation of duties. Most startups can’t afford that.

  5. “Our work styles are different, but our goals are the same.” Some people are early risers and expect to tackle the tough problems early in the day. Others don’t get rolling until noon, and save the hard discussions for after dinner. No problem when things are going well, but in the hard times, emotions go up and communication goes down.

  6. “We have different values and ethics, but share a passion for this business.” Partners who don’t share a common regard for regulations and boundaries are doomed to high levels of stress and frustration. Some people like to live just over the limit, while others have a high sense of integrity and morality. It usually doesn’t work.

  7. “I’ll put in the money, if you put in the sweat equity.” I’m not suggesting that co-founders should be equal contributors on both sides, but the parameters for “equality” better be well understood and well documented. Things happen, memories change, and soon both sides feel under-appreciated and over-utilized.

We all know of some relationships that seemed mismatched, but worked out well, so the real test is the test of time. Just as you should take some time to explore if your love interest would make good marriage material, I encourage you to take some time to explore if your fellow entrepreneur would make good 'partner' material. Avoid ‘whirlwind’ business partnerships.

In all cases, once you have decided that it’s time to seal the deal, be sure to establish in writing your working agreement, as well as ownership shares. Only then is it time to celebrate and look for Angels on your way to heaven.

Marty Zwilling


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How To Make Sure Your Success Leads To Fulfillment

Vision_homeIs it possible to be successful in business and not fulfilled? The answer is a resounding yes today, and I’m convinced that it will be even more true tomorrow, as young idealistic entrepreneurs try to adapt to the long-standing business culture if success is only measured in the money you make for yourself and your business.

That isn’t very fulfilling to the growing number of entrepreneurs whose vision and satisfaction comes from making the world a better place, and enjoying a leisurely lifestyle with friends and family. In fact, it’s already a problem with more successful entrepreneurs than you know, based on an interesting book by serial entrepreneur Brian Gast, “The Business of Wanting More.”

As I have also seen in entrepreneurs, he outlines how he and others have failed to move from success to fulfillment, and offers the following points as guidance to make sure you don’t follow in his footsteps. His perspective is from later in his career, so I’ve re-arranged these a bit for those of you at an earlier stage:

  • Create a vision for your life early. To create a vision, you simply have to envision yourself enjoying the fruits of your dreams, goals, and principles. Write down the “what” of your vision, but let go of “how” it will be achieved; you can’t control the precise manner, form, or timing. Maintain some reality by listing vulnerabilities, risks, and costs.
  • Draw a road map to the future you want. If you have no strategic plan, your emotions and opportunities of the moment, or someone else, will drive your decisions and actions. A truly fulfilled life means meeting the four core needs: acceptance, connection, purpose, and service. It’s vital to have a specific plan for meeting those needs.
  • Take a fearless inventory of your life now. Fulfillment is a choice. After honestly assessing what’s working and not working now in your life, you have to take personal responsibility for all of it before you can empower yourself to effect change. Don’t wait for a personal crisis to highlight gaps – use your strengths now to focus on fulfillment.
  • Burst your bubble. Your bubble is a lens through which you unconsciously interpret every experience, set by your background, family, and long-standing beliefs. It limits your view of opportunities and actions in yourself, and in others. To the degree that it’s inconsistent with your vision, you need to burst the bubble to act and think outside of your pre-set boundaries.
  • Build your support team. Go-it-alone leaders are common in startups, but they often crash if they don’t build effective support along the way. Brian defines an effective Court of Support as one professional coach, one accountability partner, one mentor, and six to nine group members. Look for a mix of talent and balance in your support team.
  • Methodically remove the barriers to fulfillment. Develop your inner CEO to make decisions informed by all areas of your life – not just your career and finances, but also your relationships, core needs, and the needs of others. Beware your shadow and the risk-averse side of your being, which cause you to overreact and behave in ways not conducive to fulfillment.
  • Create a positive personal practices regimen. Being fulfilled, and staying fulfilled, takes work. It takes a personal regimen to create and sustain a life fortified against the distractions of a culture that relentlessly promotes material success. Focus on practices that help you stay open and have faith, but don’t force it. Don’t be afraid to take test drives.

Following these steps early and always in your career will allow you to be the entrepreneur you want to be with a whole-life view. You will be able to tap unused skills, create better ways to respond to high-stress situations, while still generating more powerful results. Most importantly, you will be able to stay on the road to fulfillment, as well as success.

The best evidence that you are on the road to fulfillment and success is that you love what you do. When you love what you do, it’s not just self-evident, it’s evident to others. You don’t think of your career as going to “work” every day. How many of you can say “I strive to do my best at what I love to do?” Fulfillment and success need not be mutually exclusive.

Marty Zwilling


Monday, December 9, 2013

Corporate Perks Will Doom Your Entrepreneur Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


Friday, December 6, 2013

The Best Entrepreneurs Relish But Manage Conflicts

peter-colemanMany entrepreneurs are not prepared for conflict, or actively avoid it. Their vision, passion, and focus are so strong that they can’t imagine someone disagreeing, much less fighting them to the death. But the reality is that startups are composed of smart people, with emotions as well as intellects, working in close proximity under much pressure, so conflicts will occur.

In fact, most business conflict is constructive and should be embraced in steering through the maze of innovation and change that is part of every successful business. Surround yourself with “yes” people, and you may feel good initially, but the brick walls no one mentions will hurt later.

On the other extreme, constant and unmanaged conflict will quickly drive your startup to be dysfunctional. Here are a few simple rules of thumb toward constructive conflict resolution that I espouse, as summarized from a book by Peter T. Coleman, “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts:”

  • Know what type of conflict you are in. The first step is to assess whether the conflict is win-lose, win-win, or mixed (some competing and some shared goals). Each of the three types requires different strategies and tactics. Learning how to identify and respond to each type is central to success. Try a good business mentor to get you on the right track.
  • Not all conflicts are bad. Most often, conflicts present us with opportunities to solve problems and bring about necessary changes, to learn more about ourselves and the business, and to innovate – to go beyond what we already know and do. Avoid the ones that are irrelevant to your startup, but don’t hesitate to engage in the others.
  • Whenever possible, cooperate. Research has consistently shown that more collaborative approaches to resolving win-win or mixed-motive disputes (the majority of conflicts) work best. Therefore you should always approach conflicts with others as mutually shared problems to be solved together.
  • Be flexible. Try to distinguish your position in a conflict (“I need a raise”) from your underlying needs and interests in the relationship (“I want more respect for my contribution”). Your initial position may severely limit your options. Creativity and openness to exploration are essential to constructive solutions.
  • Do not personalize. Try to keep the problem separate from the person when in conflict (do not make them the problem). When conflicts become personal, the rules change, the stakes get higher, emotions spike, and the conflict can quickly become unmanageable.
  • Meet face-to-face and listen carefully. Meet in a neutral location, and work hard to listen to the other side in a conflict. Accurate information is critical, and careful listening communicates respect. This alone will move the conflict in a more friendly and constructive direction. Don’t mistake sending text messages and emails as listening.
  • Be fair, firm, and friendly. Research shows that the process of how conflicts are handled in usually more important than the outcomes of conflicts. Always attempt to be reasonable, respectful and persistent, but do not cave in. Find a way to make sure your needs are met.

Applied correctly, these methods can move most business conflicts in a positive and satisfying direction. But Coleman asserts that there are five percent that will always be “intractable.” These usually involve issues that won’t ever be resolved in the workplace, and should be avoided, like politics, religion, personal enmity, and cultural biases. Your best bet on these is not to engage.

For the rest, you must engage (avoidance just hardens positions and delays the consequences), and you must bring closure to the argument or conflict. Closure in business should include formalizing the result in a written document, with clearly outlined terms and activities, and follow-on milestones as required.

The most successful entrepreneurs are creative and skillful in handling conflicts, and actively seek constructive conflict with key stakeholders. The result is better decisions, more consensus, and better communication. In business, as in life, real change rarely happens without some pain. Learn to deal with it.

Marty Zwilling


Thursday, December 5, 2013

7 Benefits For Startups Joining The B-Corp Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How To Handle Tricky Investor Negotiating Styles

startup-investor-negotiationEvery entrepreneur seeking funding loves the challenge of getting customers and investors excited, but dreads the thought of negotiating the terms of a deal with potential investors. They are naturally reluctant to step out of the friendly and familiar business territory into the unfamiliar battlefield of venture capitalists from which few escape unscathed.

In reality, a financing negotiation is not a single-round winner-take-all game, since a “good” deal requires that both parties walk away satisfied -- with a win-win relationship. Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, in their book “Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist” emphasize that there are only three things that really matter in this negotiation: achieving a good and fair result, not killing your personal relationship getting there, and understanding the deal that you are striking.

To be an effective negotiator, I agree that you first need to quickly identify and adapt to your opponents negotiating style. Feld and Mendelson identify the five most common negotiating styles that you will see on both sides of the table, and talk about how you can best work with each of them:

  • The Bully (aka UAW negotiator). The bully negotiates by yelling and screaming, forcing issues, and threatening the other party. They usually don’t understand the issues, so they try to win by force. Unless this is your natural negotiating style, their advice is to chill out as your adversary gets hotter.
  • The Nice Guy (aka used-car salesman). This style is pleasant, but you always feel like he’s trying to sell you something. While he doesn’t yell at you like the bully, it’s often frustrating to get a real answer (need to talk with the boss). For these, be clear and direct, and don’t be afraid to toss a little bully into the mix to move things forward.
  • The Technocrat (aka pocket protector guy). This is the technical nerd who can put you into endless detail hell. The technocrat has a billion issues and has a hard time deciding what’s really important, since to him everything is important for some reason. Make sure you don’t lose your focus and fight for what you really care about.
  • The Wimp (aka Marty McFly). You may be able to take his wallet pretty easily during the negotiation, but if you get too good a deal it will come back to haunt you. You have to live with him on the Board and making decisions. You may end up negotiating both sides of the deal, which is sometimes harder than having a real adversary.
  • The Curmudgeon (aka Archie Bunker). With the curmudgeon, everything you negotiate sucks. He may not yell, but he’s never happy, and keeps reminding you how many times he has been around the block. If you are patient, upbeat, and tolerant, you’ll eventually get what you want, but don’t expect to ever please him.

Secondly, you should never walk into any negotiation blindly without a plan. Know the key things that you want, understand which items you are willing to concede, and know when you are willing to walk away. When determining your walk-away position, you need to understand your best alternative to agreement, and have a Plan-B (bootstrapping, competing investor, or more time).

Another key preparation is to get to know the investors you will be dealing with. Do your homework on the Internet and through contacts to find out their strengths, weaknesses, biases, curiosities, and insecurities, Knowledge is power, and that can be used for leverage.

On the other hand, when negotiating a financing for your company, you should never present your term sheet first. Always wait for the investor to play his hand. Next, make sure you listen more than you talk. You can’t lose a deal point if you don’t open your mouth. Finally, don’t lose sight of the deal as a whole, by being forced to a decision linearly on each point in isolation.

If you are the least experienced person around the negotiating table, it’s time to hire a great lawyer to help balance things out. Remember, your lawyer is a reflection of you, so check their reputation and style, as well as their win-loss record. The financing is only the beginning of a critical relationship, and a small part at that. Don’t work so hard at winning the battle that you lose the war.

Marty Zwilling


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

7 New Business Facts Of Life For Entrepreneurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/26/2013 ***


Monday, December 2, 2013

6 Tips For Entrepreneurs Who Think They Can Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling