Monday, April 28, 2014

10 C-Level Positions That Are Red Flags For Funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Businesses Must Connect To People For Real Success

people-connection-successEntrepreneurship is more about building a business than inventing a product. It’s more about the quality of the execution, rather than the quality of the idea. Most importantly, it’s more about being a proactive leader who connects to customers and the team deeply, rather than a bright light that struggles to be seen amidst the glare of a million other bright lights.

Achim Nowak, noted business coach and author, in his recent book “Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within,” talks about how technology today allows entrepreneurs to communicate at a furious pace. They exchange more emails, texts, and tweets every day. Yet many know less and less about how to really connect, and get people to commit to their business or product.

I’ve seen this all too often in my own work with startups. More noise always means more hours a day working, but it doesn’t necessarily mean more business or more productive connections. Nowak talks convincingly about how successful entrepreneurs connect deeply with others at the highest of four levels, with less effort and more results:

  1. Level one: Talk at the social level. Talk is the first of four levels of communication. It is the surface of many business experiences, and some people never get beyond this level of relationship. They don’t engage with a measure of skill and ease at this level, which inhibits any resonation at a deeper level. You need to move past this level quickly.

  2. Level two: Connect through personal power. Every entrepreneur has personal knowledge and strengths which can get them past the social level in connection. These should include professional position, existing relationships, specific expertise, professional appearance, and passion for your cause or business. Use them effectively.

  3. Level three: Shape the intent of the connection. Great connectors don’t just fall into conversations, they carefully shape them with conscious intent and tone. Action verbs are key to creating powerful intents, and they unleash forward-moving velocity. Don’t waste your precious time, or theirs, on long boring conversations at lower levels.

  4. Level four: Energy conquers all. Energy and passion is the realm where all resonating connections truly unfold. If an entrepreneur doesn’t have it, or doesn’t show it, he or she will never be able to build deep connections and commitments from customers, partners, or team members. Everyone recognizes the visible and verbal queues of energy.

Entrepreneurs who understand how to connect with people on all four levels are able to shape conversations with effortless grace and create infectious connections that are the key to business success in this age of relationships.

For many business people, the hardest part of establishing relationships effectively is dumping old habits, and learning to ignore some old myths and common beliefs. Here are a few of the things you probably need to unlearn, according to Achim, for better business as well as social connections:

  • You need to find common ground fast. Common ground is, in many ways, a wonderful thing, but is irrelevant when it is forced. Take your time to discover common ground, and relish the many things that you do not have in common.
  • Avoid charged topics. In today’s media-saturated world, being comfortable discussing current and controversial topics is critical. In business, having the confidence to disagree, explore points of conflict, and learn new points of view builds real relationships.
  • Don’t show the cracks. In reality, not taking any risks in showing the personal cracks guarantees that you will be viewed as a business robot that nobody really wants to work with. The power of a vulnerable moment is a powerful connection.
  • Don’t get stuck with a loser. Some business people are so busy looking for the right connection, afraid of losers, that they are never really in any relationship. It is far more powerful to really connect with a few key people than to skim the surface with many.
  • I will, I will, I will be perfect. The notion of perfection negates the wonders of all that is not perfect, such as the beauty of an awkward moment, the thrill of the unrehearsed encounter, and the delicious learning of solving a business problem.

Today, more than ever, people buy based on connections, and commit based on relationships, no matter how great the technology is behind your product. In addition, we are all human, and we need good relationships to be healthy and happy. Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at your people connections, and use these tips to kick your results up a notch.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Entrepreneurs Need Time Management Accelerators

time-managementMany entrepreneurs fantasize about days longer than 24 hours, convinced that their new venture could change the world, if they just had more time. They don’t realize that a more viable solution is to get more done per existing hour, rather than creating more hours. We all know at least one person who is always “very busy” and works plenty of hours, but generates few significant results.

Every person, no matter what their passion, needs to revisit the principles of time management from time to time. However, this topic is particularly critical to entrepreneurs, who struggle with challenges and crises every day that they didn’t anticipate. Effective time management skills are often the best competitive edge.

I found some new insight and direction on this subject in a recent book by Jan Yager, Ph.D., “Put More Time On Your Side.” Dr. Yager is a real guru on this subject, having been a productivity coach, trainer, and author for many years, and still found time to squeeze out over 30 books, including five related to this subject.

Here are my recommendations for taking her top ten points in accelerating time management productivity from the conceptual level to the practical level for entrepreneurs:

  1. Overcome procrastination to achieve your priorities.  All too often, we spend too much time on startup ‘emergencies,’ and put off ‘urgencies’ for another day. The best way to recognize this problem is to track daily where your time is really spent. This can help to force you to stay ‘on task’ rather than mindlessly working the issue of the moment.

  2. See a deadline as something empowering, rather than negative. A realistic product deadline will motivate you, so stop setting unrealistic deadlines, which discourage you or even ‘shut you down.’ Learn to use time-saving strategies, including delegation to team members, freelancers, or technology. Sometimes the right answer is to revise the goal.

  3. Respond right now rather than wait to the last minute. It’s never good to let a team member or customer request be ignored until the last minute. If you are the right person, handle it now, or pass it on to the right person immediately. Ignored requests lead to crises, animosity, and projects that get off-track, and even startup failures.

  4. Seize opportunities in the marketplace. One of the greatest benefits of improved time management is that it allows you recognize and follow-up on unexpected opportunities or pivots that could come your way. In the startup world, these can make all the difference in closing on a key new customer, or capitalizing on a new business partnership.

  5. Determine where email and social media add value.  Keep a check on your web browsing habits, and limit your daily time spent or delegate these activities. If you find your attention distracted from the task at hand by headlines or new videos, it may be time to shift to another platform that does not highlight these distractions.

  6. Find and use preferred individual contact methods. If someone lets you know that they hate phone calls, respect that. If email is your preference, communicate that to your team and contacts, perhaps minimizing office interruptions. You need to learn how to use the latest technology, like smartphones, to make you more productive and mobile.

  7. Get a neutral eye review before submitting critical work.  Have you ever proofed your own letter or contract several times, only to find an embarrassing error later? It’s usually more efficient and effective to have a trusted team member make the last pass to save your time, and possibly add content and details that you overlooked.

  8. Learn to say ‘no’.  None of us have the time to do everything. Learn how to say ‘no’ politely and tactfully without feeling guilty about it. Being able to feel comfortable with what you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to will help you to broaden your options and empower you to spend your valuable time on things with the biggest payback to your startup.

  9. Get products out the door and shipped.  You know you are making progress when you get things out the door. If closing customers is your priority, proposals completed and delivered is the key. Programmers and engineers are famous for always needing more time to hone the product before it’s ready to ship. No products mean no business.

  10. Look outside your business domain for new solutions. Too many of us get stuck in the rut of looking to our own experiences and skills for solutions to business challenges. Instead, don’t be hesitant to talk to your investors, board advisors, or peers in other industries for alternate approaches, new techniques, and direct outside help.

I hope you realize by now that your day will never have more than 24 hours, and “I didn’t have enough time!” will never be a valid entrepreneur excuse for any business partner, customer, or investor. Time management is a learnable skill, but it takes continual focus. How many of the concepts presented here do you use on a regular basis?

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, April 25, 2014

Lead Generation Is Still The Lifeblood For Startups

David-Scott-authorContrary to popular opinion, viral marketing has not eliminated the need for old-fashioned lead generation to bring customers to a startup. Indeed, while the rules and technologies for lead generation have changed, Forrester and other experts still see it as the most effective way for businesses with limited budgets to maximize their return on marketing investment (ROMI).

One of these experts, David T. Scott, just published a new book that I like,”The New Rules of Lead Generation,” highlighting the changes wrought by the internet and social media. His professional background includes having held marketing-executive roles at big companies as well as startups.

Here is my summary of the seven most successful lead-generation vehicles he recommends today: 

  1. Search-engine marketing. For new product startups, search engine marketing (SEM) is still one of the most cost-effective and scalable lead-generation approaches. It’s also one of the most accountable, with in-depth data provided by search engines about performance. You can start an SEM campaign with as little as $50 today and get results very quickly.

  2. Social-media advertising. Social-media advertising relies on popular social media sites (such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) to generate leads through pay-per-click ads and tweets on sites that target customers in specific demographics. You bid on the amount you are willing to pay for a click or promoted tweet (such as $2), and a daily budget (like $1,000).

  3. Display advertising. To use online display ads to generate leads, you post ads on websites frequented by your target audience or ones with content related to the ad. Display ads on mobile devices, including video and audio, also offer a new opportunity to reach target customers.

  4. Email marketing. This one has been around a long time but still works well if your target demographic is well defined and you do your homework to buy or rent a top-quality mailing list. New technology allows for psychographic targeting (such as finding people who like to travel) and geotargeting (specifying a certain neighborhood) for improved response and spam avoidance.

  5. Direct mail marketing. Some consider direct mail very expensive or dead as a lead-generation tool. Yet it is more alive than ever before. About $20.5 billion is being spent annually on direct mail, according to the U.S. Postal Service; the amount has been increasing each year. Compared with other methods, it does require the largest up-front investment, mostly for printing and shipping.

  6. Cold calling. This is still one of the best vehicles if your business has a small, well-defined purchasing audience as do government agencies or medical establishments. You need to first purchase or build a targeted list of clients from a trustworthy source, then refine it with some new tools, like LinkedIn and Gist, before contacting them with a good script.

  7. Trade shows. Such forums are still the best opportunity for you to meet face-to-face with people who should be interested in your products or services and to display your goods in person. Pick the right shows, start small and work hard ahead of time on your marketing materials, giveaway tchotchkes and booth staffing.

In all cases, it is crucial to set specific goals for each lead-generation campaign, keep track of the overall costs and measure the return on your marketing investment in terms of cost-per-action and cost-per-sale. Don’t hesitate to use small test projects to compare the results of multiple approaches.

Technology and consumer feedback have indeed changed the landscape. Telemarketing and robocalls, once a popular approach to lead generation, have been the subject of recent legislation, which many believe will soon eliminate these options. The last thing a new business needs is to antagonize potential customers or become embroiled in controversy.

Plus lead-generation strategies can be updated by the flood of new technologies and software, including use of near-field and Bluetooth communications, QR codes, social check-in promotions, mobile search, mobile web, text, SMS, MMS and geolocation.

Whether you are an entrepreneur with a new startup, or even a more mature business charged with improving your growth and competitive posture, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the new social media initiatives and focus on viral will mitigate your need to do proactive lead generation. How many of these lead generation techniques are funded in your business plan?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 4/1/2014 ***


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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

10 Key Traits Of An Ideal Entrepreneur Partner

Schmidt-Brin-Page-GoogleA while back I talked about how and where to find a co-founder in “For a Startup, Two Heads are Always Better Than One”. The feedback was good, but some readers asked me to be a bit more specific on attributes that might indicate an ideal startup partner. Even if you are looking in all the right places, it helps to know what you are looking for.

In this context, I’m broadening the definition of partner from co-founder to “business partner.” The reason is that good attributes apply equally well to “external” partners, as they do to internal partners, like a co-founder or CTO. A good overall example is the synergy between Google co-Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as well as with Chairman Eric Schmidt.

In all cases, the challenge is the same, of finding people that you can work with and enjoy in the business relationship. The relationship has to have trust, communication, and respect in order to work. Otherwise, like a marriage, it will be doomed to constant conflict, second guessing, and unhappiness. So the following traits have to apply to both sides of the partnership to work:

  1. Enjoy working with other people. You may be too independent to be partner material. If you find it hard to trust others, love to work alone, always have to be in control, or insist on micro-managing, you probably won’t find a partner who will satisfy you.

  2. Does not need to be managed. Good partners are people who are confident in their own abilities, and willing and able to make decisions, take responsibility for their actions, and able to provide leadership, rather than require leadership.

  3. Compatible work styles. Most entrepreneurs work long hours and weekends to get the job done. If you team with a partner who likes sleep until late morning, and reserves the weekend for other activities, the partnership will likely not work.

  4. Common vision and commitment. It doesn’t take long to sense someone’s real commitment, or vision and desired outcome of a joint project. Is your project seen by both as an end in itself, or a means to another end?

  5. Similar values and goals. If one of your core values is exceeding your customer expectations for quality and service, and your potential partner ascribes to the low cost, high profit mantra, a successful partnership is highly unlikely over the long-term.

  6. Level of integrity. High levels of integrity are important in business, but more important is your level of comfort with your partner’s integrity. This is a critical element of a good relationship, but a tough one. This is probably the best place to apply your “gut” feeling.

  7. Complementary skills. If both of you are experts at software development, even though one loves design and the other loves coding, that still won’t get the marketing done. Look at the big picture first of development, finance, and marketing/sales.

  8. Passion for what they do. The passion has to be in the business context – meaning results oriented, customer oriented, and sensitive to competition. In many cases, experts with academic or research credentials are not good partners for a business venture.

  9. Ethical and diversity boundaries. How the leaders of your company handle adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the law will be seen by all employees, customers, and investors. Ethics and the view of personal boundaries should be explored fully.

  10. No historical baggage. Partner decisions are more important than hiring decisions. Thus you should do the same or more due diligence on educational background, previous work, and references. Look impartially from all angles and do the follow-up.

Beyond the core team of two or three startup partners, every startup should seek to “outsource” the rest of their strategic requirements to external business partners. It’s faster and cheaper than building a large team in-house, and usually more effective.

By using this checklist, you should be able to objectively match potential partners with your own needs and expectations. Then, as I suggested before, it’s time to establish a formal agreement or contract to cement the partnership. With that, you will have a strong foundation for success, as well as a great working relationship for the next thirty years.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, April 21, 2014

How To Find Your Business Leadership Blind Spots

jamie-dimonEvery business leader has blind spots which limit their effectiveness and success, but due to ego, over-confidence, or deferential subordinates, many live totally in the dark. Some are smart and humble enough to assume that they don’t know what they don’t know, but lack an effective process for shining a light on their blind spots. Both are equally surprised by their every setback.

I recently found some real insight on this subject in a new book by Robert Bruce Shaw, aptly named “Leadership Blindspots.” Shaw specializes in organizational performance and has helped a wealth of business leaders identify and overcome their weaknesses. He provides a detailed analysis of the blind spots of many well-known business powerhouses, including Steve Jobs of Apple, Ron Johnson at JCPenney, and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase.

Shaw argues that every successful leader balances two conflicting needs. The first is to act with a confidence in their abilities and faith in their vision for their organization: The second is to be aware of their own limitations and avoid the hazards that come with overconfidence and excessive optimism. That means that they have to see themselves and situations accurately.

I agree with him that the best way to do this is to continually ask the right questions, in the right way, to identify blind spots. Here are some key guidelines that he offers to drive this process:

  1. Avoid yes-or-no questions. Closed-end questions (yes-no) are efficient, but don’t surface data that may be critical to a leader’s understanding. Questions are called open-ended when they allow for a variety of responses and provoke a richer discussion. These allow a leader to know what he doesn’t know, and ultimately make a better decision.

  2. Don’t lead the witness. Hard-charging leaders often push to confirm their own assumptions about what is occurring in a given situation and what is needed moving forward. This can result in questions that are really disguised statements, like “doesn’t this mean that we really don’t have a quality problem?” These usually prevent contrary points of view and further data from surfacing.

  3. Beware of evasive answers. All too often, people will avoid giving direct answers to direct questions. They may not know the answers or not want to provide the answers, to appear smart, or not want to offer incriminating data. Leaders need to keep coming back with directed questions until they get a straightforward answer or “We don’t know.”

  4. Ask for supporting data or examples. Leaders need to ask questions that surface points of view and, at the appropriate time, also clarify which answers are based on fact and which are based on speculation. They should encourage people to say what they know from data and what they think they know, and make sure they clarify the difference.

  5. Paraphrase to surface next-level details. One technique to push people to provide more information is to paraphrase what you are hearing. While this may result in a yes or no response, proceeding to next-level questions opens up the dialogue. Smart leaders sometimes mis-paraphrase what they are hearing in order to provoke a richer dialogue.

  6. Ask for alternatives. Another approach to surfacing non-confirming data is to overtly ask for an opposing point of view. A related line of questioning is to ask the respondent to alter his or her fundamental position, like “You are asking for $10 million to grow this brand. What more could you do if we gave you $25 million?”

  7. Give an opening for additional input. Leaders also need to provide an opportunity for others to offer additional input and, in particular, dissenting views. Often, the final moments of discussions are the richest, as people will wait until that time to surface what is really important to them. Ask if there is anything left unsaid that should be heard.

In today’s global business world, you should assume that all your peers are smart and experienced, but have blind spots just like you. These are automatic behaviors that are not flaws, but they do need to be identified and mitigated by continually asking the right questions as outlined here. Otherwise they will undermine your organizational performance and may well destroy your legacy when you least expect it. Early learning is a lot easier than a later recovery.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Does Doing Good In Business Imply Doing Less Well?

Christoph_LueneburgerMany entrepreneurs still don’t understand that building a business culture today of doing good, like helping people (society) and planet (sustainability), is also a key to maximizing profit. Employees and customers alike are looking for meaning, not simply employment and commodity prices. Every company needs this focus to attract the best minds and loyalty in both categories.

I just finished a new book by Christoph Lueneburger, “A Culture Of Purpose,” which details how to build this new culture, and why it is becoming more instrumental in bringing about success, as well as sustainability, in organizations as diverse as Unilever and Walmart. He outlines a three-phase process to develop the necessary business culture of energy, resilience, and openness:

  • Nurture your current leadership strengths. Learn how to recognize, cultivate, and leverage the competencies of your current talent to develop your leadership team. Highlight leaders with business acumen as well as purpose as role models. Change leadership is a critical competency in the early stages of a transformation.
  • Hire the right team. Ask the right questions to identify the innate personality traits in potential new hires, regardless of level and function, to bring on board those most likely to succeed in and shape your organization. Employees with a purpose actually are easier to recruit and retain. They also tend to stay longer with the organization, reducing costs.
  • Craft your culture into an actionable plan. Create an environment that unleashes these competencies and trains and pushes them to the fore. Shape how people relate to one another and collectively go for what would be out of reach to them individually. Success is people moving from a reactive to a proactive focus on doing good.

In summary, the transformation starts with placing leaders with a purpose at the core, hiring talent with a purpose at the frontier, and then building and extending the culture of purpose both inside and outside the organization. I can think of at least five ways that this benefits the business, as well as customers:

  1. Products in a purpose culture more readily sell at a premium price. Evidence is growing that consumers are willing to pay at least a small premium for sustainability, and have started to demand a discount for “un-sustainability.” Companies can use this strategy to improve their profitability and competitive advantage.

  2. Doing good opens the door to a broader customer base. By adding to perceived value, a company attracts 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 their price and service.

  3. Customer loyalty and trust go up for companies with a purpose culture. According to the Edelman 2012 Trust Barometer, 76% of global consumers believe it is acceptable for brands to support good causes and make money at the same time. We all know the cost of retaining customers is far less than the cost of new customers.

  4. Companies with a purpose culture have more productive teams. Doing business is a human process. Team members interact on a daily basis with the stakeholders of the company 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.

  5. Investors like startups that foster planet and 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.

Thus doing good leads to doing very well, not less well. Lueneburger contends, and I agree, that the most effective and remembered leaders of our time, and the most successful companies, will be builders of cultures of purpose, which inspire the hearts and minds of people both inside and outside the organization. Is your personal leadership shining well or less well in this direction?

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, April 19, 2014

8 Guidelines For Friends And Family Startup Funding

early-stage-fundingMost entrepreneurs have learned that it’s almost always quicker and easier to get cash from someone you know, rather than Angel investors or professional investors (VCs). In fact, most investors “require” that you already have some investment from friends and family before they will even step up to the plate.

You see, investors invest in people, before they invest in ideas or products. Since they don’t know you (yet), their first integrity check on you as a person is whether your friends and family believe in you strongly enough to give you seed money for your new idea. If they won’t do it, they why would I as stranger invest in you?

Friends and family will likely not expect the same level of sophistication on the business model and financials as a professional investor, but they do expect to see certain things. Here is a summary of some key items to think about as an entrepreneur before approaching friends, family, or even fools:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask, carefully. If you set around quietly waiting for someone you know to offer you money to fund a startup, you will probably have a long wait. On the other hand, if you open every conversation with “I need money,” you won’t have any friends or any money. Practice your “elevator pitch,” and end it by asking for the order.

  2. Be upbeat and respectful. Nothing kills everyone’s optimism and desire to help quicker than a negative or arrogant attitude. If they are going to put cash into your company, chances are that they will expect to spend a fair amount of time together, either helping you or certainly discussing progress. Nobody likes a downer.

  3. Be passionate about the idea. Friends and family will quickly detect your level of sincerity and thought behind the idea. You need to convince them that you have been working on this vision for a long time, and have done the “due diligence” on all the potential knockoffs. Daydreams and “the idea of the moment” won’t get much respect.

  4. Demonstrate progress and your own “skin in the game.” Saying that you need money to start is not nearly as convincing as saying that you have built a prototype on your own dime, but need more to roll it out. We all know people who can talk a good game, but never get around to building anything.

  5. Ask for the minimum rather than the maximum. We would all love to have a million dollars of funding to “do it right” and build the company of our dreams. But your chances are minimal of finding someone who will give you that much to start. Set some milestones for three or four months out, and show what you can do, then ask for more.

  6. Communicate the risks, and write down the agreement. Be honest with naïve family members and friends about the inherent risks of a startup – at least 70% fail in the first five years. Don’t take money from family or friends who can’t afford to lose it. Think hard about the consequences of a possible startup failure and the loss of their funding.

  7. Show some incremental value along the way. Look for ways to get some traction with a minimal product, while you are still developing the main event. In high technology, this is called “release early and iterate,” which allows you to make corrections as you go, as well as adjust for the market changes. It also shows progress to early backers.

  8. Network to build investor relationships before you ask for money. Having a real project, rather than just an idea, is a strong positive when networking for Angels or VCs. Now you really have something to discuss, and real credibility as an entrepreneur. Build the friendship first, ask for advice on a real project, then maybe money later.

Overall, don’t think of friends and family funding only as a last resort. There are massive advantages, like sharing profits with friends and family, as well as the strategic credibility than can be gained from funding from someone you know, rather than from a professional investor.

I hope all of these points seem like common sense to you, and you wouldn’t think of handling it any other way. Yet, I’m continually amazed at how often I am approached as a professional investor by strangers asking for a million dollars to fund an idea, without hitting even one of the above points.

We can all recount horror stories of families and friendships torn apart by money lost on someone else’s speculative dream. In these cases both the entrepreneur and the funding partner are the fools. Don’t be one.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Is An Ideal Entrepreneur Right Brain Or Left Brain?

EinsteinTraditionally, the majority of entrepreneurs have been logical thinkers, problem solvers, and pay attention to details. These are the stereotypical left-brain engineers. Yet I see a big shift from the knowledge age, with its left-brain foundation, to a critical focus today on visualization, creativity, relationships, and collaboration, which are more in the domain of right-brainers.

Of course, the best solution would be a new wave of so-called whole-brain thinkers, but this term is usually reserved for Einstein and Picasso, and no entrepreneurs that I can name. Even right- brain dominant adults are hard to find, according to many expert views. They say most children start out this way, but after their years in school, less than ten percent retain their high creativity.

That means we need all the help we can get to bring out the right-brain attributes we need to be the best entrepreneurs in this challenging new age. Fortunately, there are resources available to help, like the new book by right-brain entrepreneur Jennifer Lee, “Building Your Business The Right-Brain Way,” which teaches you to capitalize on these strengths, and still build a business.

Obviously, there are places for right-brain thinking as well as left-brain thinking, as it relates to starting and building a business. Lee offers the following guiding principles to right-brain thinkers who need to balance their focus, but I’m convinced that the same principles apply to every entrepreneur-minded person:

  1. Be uniquely you and embrace your creativity. Creativity is the key word here. Engineering creativity, like innovate low-cost solutions, needs to be combined with marketing creativity, like viral social media campaigns, to build a sustainable competitive advantage today. Be visual and imaginative, but don’t forget the business details.

  2. Dream big but start small. Don’t be seduced by the bigness of your right-brain vision and expect everyone to follow, based on the strength of your passion alone. Challenge your left-brain side to break things down into manageable pieces and structure a practical plan to unfold things over time. It doesn’t all have to happen at the same time.

  3. Keep it simple and focused. Opt for easy, broad strokes instead of detailed, complicated solutions. The advantage goes to right-brain thinking on this one. Too many entrepreneurs (engineers) I know define the ultimate system and processes that even a large company can’t afford, and no startup has the money or time to execute.

  4. Take action, make it real, and tweak as you go. Be willing to take action and put yourself out there, even when you don’t feel ready and even if your idea is not yet perfect. You’ll actually learn more and gain more clarity the more you interact with your idea and get feedback. Neither right-brain nor left-brain entrepreneurs will success without action.

  5. Look for the learning and repeat what works. Always have your eyes peeled for valuable new insights to help you continuously improve. Then, when you find something that works, keep doing it until it doesn’t work anymore. Don’t be afraid of using your intuition and feelings to guide you with customers, but don’t ignore real data.

  6. Consider where you are headed and don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay ahead of the curve but don’t advance so fast that you overwhelm yourself. Make sure you have a solid foundation first to support your future vision. Left-brain logical and sequential thinking usually has the edge on this one. Some creative people are always working in the future.

  7. Recognize where you’ve come from. Even as you move forward, also acknowledge how far you’ve come, and celebrate each step of the way. Recognizing past achievements and reflecting on your success helps keep your circuitous progress in perspective. Thomas Edison found his best learning was from his failures.

  8. Know thyself. Building a business is a journey accompanied by personal growth. Understand what makes you tick, and be willing to courageously move past your comfort zone. When you transform yourself, you transform your business. Success in business is often about knowing when and who to ask for help.

As you can see, it’s hard for most of us to be adequately right-brained and left-brained at the same time. Thus I always recommend that two heads are better than one, meaning seek a co-Founder who supplements your natural skills and tendencies. It’s hard to beat entrepreneur teams like Bill Gates (engineer) and Steve Ballmer (marketing) in the early days at Microsoft.

So my conclusion is that while the opportunities are growing for right-brain thinkers, the ideal entrepreneur is still a team that can work together to accomplish whole-brain thinking, and whole-team execution. Have you assessed the thinking-balance and the effectiveness of your team and yourself in your own business lately?

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, April 14, 2014

‘Do-It-Yourself’ Startups Have Never Been Easier

do-it-yourself-ecommerceSponsored by VISA Business

If you have a unique product or service, and you are not selling it around the world on the Internet, now is the time to start. The cost of entry has never been lower. Anyone can be an entrepreneur today, without a huge investment, bank loans, lawyers, venture capitalists, or Angels.

In the early days (20 years ago), most new e-commerce sites, for example, cost a million dollars to set up. Now the price is closer to $100 if you are willing to do the work yourself. Here are the key steps for a personal home-based business website selling your consulting service or a few products (as an alternative to eBay):

  1. Go online to reserve a website domain name. Be sure it matches your business, and get a hosting agreement from one of the popular providers like GoDaddy. The cost for the domain name is maybe $10/year, and the hosting starts around $50/year. Start simple.

  2. Download free website tools. Many hosting services offer free tools, or will build a default website for you. Other popular tools are available at low cost, with built-in e-commerce capabilities (pay via credit card), including this Top Ten list for 2014. Or, fall back to the old standby DreamWeaver by Adobe.

  3. Personalize a simple web site. Customize your website using one of the tools above, selecting one of the standard templates for design and layout. You probably want at least a home page, product page, order page, and contact page. The menu should include a link to your blog, separately set up on Blogger, Wordpress, or TypePad – all free.

  4. Publish the site and now you are in business. But, don’t be fooled into expecting people to flock to your site after you tell a few friends. Now the real work begins – promotion, marketing, blogging, and all types of search engine marketing. But even these can be done for almost no cost, if you are willing to learn and do the work yourself.

Obviously, commercial e-commerce sites handling thousands of products and back-office functions are more expensive, and usually require professional help to do the custom programming and special site navigation features. All this may cost a few thousand dollars, but don’t get talked into an Amazon.com replacement just yet.

The next step in complexity is building a software product that you can offer as a service to your customers, or a mobile smartphone app. A simple example might be a mortgage calculator to add to your real estate sales site. Any credible software developer should be willing to tackle this kind of tool for a couple of thousand dollars.

Then there are full-featured software sites like Facebook. The logic behind all these features is millions of lines of code, and cost millions of dollars to develop and maintain. Don’t expect that you can create a new social networking site in your garage, and steal all the users away from Facebook. Facebook is making big money today, but only after a $150 million investment.

Even Facebook started simple, and then developed more and more robust iterations as user interest caught on. I give this advice all the time – “launch fast and iterate.” You can’t get it all right the first time, and the market will be gone if you try to include every feature in the first version.

The net is that if I see a website business plan today with a projected development cost greater than $200K, I suspect the founder must be including some fancy perks, or they don’t understand the market dynamics of website applications today.

Budding entrepreneurs and home-based businesses should be writing business plans before they start, so they understand and can manage the tasks ahead, but no outside investor need ever see the plan. Fund-it-yourself (bootstrapping) and do-it-yourself entrepreneurs are the best kind, because they can focus on the business, rather than fundraising, and have full control of their destiny. Life is more fun that way.

Marty Zwilling

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

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

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


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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Team Member Competency Is Critical To Your Startup

Peter-Principle-bookMost people think that the Peter Principle (employee rises to his level of incompetence) only applies to large organizations. Let me assure you that it is also alive and well within startups. I see startup founders and managers who are stalled transplants from large organizations, as well as highly-capable technologists trying to start and run a business for the first time.

Forty years ago, in a satiric book named “The Peter Principle”, Dr. Laurence J. Peter first defined this phenomenon. The principle asserts that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent, and there they remain, unless they start or join a startup to get the next level.

In all environments, the move to incompetence often occurs when competent technical people try to step into management or executive positions, for which they have no aptitude, interest, or training. How many technologists have tried to run startups and failed?

So what are the keys to avoiding this problem for yourself, and recognizing the signs and requirements in your own team, before the “level of incompetence” paralyzes your startup:

  1. Focus on communication skills. The ability to communicate effectively and often to your team and to the outside world becomes more and more critical as you move up the role ladder. Practice and training are critical. If communication to others is not your forte, then stick to a highly focused non-management role.

  2. Look for ability to direct, as well as act. Many people have trouble directing the task and not doing it themselves. Both are hard work, and both are valuable. Executives get paid for what they know, not for what they can do with their hands—for managing the job and not actually doing it.

  3. Comfortable with a spectrum of responsibilities. As a manager, there will be many new responsibilities, most of which are a little fuzzy. A tech promoted to manager must change his mindset from one of focusing on a problem and solving it, to multi-tasking a broad range of responsibilities, and keeping them all moving.

  4. Consistent demonstration of high-level competencies. You need ‘portable’ competencies—those that you can take with you to any level of the corporate ladder, and which you can tap into in a managerial capacity. For example: be solutions-oriented, able to balance both sides of an issue, and be a quick study.

  5. Provide mentoring and formal management training. If you are seriously looking at shifting someone to a management role, make it top priority to get them formal training, not only on business management itself, but especially on people management and interaction skills. Talent and good intentions are not sufficient.

  6. Evaluate passion and current position. A management position is not for everyone, and a specialist career may be much more exciting. Great technical gurus get paid very well, and have visible top positions like Chief Technical Officer (CTO) for prestige and respect. You can still be the founder, and bring in a CEO to run the business.

Another important point is to recognize and deal immediately with occurrences of the Peter Principle. If you are the CEO, and you tolerate ineffective people in important positions, they will suck the life out of your startup. The good people will fade away, and only the bad will remain. You will be tagged as the one with the Peter Principle.

It’s something that we all have to deal with, in our own career, and with other team members. In a small startup, everyone has to carry a maximum load for survival, and everyone sees the non-performers. If you are the last to see the problem, or the last to react, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, April 12, 2014

How Stories Best Communicate Your Startup Value

chad-hurlyThe entrepreneur’s challenge is to effectively communicate their value proposition, not only to customers, but also to vendors, partners, investors, and their own team. Especially for technical founders, this is normally all about presenting impressive facts. But in reality facts only go so far. Stories often work better, because humans don’t always make rational decisions.

Most people care the most about the things that touch, move, and inspire them. They make decisions based on emotion, and then look for the facts that support these decisions. Thus it behooves every entrepreneur to learn how to craft stories from their personal experience and the world at large that make an emotional connection, as well as tie in the facts.

I like the point from the book “Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story,“ by Peter Guber, a thought leader on this subject and long-time business executive. He asserts that everyone today, whether they know it or not, is in the emotional transportation business, and compelling stories are the best way for you to move your business forward.

More importantly, he provides the insights and guidance that we all need to do this effectively. I have extracted these ten basic principles for telling the right story, at the right time, and telling it right:

  • Select the right story for the right audience. The most successful story tellers are also attentive story listeners. They understand that it’s more important to be interested in their listener than to appear interesting. What does the audience want and need? Armed with this insight, you can tailor a story that will achieve both your goals.
  • Choose when the listener will be receptive. Getting to know your audience also means figuring out the place and time where they will be most receptive and least subject to interruption or distraction. They need to be able to give you your full attention, so you need to look, listen, and locate their optimal context.
  • Finding the source material for good stories. The key is not to expect to find a story fully born, perfectly framed, and read to be told, but to constantly stockpile fragments and metaphors that have the potential to become stories. The most effective story material comes from firsthand experience, infused with your personal feelings and emotions.
  • Make sure your call to action resonates. Every story needs something that will move the audience emotionally to hear your call to action. This may mean finding a hero or a villain in the story, showing your real passion and emotion, or describing the excitement and fear of others.
  • Get in the right state for your story. Getting in state isn’t just a mental, emotional, or physical process; it’s all three. This state is vital to telling a story because reading your intention is what signals listeners to pay attention to you. Intentions speak louder than words. Train both your body and your mind on your clear intention to succeed.
  • Tell the story with authentic contagious energy. Like intention, authenticity and energy cannot be faked. If you are telling a story you don’t believe in, your audience will sense it instantly. The good news is that they will pick up just as instantly on your genuine enthusiasm and conviction.
  • Demonstrate vulnerability and perseverance. Everyone has something in common with every other person, so open up and expose your fears and concerns, allowing others to do likewise. The trick to perseverance is not to eliminate fear, but to use it to ramp up your energy, heighten your passion, and intensify your sense of urgency.
  • Make the story experience interactive. You can make any business story more memorable, resonant, and actionable by asking for input or a response during the story, or getting an emotional interaction. Engage the audience physically or verbally, which makes them feel like part of your story, and that they have a stake in the outcome.
  • Engage the senses of your audience. Scientists tell us that words account for only the smallest part of human communication. The majority is nonverbal, more than half based on what people see and more than a third transmitted through tone of voice. The more the audience feels the story in their bodies, the more positive they will react to it.
  • Listen actively with all your senses. Even when you make the story a dialogue, rather than a monologue, how you listen as a teller is as important to your success as the actual words you speak. You must listen to gauge emotions, attention, and interest – moment to moment. More engaged listeners will be more likely to heed your call to action.

Examples of great storyteller entrepreneurs include Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, and Chad Hurley, founder of YouTube. Both demonstrated many times the ability to turn “me” into a “we,” by being able to tell a story that shined the light on an interest, goal, or problem that both the teller and the listener shared. That connection ignited empathy, secured trust, and gathered commitment to the call to action.

Stories have been used since the beginning of time to share knowledge, history, and ideas. Sure they contain facts, but often emotion is what makes them work. How often do you get beyond the facts in your pitch to customers and investors? If you want to kick your business up a level, maybe it’s time to add some stories to your message.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, April 11, 2014

Hard Questions Spark Breakthrough Business Thinking

WarrenBergerQuestionsThe entrepreneurs I see are always talking about “disruptive innovation” ideas, but the plans I read are more often linear extensions of a current hot offering, like one more social network with the best of Facebook and Twitter, one more dating site dimension, or another “must-have” accessory for smartphones. Perhaps hard questions need to come before ideas, rather than after.

I just finished a provocative new book by Warren Berger, “A More Beautiful Question,” that makes a good case for the power of questions to spark breakthrough innovations. He argues and I agree that the most creative, successful business leaders tend to be expert questioners. They must master the art of inquiry, raise questions no one else is asking, and find powerful answers.

Berger suggests some base questions with a focus on existing companies that I have adapted for entrepreneurs and startups. Every smart entrepreneur needs to ask himself and his team these questions before charging down the road to meet the other ninety percent of his peers that fail:

  1. What business are we really entering? Many aspiring entrepreneurs, especially engineers, are focused on their invention or technology, and never consider the challenges of entering the business realm until too late. Hydrogen auto engines, for example, have tremendous advantages, but haven’t cracked the bureaucracy of government regulations, the power of existing energy companies, and big auto biases.

  2. Why have other smart people failed on a similar idea? All too often I hear the refrain that big existing players, like Microsoft or IBM, are too fat and slow to be real competitors. While these companies do have their challenges, they also have some of the smartest people out there. You need to question strongly why these failed on your innovation.

  3. What will happen if we build it and no one comes? The “unthinkable” questions need to get asked before the crisis. Customers always have alternatives, most notably continuing to do what they do today without you. Asking the hard questions early will force more thinking outside the box, and improve the potential for real breakthroughs.

  4. What if we could become a cause and not worry about profit? Every startup should start with a set of values that would fit the definition of a good cause. The new age of consumers, and the new age of young employees want to align themselves with good cause principles. Figure out what you are against, as well as what you are for.

  5. How can we create the best test, and assume the need for pivot? Your first offering will likely be a learning experience, rather than a run-away success. Plan to make it the best experiment that you can, with metrics to focus on the “why,” as much as “what.” Create a safe environment for your team to question every aspect of the offering.

  6. If we brainstorm in questions, will lightning strike? Collaborative thinking in problem solving and early planning is essential because it brings together multiple viewpoints and diverse backgrounds. Innovation flourishes when diverse ideas and thoughts are aired. Tackle the startup unknowns by generating questions instead of generating solutions.

  7. Will anyone follow if we initially embrace uncertainty? Entrepreneurs are normally all about giving answers, not admitting uncertainty. They are reluctant to take advantage of questioning input from outside advisors, investors, and even friendly customers. Business leaders from Google, Netflix, and others have uncertainty built into their DNA.

  8. Should our mission statement be a mission question? The declarative mission statement is usually seen by the team as non-questionable, thus limiting business thinking. In these dynamic times, it may be appropriate to take that static statement and transform it into more open-ended, fluid mission questions that can still be ambitious.

  9. How do we create a culture of continuous inquiry? The first mistake is not wanting a culture of inquiry, in today’s age of continuous change. Some leaders and entrepreneurs don’t want to continually explain and rationalize their actions. The challenge is to reward questioning by your actions, culture, hiring, and the way you treat customer feedback.

If you want more specifics as well as the theory behind it, I recommend Berger’s book as a practical system of inquiry that can guide you through the process of innovative questioning, helping you find imaginative, powerful answers and building the culture of continuous innovation.

Disruptive innovation is always hard, and takes a very special breed of entrepreneur who is willing to ask the hard questions, as well as listen to tough questions from advisors, team members, and customers. How effective are you and your business in asking more “beautiful questions” and sparking the breakthrough ideas you need to survive?

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, April 7, 2014

A Founder’s First Key Decision Is The Business Name

TBD-BUSINESS-PLANFirst things first – your startup needs a name! This may seem a silly and frivolous task, but it may be the most important decision you make. The name of your business has a tremendous impact on how customers and investors view you, and in today’s small world, it’s a world-wide decision.

Please don’t send me any more business plans with TBD or NewCo in the title position. Right or wrong, the name you choose, or don’t choose, speaks volumes about your business savvy and understanding of the world you are about to enter. Here are some key things I look for in the name, with some expert help from Alex Frankel and others:

  1. Unique and unforgettable. In the trade, this is called “stickiness.” But the issue of stickiness turns out to be kind of, well, sticky. Every company wants a name that stands out from the crowd, a catchy handle that will remain fresh and memorable over time. That’s a challenge because naming trends change, often year by year, making timeless names hard to find (remember the dot.coms).

  2. Avoid unusual spellings. When creating a name, stay with words that can easily be spelled by customers. Some startup founders try unusual word spellings to make their business stand out, but this can be trouble when customers ‘Google’ your business to find you, or try to refer you to others. Stay with traditional word spelling, and avoid those catchy words that you love to explain at cocktail parties.

  3. Easy to pronounce and remember. Forget made-up words and nonsense phrases. Make your business name one that customers can pronounce and remember easily. Skip the acronyms, which mean nothing to most people. When choosing an identity for a company or a product, simple and straightforward are back in style, and cost less to brand.

  4. Keep it simple. The shorter in length, the better. Limit it to two syllables. Avoid using hyphens and other special characters. Since certain algorithms and directory listings work alphabetically, pick a name closer to A than Z. These days, it even helps if the name can easily be turned into a verb, like Google me.

  5. Make some sense. Occasionally, business owners will choose names that are nonsense words. Quirky words (Yahoo, Google, Fogdog) or trademark-proof names concocted from scratch (Novartis, Aventis, Lycos) are a big risk. Always check the international implications. More than one company has been embarrassed by a new name that had negative and even obscene connotations in another language.

  6. Give a clue. Try to adopt a business name that provides some information about what your business does. Calling your landscaping business “Lawn and Order” is appropriate, but the same name would not do well for a handyman business. Your business name should match your business in order to remind customers what services you provide.

  7. Make sure the name is available. This may sound obvious, but a miss here will cost you dearly. Your company name and Internet domain name should probably be the same, so check out your preferred names with your State Incorporation site, Network Solutions for the domain name, and the U.S. Patent Office for Trademarks.

  8. Favor common suffixes. Everyone will assume that your company name is your domain name minus the suffix “.com” or the standard suffix for your country. If these suffixes are not available for the name you prefer, pick a new name rather than settling for an alternate suffix like “.net” or “.info.” Get all three suffixes if you can.

  9. Don't box yourself in. Avoid picking names that don't allow your business to move around or add to its product line. This means avoiding geographic locations or product categories to your business name. With these specifics, customers will be confused if you expand your business to different locations or add on to your product line.

  10. Sample potential customers. Come up with a few different name choices and try them out on potential customers, investors, and co-workers. Skip your family and friends who know too much. Ask questions about the names to see if they give off the impression you desire.

If you are still unsure of yourself, you should know that there are many dedicated firms, like Igor and A Hundred Monkeys, who can relieve you of $1 million of your hard-earned funds to come up with just the right appellation. Hmmm. I wonder how much they spent on their own names?

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Can Startups Surf The Huge Information Tidal Wave?

information-tidal-waveA tidal wave of valuable data is surging from the Internet and connected devices today, and the volume is growing exponentially each year. It’s enough to drown any business which tries to fight it or ignore it, and it’s an opportunity to ride higher and faster than even the successes of Google and Facebook, for those startups that use it as their driving force.

In a recent study by networking giant Cisco, the world’s yearly mobile data traffic grew 81% in 2013 and will reach 1.3 zettabytes by the year 2016. If stored on CDs, this would require a stack from here to the moon and back more than five times. According to a new book “Data Crush,” by Christopher Surdak, data will be the largest source of new opportunities for startups, or death.

According to what I see, as outlined by Surdak, this data surge is being driven by the following six technological and social trends:

  1. Mobility: smartphones, tablets, and the “Internet of things.” Smartphone penetration now exceeds 50%, and these generate far more data from their non-phone functions than voice. In addition, more people in the world now own traditional cell phones than tooth-brushes. All devices are fast becoming self-aware, user-aware, and Internet connected.

  2. Virtual living: the rise and growing dominance of social media. Facebook has created an environment where millions of people can hold billions of conversations with people and companies, transforming how people expect to interact with each other and the world. For startups, this is an engagement opportunity worth billions of dollars.

  3. Digital commerce: infinite options for buying goods and services online. Data-enabled shopping has completely changed our purchasing experience, has undermined some of the greatest brand names, and has created some new brands, like Amazon, that now dominate. There is still infinite room for new startup sales modes and models.

  4. Online entertainment: millions of channels, billions of actors. With the adoption of the Internet, digital entertainment has rocketed across the world, changing how people entertain themselves. YouTube is now the 800-pound gorilla of entertainment. Online gaming has moved from the geeks to the mainstream. The audience is now the actors.

  5. Cloud computing: the death of dedicated infrastructure. More and more company and personal services are being virtualized to the Cloud. Many companies are already seeing their computing costs drop by thirty percent as they move in this direction, providing new startup opportunities with the Everything as a Service (EaaS) trend.

  6. “Big data:” learning from the flood. Big data is mining the storage for knowledge. This gives rise to the personalization and customization that we all want. Analytics will soon drive nearly all business decisions for any company that wants to remain relevant to its customers. Startups are in the best position to provide the analytics, and use them first.

As an entrepreneur, what steps can you take to help your business not only survive the data hurricane, but to thrive under these new and challenging conditions? Surdak emphasizes that the goal is to either mitigate some of the pressure caused by data growth or to put that pressure to work for you in growing your startup and remaining competitive:

  • Focus: play to your strengths. Determine your core business strategy and resolve to remain true to it. Make strategic versus opportunistic decisions.
  • Accelerate: speed is life in this new world. Look for and reward quantum changes, like cutting cycle time in half, in your processes, products, and services.
  • Data enable: use metrics and measurements. Extend data metrics into non-traditional channels, such as email, internal social media, and customer collaboration platforms.
  • Quantification: big data, bigger results, and controls. Startups should seek to continually improve performance through statistical analysis and predictive monitoring.
  • Gamify: engagement to get what you pay for. Use internal collaboration platforms, then extend to online customers through your website, blogs, and social media.
  • Crowdsource: putting your audience to work beyond customers. Look beyond today’s requirements for entire new market opportunities.

You need to start now to understand the trends and specifics of the information tidal wave that is building up in front of us. Use the steps outlined here to stay ahead of it, and use its power to propel your startup into the future, ahead of your competition. The possibilities are endless, but the downside will be painful.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Don’t Assume A Non-Profit Will Reduce Failure Risk

salvation-army-logoA common misconception I often hear in the startup world is that non-profits are easy and safe, since they don’t have to pay taxes, and they don’t have to make a profit for their shareholders. In reality, from the feedback I get from non-profit executives, exactly the opposite is true.

Technically speaking, in the United States, a non-profit corporation or association is one which has been exempted from Federal income taxes by meeting the criteria set out Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code, most notably religious, educational, and charitable entities like the Salvation Army. Other countries have similar exemptions for similar organizations.

Yet even a non-profit has to make a profit on everything it sells, in order to cover operating expenses (salaries, offices, equipment, research, travel, etc.), unless it relies wholly on donations. Even then, the business and leadership efforts to solicit and manage donations cost real money, and may be more difficult than the marketing and sales jobs of most startups.

Here are the common reasons I hear that make starting and running a non-profit actually more difficult than starting and running a conventional business:

  1. Creating a non-profit 501(c) business is a long and arduous process. You can start an LLC for-profit in less than a month, often for less than $100. A non-profit 501(c)(3) status requires filing IRS Form 1023. The form must be accompanied by an $850 filing fee, and may take as long as two years to complete successfully.

  2. Investors are not interested in non-profits. Even non-profits usually require startup funds for facilities, people, and inventory. But because they can’t project excellent returns on investment, no investors will likely be interested. Also, they can’t sell shares on the stock exchange to raise money, even though both the NYSE and Nasdaq are non-profits. That means they need to grow organically, or find a philanthropist.

  3. Reputable non-profits need to keep their operating expenses low. This usually means keeping wages low, and no fancy facilities. Thus it’s hard to attract top-notch talent, premium locations, and first-class marketing campaigns. Managing volunteers, and running any organization with these constraints is a challenge.

  4. Results are always subject to public scrutiny. Most startups, as private companies, don’t have to disclose their salaries and spending habits to anyone other than the IRS. Non-profits have to answer to watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator for how much of their proceeds actually make it to the causes they proclaim to support.

  5. Some laudable non-profit missions are hard to sell to supporters. A common complaint from many non-profits is that both government and private funders would rather spend their dollars on ‘sexy’ causes such as children’s charities, cancer, and heart disease, rather than long-term causes like global warming and erasing hunger in Africa.

Unfortunately, misuse scenarios, like the lavish lifestyles of leaders and scams, have given the non-profit environment a bad name, making things even tougher. Even reputable organizations, supporting veterans, the police, firefighters or children, often raise eyebrows, with alarming real data like these from the 10 Inefficient Fundraisers report from the Charity Navigator website:

  • American Lung Association of the Mt. Pacific - 98% spent on fundraising
  • Faith’s Hope Foundation – 94% of donations spent on fundraising
  • Cancer Survivors' Fund – 90% spent on fundraising
  • Firefighters Charitable Foundation – 88% spent on fundraising
  • The Committee for Missing Children – 87% spent on fundraising

These numbers vividly show that non-profits with good causes can fail to achieve satisfying results, in the same way that for-profit startups often fail, even with good products. Despite these challenges, my advice is still to follow your heart and your passion when starting a business.

You shouldn’t choose a non-profit, or a for-profit, because one seems easier, or one can make more money. Do it because you love the cause, the service, or the product, and the challenges will get lost in the satisfaction and results you achieve along the way.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, April 4, 2014

How To Make Your Next Business Pivot More Graceful

kellogg-school-of-managementYou will be pivoting your business in your lifetime, whether you are a new startup, or a mature company like Motorola or IBM. You can count on it and plan for it, or you wait for the next survival crisis brought your way by this rapidly changing world. You can even give it a more elegant name, like “market-focused reinvention,” but it won’t be graceful if you don’t take the lead.

“Pivoting” is changing a fundamental part of your business model. It happens on the front end for startups to get traction, and then again later for every company as the economy, competition, and culture changes around them. The pivot can be as simple as changing the pricing model, or as complex as moving from a product business to a services business.

In all cases, it’s more effective and less painful to do it as a planned process, rather than a crash course in survival. A recent book “Resurgence: The Four Stages of Market-Focused Reinvention,” by top Kellogg School of Management faculty members Gregory S. Carpenter, Gary F. Gebhardt, and John F. Sherry, Jr., outlines the required steps as follows:

  1. Recognize the need for change. This is often the most difficult step, either due to startup passion, or due to past success and the instilled cultural norms of established companies. Resurgence begins when entrepreneurs and top executives stop trusting only themselves, and build a coalition with customers to see what is and isn’t working.

  2. Reinvent the vision for change. Doing more of the same to stop the bleeding doesn’t work. Real change demands new goals based on new market realities. That means market-focused, rather than marketing-focused. For startups, it means adjusting your new dream to reality; for mature companies it means walking the talk of new realities.

  3. Formalize change through structure and rewards. Symbols of the new market coalition have to permeate every communication, formal process documentation, and the reward system for everyone. Formalizing change involves distributing authority to make important decisions to the team members most able to add direct customer value.

  4. Team, market, and cultural maintenance. Entrepreneurs and team members are quick to forget why change was needed in the first place. The antidote is to establish ongoing processes for staying connected with the market, like social media, customer visits, and focus groups. Only then can successful startups and resurgent firms avoid the next crisis.

There are no shortcuts to becoming market-focused, and for staying there to avoid crisis pivots in the future. The change takes time, effort, and commitment. But the benefits are worth it. The gains are personal as well as financial. They can make your startup an inspiring place to work, and help your team see their role in achieving something substantial and good, as well as fun.

Even if you are certain that your startup or enterprise is already market-focused, what are the warning signs to watch for that signal a need for change? Here are a few of the key ones:

  • Financial results plateau or show a growth slowdown.
  • Struggling to meet industry growth projections.
  • Competitors are surpassing your own results.
  • Your market segment has lost its luster.
  • The excitement of leading is gone.

When Eric Ries first made the term “pivot” a part of the business vernacular in his best-seller for entrepreneurs, “The Lean Startup,” he wasn’t focused on the challenges of larger companies to re-invent themselves on a regular basis to maintain their synchronization with the market. But in my view, pivot is a more natural and less intimidating term than business re-invention.

For all businesses, the art of the pivot is all about changing course as required in pursuit of the original business goal. If you weave this capability into your business processes from the very beginning, the change can indeed be a graceful and fulfilling part of the business journey, rather than a near-death experience. Don’t wait for the darkness to get started.

Marty Zwilling


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