Monday, July 21, 2014

9 Ways To Inspire Your Startup Team To New Heights

contagious-leadership-habitsStartups provide business leadership with new products, services, and new revenue models, but leadership startups can only be built by entrepreneurs who are leaders themselves, and incent leadership in the team around them. Leadership which incents other people to be leaders is called “contagious leadership.”

John Hersey, in his book “Creating Contagious Leadership,” describes nine required skills or habits for inspiring a contagious leadership culture within a startup, as well as within other types of businesses, or even life in general. He and I believe that leaders have to make the overt decision to acquire these skills, and don’t have to be born or trained into them:

  1. Spotlight leadership acts of others. This is the habit of focusing attention, directly or indirectly, on leadership efforts and accomplishments of another team member or group. For managers and non-contagious leaders (contained leaders), the spotlight seems to always be on themselves.

  2. Cultivate positive character qualities. Contagious leaders have a habit of highlighting effective choices about “how” things were accomplished, and not just “what” was accomplished. It’s not just about the numbers, but how character played a role, and who made the right decisions along the way.

  3. Provide in-depth recognition. Don’t just articulate specific actions that deserve praise. Contagious leaders tell Harry why and how he did a good job, whereas managers and contained leaders just say “Good job, Harry.”

  4. Emphasize strengths, leading to greatness. Conventional managers focus on people’s shortcomings and point them out as often as possible. Contagious leaders nurture the habit of recognizing others strengths, and help them extrapolate these to greatness.

  5. Communicate often and effectively. The habit of constantly exchanging information, thoughts and feelings openly and honestly builds morale, enhances productivity, and fosters contagious leadership. Too many managers “tell ‘em only what they need to know and not a moment before they need to know it.”

  6. Provide an unobstructed vision. Contagious leaders foster the habit of focusing actions on a clear and sensory-rich picture of the desired result. Managers tend to have only a vague picture of where the company is going, so they are unable to share a coherent vision with others.

  7. Really touch people’s lives. Nurture the habit of truly knowing your most valuable asset – people. Managers avoid any real, deep involvement. Most don’t know if the people reporting to them are married or single, or anything about them. Contagious leaders know their people personally and do things for them, not because it’s good for business, but because they truly care.

  8. Passionately support your people. Managers are always controlled, rather than being fully committed and willing to take a risk. Contagious leaders are quick to support their team, and always stick up for them, even in the face of adversity.

  9. Mentor a permission mentality. Contagious leaders mentor their team to always assume they have permission to do things their way. They try to extend the concept of contagious leadership, rather than constrain it. Managers want a staff of imitators and followers. They want people to do what they want, and to do it their way.

In summary, leaders are not the same as managers. Managers focus on the process, while leaders focus on the people. Leaders influence people to make things happen, rather than tell people to make things happen. Contagious leaders create a culture that inspires everyone to be fully engaged in the startup. The result is that your whole startup will be the leader.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Are Business People Entitled To Be Entitled?

startup-funding-entitlementWhere did this sense of entitlement in our business culture come from? I’ve written about this before, but I was reminded again a while back at a conference for startups when an entrepreneur started berating investors for not funding early-stage startups. It sounded to investors like me that they felt a funding entitlement for their startup idea. Of course, I’m sure entrepreneurs sense that many investors feel entitled to deals with no risk. It’s bad news either way.

As a society, we seem to think we've evolved to the point where we can fashion a large portion of existence according to how we wish it to be. We notice what we like and what we dislike, so we work to make society match our dreams. Somehow, these dreams and wishes have morphed in many people’s mind to an entitlement.

In later-stage businesses, entitlement is evident when employees treat customers with indifference, or feel they are entitled to their job by merely “showing up for work.” Here are some examples of people rationalizing their entitlements, especially when the fantasy serves to owe them money or power:

  • “I put in more hours than most of the people here, so I expect a bonus.” A bonus should be all about results, not time worked. We all know people who seem to be always present and always working, but don’t produce results. People with entitlement expect bonuses because it is bonus time, not because recipients earned them.
  • "We deserve our high pay since it was the other division that failed." We heard this from many of the Wall Street groups that survived a few years ago only with government bail-outs. A company succeeds only if all the teams succeed. That’s the way capitalism works. Being really good at what you do doesn’t matter if your firm is broke.
  • "The pay seems to be the same whether I work hard, or hardly work.” No business can afford to reward mediocrity or less. Watch for the signs of entitlement and let it be known that the behaviors associated with entitlement will not be tolerated. Executives need to show up be the model, communicate the model, and enforce the model.
  • "I did my job, so don’t expect me to jump when customers complain." Employees don’t see a connection between how the experience a customer receives today influences their feelings about buying from the company in the future. Make sure they understand the sense of urgency to address customer satisfaction and market needs.
  • “I give my all to this company, so I deserve healthcare coverage.” Health care is a need, like water or food, and not a right. And like water or food, it isn’t free. Every company needs to promote equity among all employee levels, and relate benefit levels to profit levels. But demanding benefits that sink the company is not the answer.
  • "Someday this business will be mine anyway." How many family businesses have met their demise because of this entitlement view? When heirs grow up believing that no matter how they act, the business will be theirs to run, they often end up with no business to run. Furthermore, once that seed is planted, it's very difficult to stop it.

Entitlement beliefs that are left unchecked lead to selfish, even more entitled expectations. Most psychologists believe that entitlement comes from a deep inner belief that the world is not fair. In some age group, this feeling can be rationalized as perhaps derived from an early life where parents gave them everything, and they now expect the world of business to do the same.

We’ve got to remind everyone, employees, entrepreneurs, and investors, that true success and leadership is built on a foundation of personal responsibility and self-discipline. Companies which feel entitled about their position in the marketplace will lose, and entitled employees will kill a company.

Few things frustrate me more than dealing with people who feel they are entitled. Everyone shares the challenge of changing our business culture of entitlement into a culture of merit. I do believe everyone is entitled to pursue success. No one is entitled to be entitled.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Smart Entrepreneurs Know Customer Buying Moments

customer-buying-momentsToday’s customers are much more in control of their buying decision, as they have more choices and more information than ever before. Almost instantly, via the Internet or on their smartphone in the store, they can find the lowest price alternative or their favorite features, without waiting for push marketing or listening to your best sales person.

This can be an advantage to startups who don’t have the resources and brand awareness of mature businesses, if they understand and position themselves to win in the decisive moments of the new customer buying process. These decisive moments, and how to respond, are outlined in Robert H. Bloom’s recent book, “The New Experts: Win Today's Newly Empowered Customers.”

Bloom is a widely known expert on managing business growth, and he starts by summarizing the three key weapons of current customers, which include an instant summary of choices, prices, and features. His research indicates that they don’t have any old-fashioned customer loyalty, and they want precisely what appeals to them at the moment, preferably customized just for them.

New startups actually have a flexibility advantage over more mature businesses in anticipating and reacting to the four key decisive moments that Bloom outlines and I have observed in the new customer buying process:

  1. Survive the now-or-never moment. You only get one chance to make a great first impression. If you can’t get a positive customer perception at this first moment, you will likely never get another chance – with so many other alternatives. The key to winning in that moment is to think like a buyer, not the seller. Build a relationship and trust quickly.

  2. Win the make-or-break moment. You win here by getting the customer immediately engaged, and keeping him there, by knowing their interests and expectations better than any competitor or alternative. Avoid the extended period of evaluation and negotiation during which the customer will likely move to other transaction alternatives.

  3. Sustain the keep-or-lose moment. The buying process is just the beginning of the customer experience, and it has to remain a good one throughout the time that your customer actually uses your product or service. Great startups manage to continually improve the relationship through outstanding follow-on support and service.

  4. Capitalize on the multiplier moment. Of course you want your customer to come back, but the best ones also become your evangelists in bringing their friends to you, and broadcasting their positive experiences to the world through social media. This is a key moment where your customer acquisition costs go way down, and your profits go way up.

This new world is all about empowered customers. As an entrepreneur and startup, you should love this environment and cater to it. Many existing businesses see it as a big problem, and can’t adapt easily. That’s your chance to step in and compete at every moment of the customer buying process, usage experience, and follow-on events.

As you bring on employees to facilitate your growth, they have to embrace the new reality. Empowered customers required empowered employees, and your internal business processes have to be aligned with the same principles and the same smartphone and Internet technologies. Make sure you adopt the right hiring practices and training to keep your team responsive.

Then you have to trust the team to think and act proactively on behalf of your vision and mission. Of course, both you and they will make mistakes, which are the best learning experiences. Continuous innovation and change are the keys to staying current, reducing complexity, and delivering the winning customer experience to keep you ahead of the competition.

What most companies don’t realize is that businesses don’t drive customer trends anymore, customers drive business trends. Consumers are well aware of the latest technologies, and their expectations are usually ahead of even the most forward-thinking startups. It’s up to you to understand and capitalize on the decisive moments of empowered customers, or you will become a “has-been” before you even start.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, July 18, 2014

How Much Should You Get For Your Invention Idea?

technology-inventionEvery inventor seems to think their invention is worth a million dollars, but I haven’t seen anyone pay that much for one yet. In fact, I often have to tell aspiring entrepreneurs that their inventions have zero value, at least not until they are put in the context of a business plan, with qualified people committed to executing the plan. Early-stage ideas fall in the same category.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for inventors and idea people who think outside the box to envision and create solutions never before seen. But I have also learned from experience that there is often quite a distance between a great invention and a great business. A business is about making money, while inventions are more about spending money.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, many people in history, famous for their inventions, such as Thomas Edison, were entrepreneurs who only later were remembered as inventors of the products they commercialized. In fact, entrepreneurs will always tell you that the invention was the easy part, and building an innovative business was the real challenge.

Of course, it helps to have innovative technologies before you start building a business. In other words, inventions are necessary but not sufficient to create real value for investors and customers. So what do investors look for in qualifying you for that million dollars you need to take your invention from your garage to the market? Here are some reality checks you should apply:

  1. It takes a business team to build a business. If you have been working alone, perfecting your idea, with no new business track record, your best strategy is to license the technology to a company or team with real business experience. You may get that million dollars someday in future royalty payments, but don’t expect anything today.

  2. Commercialization requires infrastructure. Many great technology solutions, such as hydrogen engines for cars, look great on paper, but are extremely difficult to make into a business. The value is tied to infrastructure outside your control, such as a pervasive network of fuel stations, trained service facilities and new government regulations.

  3. You need a viable business model and customers. Investors expect proof that your invention can be manufactured in volume and can justify a sales price at least double the cost to a large customer set that has money to spend. I see too many technology solutions to world hunger, where constituencies don’t have money to sustain a business.

  4. Take a hard look at the alternatives. Just because your technology is “cool” doesn’t mean that it solves a painful problem that customers are willing to pay for. People like to complain about global warming and the plastics pollution problem, but they may not be ready to buy alternative energy at twice the price, or change bad habits for global gain.

  5. Lock in your sustainable advantage. Technology limited to a single product is seldom enough for a business. A long-term advantage usually also requires intellectual property, such as a patent, trade secret or trademark. Investors look for technologies that can spawn a family of products, rolled out over time, for continuous innovation.

  6. Experts and market research agree you are first. Just because you haven’t heard of anything like your invention doesn’t mean you are ahead of the pack. Even a patent search won’t uncover work in progress that may be well ahead of you in the business cycle. Test your idea with experts, scientific journals and trade publications.

  7. Truly disruptive technologies carry an extra burden. Investors realize that big changes in technology usually take a long time, several false starts, and more money than expected to commercialize. They, and most customers, really are quicker to adopt evolutionary rather than revolutionary products. Early adopters are not a big market.

Ultimately, you need to remember that customers buy solutions to problems from business people they trust -- they don’t buy technology from inventors. If you really want your invention to change the world, maybe it’s time to give it to a proven entrepreneur and split the ownership of a new company. The million dollars will come in due time.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 7/11/2014 ***


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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kickstart Your Startup Credibility With A Prototype

Alan_Kay_prototype_DynabookThese days, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, pitching their latest and greatest new idea, and looking for someone to give them money. Angel investors, like me, have long figured out that asking to see the prototype is a quick way to separate the ‘wannabes’ from serious players. Talk is cheap, but entrepreneurs who show you a working model of their idea know how to execute.

In reality, it doesn’t take a huge investment of money and time to build a prototype today. If it is hardware, look for one of the ‘makerspaces’ such as TechShop, with all the tools you need to make almost anything yourself. Software products and apps can be quickly wireframed with free tools like MockFlow, or even Microsoft Powerpoint to lay out the key screens.

Here are the key objectives that you can achieve by building a prototype, which are really the reasons that investors and partners will give you a whole new level of credibility as they evaluate your startup for potential funding:

  • Something you can touch and feel helps validate opportunity. When you wave your arms and describe your future product, everyone sees what they want to see, and it looks great. With a realistic prototype, you can get more accurate feedback from customers on their real need and what they might pay, before you invest millions on the final product.

  • Quantify the implementation challenges. Many ideas I hear sound great, but I have no idea if they can be implemented. Building a prototype at least allows both of us to ask the right questions. Visions and theory are notoriously hard to implement. A prototype has to be real enough to be convincing, without looking like science fiction.

  • Give yourself time to pivot without dire consequences. It doesn’t matter how certain you are of your solution, it’s probably not quite right. Every entrepreneur has to deal with the realities of constant change in today’s market, and it’s much easier to pivot the pre-production prototype than to dispose of unsellable inventory.

  • Show investors that you are committed, and past the idea stage. Without a prototype, most professional investors won’t take you seriously. In reality, the process of designing, building, and validating a prototype does dramatically reduce the risk, and allows everyone to hone in on the real costs of going into production.

  • Reduce the time to production and rollout. For both software and hardware technology, multiple iterations are usually required to achieve production quality and performance. Time is money, and may be your primary competitive advantage. Don’t spend your whole development budget, before finding that you need another iteration.

  • Support early negotiation with vendors and distribution channels. A three-dimensional prototype is always better than just a documented specification when negotiating contracts for manufacturing, support, and marketing. As a startup, you need all the leverage you can get.

If you are not comfortable or skilled enough to build a prototype yourself, it’s time to find and engage a co-Founder who has the interest and background to at least manage the work. You should never outsource the management of your core technology. At worst, maybe you can find a trusted friend to guide you, or a nearby university with expert professors and the proper tools.

Of course, there are many commercial resources available on the Internet, including the Thomas Registry, which is an online database of 650,000 specialty manufacturers, distributors, and prototype developers, across every state and country. There are also a wealth of invention support sites, like InventorSpot and IntellectualVentures.

Unfortunately, working with any of these outside services is hard to manage, risky in results, and some have developed a reputation for taking advantage of unsuspecting entrepreneurs. The amount of money you spend on their services is never an indication of potential success. There is no magic formula for success while inventing. Proceed with your wits about you.

Overall, building a prototype is still a great way to bring your idea to life, for yourself, your team, investors, and future customers. Your target cost expectation should be one-tenth of the total commercialization cost, with the assumption that it will be throw-away. Even still, I can’t think of a better way to validate your solution early, and get credibility with the people who count.

Marty Zwilling


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Monday, July 14, 2014

10 Entrepreneur Alternatives To Investor Funding

Gold_bullionThe “valley of death” is a common term in the startup world, referring to the difficulty of covering the negative cash flow in the early stages of a startup, before their new product or service is bringing in revenue from real customers. I often get asked about the real alternatives to bridge this valley, and there are some good ones I will outline here.

According to a Gompers and Lerner study, the challenge is very real, with a majority of new ventures that don't attract investors failing within the first three years. The problem is that professional investors (Angels and Venture Capital) want a proven business model before they invest, ready to scale, rather than the more risky research and development efforts.

My first advice for new entrepreneurs is to pick a domain that doesn’t have the sky-high up-front development costs, like online web sites and smart phone apps. Leave the world of new computer chips and new drugs to the big companies, and people with deep pockets. For the rest of us, the following suggestions will help you survive the valley of death:

  1. Accumulate some resources before you start. It always reduces risk to plan your business first. That includes estimating the money required to get to the revenue stage, and saving money to cover costs before you jump off the cliff. Self-funding or bootstrapping is still the most common and safest approach for startups

  2. Keep your day job until revenue starts to flow. A common alternative is to work on your startup on nights and weekends, surviving the valley of death via another job, or the support of a working spouse. Of course, we all realize that this approach will take longer, and could jeopardize both roles if not managed effectively. Set expectations accordingly.

  3. Solicit funds from friends and family. After bootstrapping, friends and family are the most common funding sources for early-stage startups. As a rule of thumb, it is a required step anyway, since outside investors will not normally consider providing any funding until they see “skin in the game” from inside.

  4. Use crowd funding. The hottest new way of funding startups is to use online sites, like Kickstarter, to request donations, pre-order, get a reward, or even give equity (coming soon). If your offering is exciting enough, you may get millions in small amounts from other people on the Internet to help you fly high over the valley of death.

  5. Apply for contests and business grants. This source is a major focus these days, due to government initiatives to incent research and development on alternative energy and other technologies. The positives are that you give up no equity, and these apply to the early startup stages, but they do take time and much effort to win.

  6. Get a loan or line-of-credit. This is only a viable alternative if you have personal assets or a home you are willing to commit as collateral to back the loan or credit card. In general, banks won’t give you a loan until the business is cash-flow positive, no matter what the future potential. Nevertheless, it’s an option that doesn’t cost you equity.

  7. Join a startup incubator. A startup incubator is a company, university, or other organization which provides resources for equity to nurture young companies, helping them to survive and grow during the startup period when they are most vulnerable. These resources often include a cash investment, as well as office space, and consulting.

  8. Barter your services for their services. Bartering technically means exchanging goods or services as a substitute for money. An example would be getting free office space by agreeing to be the property manager for the owner. Exchanging your services for services is possible with legal counsel, accountants, engineers, and even sales people.

  9. Joint venture with distributor or beneficiary. A related or strategically interested company may see the value of your product as complementary to theirs, and be willing to advance funding very early, which can be repaid when you develop your revenue stream later. Consider licensing your product or intellectual property, and “white labeling.”

  10. Commit to a major customer. Find a customer who would benefit greatly from getting your product first, and be willing to advance you the cost of development, based on their experience with you in the past. The advantage to the customer is that he will have enough control to make sure it meets his requirements, and will get dedicated support.

The good news is that the cost for new startups is at an all-time low. In the early days (20 years ago), most new e-commerce sites cost a million dollars to set up. Now the price is closer to $100, if you are willing to do the work yourself. Software apps that once required a 10-person team can now be done with the Lean Development methodology by two people in a couple of months.

The bad news is that the valley’s depth before real revenue, considering the high costs of marketing, manufacturing, and sales, can still add up to $500K, on up to $1 million or more, before you will be attractive to Angel investors or venture capital.

In reality, the financing valley of death tests the commitment, determination, and problem solving ability of every entrepreneur. It’s the time when you create tremendous value out of nothing. It’s what separates the true entrepreneurs from the wannabes. Yet, in many ways, this starting period is the most satisfying time you will ever have as an entrepreneur. Are you ready to start?

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Think Hard Before Jumping From Corporate To Startup

jumping-off-a-cliffI talk to many people who have spent years struggling up the corporate ladder who dream of jumping ship and becoming an entrepreneur. I hasten to tell them that every job move is fraught with risk, but the move from employee to entrepreneur is on the high end of the risk curve. It’s a big jump, especially in today’s economy, so do your homework first on this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, July 12, 2014

How Great Entrepreneurs Really Listen To Customers

feedbackEntrepreneurs and business executives seem to be even more focused on their technology than the rest of us, and less inclined to listen to the voice of the customer, even if they remember to ask. Real two-way conversations with real customers, including the all-important body language, are unheard-of these days. Being connected to the Internet many hours a day is not enough.

In fact, being connected on the Internet has taken on a whole new meaning to me, since I noticed a study commissioned a while back by PC Tools, which found that more than a quarter of people using the Internet have no problem with staying online during sex. Others admit to surfing the web even during religious services. I doubt if any of these are really listening to their customers.

If you are looking for a way to get a competitive edge, now is the time to start building a relationship with your customers, which includes active listening. In a business context, here are some old-fashioned guidelines for effective listening, for you and the members of your staff who have been distracted by all the things you can now do online:

  • Forget selling while asking for customer feedback. It’s easy to focus first on selling, and to treat all customer input as objections to be overcome. It’s harder, but necessary, to resist the response urge and actively listen to customers, while logging their input for later analysis. Customers will sense the relationship being built, and both of you win.

  • Observe customer body language, as well as words. Whether it’s while listening or talking, multiple studies show that as much as 50 to 65 percent of the communication is nonverbal. This means meeting personally with real customers, in an environment friendly to them. Email surveys and voice response units are not effective listening.

  • Eliminate pride and ego from the equation. If your customer senses your ego is talking, they know you won’t be able to listen. Pride is good, but can easily be heard as selling. You can’t listen if the customer isn’t talking, so make sure more than half of the conversation is input rather than output.

  • Always ask open-ended questions. Questions that start with “why” invite a defensive response, and usually don’t lead to a productive dialog. You are not looking for one-word responses. More effective questions usually start with “what,” and focus on that person as a customer, rather than you, your product, or your service.

  • Pause thoughtfully rather than reply immediately. People sense that you are not listening, when you respond too quickly. Even with the best of intentions, responding on the spur of the moment often results is something we wish we had not said, or said differently. Always listen carefully for nuances, and think before you speak.

  • Respond to general comments with focused questions. Forget the script, and think on your feet to go where the discussion leads. This requirement for effective listening is why customer satisfaction online and phone surveys may identify big problems, but don’t really address customer needs for future of your business.

  • Make social network contacts into two-way conversations. Social network streams that are all output, or all input, are not effective. You need to post non-defensive responses to all inputs on a timely basis, to show you are accessible and listening. Requests for input that are thinly disguised sales pitches won’t work.

Customers want and expect two-way personal relationships with their providers, and they know that the technology now allows for this. “Push” marketing messages are perceived as clutter, and are often simply ignored. Business relationships build loyalty, in the same way that personal and peer-to-peer ones do.

My final message is that you need to be listening online and offline to what customers are saying about your competitors. Listening more effectively to current customers will maintain their loyalty, and listening more effectively to the customers of your competitors will bring you the new ones you need to grow. Talking too much can cost you both.

Marty Zwilling


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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How To Test The Startup Lifestyle Before You Commit

Startup_WeekendIf you think you are the perfect fit for the entrepreneur lifestyle, but you’re not yet sure if you’re ready to start your own, then I recommend that you take a job with an existing startup first to validate the culture realities against your dream. Without risking all your life savings, you may find that corporate desk you have as an alternative is a lot more satisfying.

Running or working for a startup is more of a lifestyle than a career choice. Be prepared for chaos, long hours, and small paychecks in the short-term. Founders stock, and stock options, will be worth nothing for the first several years, if not forever. The fun is the long-term potential of changing the world, and maybe even hitting it big financially.

So here is a rational hedge strategy I recommend, and see playing out every day in Silicon Valley and other startup hubs. If you have a spouse and kids, one of you needs to keep a solid job at a dependable large company like Intel, Apple, or HP. That one will provide the stable base income, medical and dental benefits for all, and the schedule flexibility to administer your kids’ activities.

The partner most obsessed with the startup lifestyle tests the water by going to work in an early-stage startup, similar to one they might hope to start someday. Here are some thoughts on how you can find that perfect test environment, and some recommendations along the way:

  1. Look for startup job openings. Check Craigslist first, since most new ventures don’t have the money for executive search firms and the major job listing sites. If the startup has its own website, that is the next place to look. As with any job search, always play to your strengths, and stick to business domains and roles you already know.

  2. Hang out where entrepreneurs meet. There are many organizations which cater to entrepreneurs, including The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) and local startup incubators. Get to know the people there, and ask them for pointers to new ventures that are still in the formative stage. Your best job leads will come from other entrepreneurs.

  3. Explore investor websites and conferences. Most Angel groups and VCs advertise the startups they have recently funded, with pointers to startup websites, sometimes including open positions. Investor conferences are also a good place to keep up with what is going on, get to know some potential investors for you, and find what is hot.

  4. Search online startup platforms and crowdfunding sites. There are a wealth of sources today for startups, including Gust, VentureLoop, AngelList, and KickStarter. Typically you can browse them by region or technology to find founders. Use LinkedIn to check for a fit, and craft personal resume emails and letters to make your case.

  5. Kick your networking up a notch. Every geographic area has entrepreneur networking activities, like startup weekends and tech meetups. There are many networking groups on FaceBook, LinkedIn, and others social media sites, which can help you increase your odds of finding a match early.

Once you find a startup that seems like a good fit, it’s still important to do some of your own due diligence. Every startup has a unique culture, driven by the founders, so talk to as many people in the organization as you can. Unfortunately, some startup teams are almost as dysfunctional as some families, and you need to avoid these.

As much as possible, make sure you understand the risk and the challenges ahead. Build yourself a list of specific questions, like the following, and get the answers, both informally and formally as you interview and make the rounds:

  • Do you feel strongly about the product or service?
  • How much money has been invested so far?
  • What is the startup cash burn rate per month?
  • Are more investment rounds required (runway)?
  • Who gets stock options, and how many?
  • When is cash-flow-positive anticipated?

Now it’s time to make a decision about working for a startup. Believe me, this one is a lot easier and less risky than the decision to start your own. But if you believe that you can drive the next big thing, and you are not afraid chaos and constant pivots, a startup is the place to work. It’s the best way to test your appetite for the lifestyle, and the best way to prepare for starting your own venture.

Marty Zwilling


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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Build Your Brand By Embracing Your Personality

My_little_ponySponsored by VISA Business

Starting a business is usually the result of a personal dream or need. Investors tell me that they invest in people more than the idea. Customers buy from people, not from a company, at least at early startup stages. That’s why it’s important to build a personal brand, in parallel and before your business brand. This will kick-start your business, and improve your odds of success.

So what does it mean to “brand yourself”? Branding yourself means making yourself visible, and communicating via all avenues your personal value and what your stand for, with total clarity and consistency. It’s especially important to highlight your uniqueness in some easy to remember way, so people will think of you and what you do, in case they need your product or service.

Next, do the same to brand your company. Branding guru Catherine Kaputa, in “Breakthrough Branding,” confirms that branding is all about building a recognizable identity, and associating it with benefits and positive consequences. She outlines some positioning strategies that I recommend, with the following key drivers of brand growth:

  • Brand boldly – for your business and you. A common way to position your personal and business brand is to boldly “own” an attitude on a key attribute. Every product or service has specific attributes that are important to key customers, like integrity and trust, or customer focus. Craft a simple message to make that your identity.
  • Dominate the category (even if you have to create a new one). Small brands that break through to grow big find a “small” idea that fills a gaping hole – a need in the marketplace that wasn’t met before – and they keep filling that need better than anyone. If you dominate the market, competitor copycats will only amplify your positioning.
  • Figure out how to grow and scale the business. Businesses that scale have leverage and more rapid brand growth. Technology businesses can be very scalable because you can develop a core set of assets, such as software systems, and then you can monetize them at low additional cost. Build your business model on systems, not on people.
  • Enchant your customers. At the end of the day, you’re only as good as your customers who love and appreciate you. That’s why having a special customer relationship model that’s hard to copy can propel your business growth. According to Guy Kawasaki, enchanted customers elevate your brand, like advocating a good cause.
  • Put “growth agent” in everyone’s job description. Growth means change, and that doesn’t come naturally to most people. Keep everyone focused on one key objective and three measurable key results, so “business as usual” is not an option. Find people smarter than you in each aspect of the business, and hand if off as you scale.
  • Strike the right balance between innovation and staying true to the brand. Ignore innovation and your competitors will quickly pass you by. Too much innovation will confuse your customers, and drain your resources. To stay true to the brand, use open innovation, and see the power of involving customers in the process of innovating.
  • Take advantage of good luck and bad. Sometimes a sprinkling of good luck after bad, along with pluck, can propel your business idea into a breakthrough brand. The early startup period (“valley of death”) is your most vulnerable time but also your most opportunistic, because it is the time when you can create tremendous brand value.

As much as we might like entrepreneurship and branding to be a science, because it would be simpler that way, it is not. Being a brand entrepreneur, both for you personally as well as your business, requires learning, and is an ever-changing art without easy formulas.

An entrepreneur these days can’t afford to hide behind an impersonal website or hole up in the corner office. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs connect your customers to one another, and you, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If you don’t take charge of your brand, someone else will – and they are not likely to brand you in the way you want to be branded. It’s a lot more fun to be someone you always wanted to be!

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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Monday, July 7, 2014

Where Is Your Technology In The Gartner Hype Cycle?

Hype-Cycle-GeneralThe Hype Cycle was a concept put forward by Gartner, Inc. back in 1995 meant to apply to technology product evolution and acceptance. As I was reading about it a while back, it occurred to me that the concept relates directly to how investors see startup opportunities and potential success as well, at least those with technology in their offerings.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the Gartner Hype Cycle characterizes the over-enthusiasm or "hype" and subsequent disappointment that typically occurs with the introduction of new technologies. Hype curves then show how and when technologies move beyond the hype, offer practical benefits and become widely accepted. A hype cycle in Gartner's interpretation always comprises five phases:

  1. Technology trigger. The first phase of a hype cycle is the technology trigger or breakthrough, product launch or other event that generates significant press and interest. This is the “truly disruptive technology” that startups often claim.

  2. Peak of inflated expectations. In the next phase, a frenzy of publicity typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. There may be some successful applications and startups using the technology, but there are typically more failures.

  3. Trough of disillusionment. Technologies and related startups enter the trough of disillusionment because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic.

  4. Slope of enlightenment. Although the press may have stopped covering the technology, some businesses continue through the slope of enlightenment and experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology.

  5. Plateau of productivity. A technology reaches the plateau of productivity as the benefits of it become widely demonstrated and accepted. The technology becomes increasingly stable and evolves in second and third generations. Startups can now truly define a problem, and position their solution for rapid growth. Investors love this stage.

Late last year, Gartner released their Gartner's Hype Cycle Special Report for 2013, detailing some of the biggest trends in technology up to that time. This report evaluates the maturity of over 2,000 technologies and trends in 102 areas. New this year are brain-computer interfaces, autonomous vehicles, biochips, and quantum computing. It’s definitely worth a look.

According to this latest report, technologies at the overhyped stage include "big data", consumer 3D printing, gamification, and wearable user interfaces. The trough of disillusionment includes mobile health monitoring, NFC and cloud computing. Gesture controls, biometric authentication systems, speech recognition and predictive analytics are now in the plateau of productivity.

There have been numerous criticisms of the hype cycle, one of which is that it is not a cycle, and that all technologies don’t really have the same outcome. Another criticism is that the shape of the line has not altered or accelerated in ten years, even though all the evidence suggests that the half-life of new technologies is getting shorter, and the number of competing technologies is increasing.

So, of course you have the option of ignoring hype cycle predictions, and pushing forward with your latest technology startup. Just don’t be surprised if you get investor pushback while early in the cycle, and be prepared with counter arguments. Great startups know the hype, then set out to beat it.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, July 6, 2014

How To Enhance Innate Business Leadership Abilities

3D_Team_Leadership_Arrow_ConceptEntrepreneurship is all about leading – leading customers to a new product or service, leading a startup team to peak performance, and leading a new business to the market opportunity, while providing maximum return to stakeholders. Most entrepreneurs feel they have innate leadership talents, but struggle with how to nurture these abilities and measure their effectiveness.

Since I believe that a large part of leadership is personal confidence and initiative, I was drawn to a recent leadership book by Robert S. Murray, “It’s Already Inside.” His focus and belief is that anyone can nurture their innate leadership abilities, to achieve business and life success. The key is learning from the life lessons of others, something you never get in classrooms.

He hits many of the key lessons that I have learned from my own experience, and feedback from great leaders, in both large businesses as well as startups. These include the following:

  1. Practicing authentic leadership versus fake leadership. Authenticity requires honesty, self awareness, and a selfless perspective. Authentic entrepreneurs lead through the power of personal influence, rather than coercion. Fakers rely on position, authority, and manipulation – leading to short-term gain and long-term loss.

  2. It all starts with a vision, but you have to execute. Vision provides direction so your startup won’t just flail about. As you communicate your vision to stakeholders, you will strengthen your own belief and get buy-in from them. But above all, leadership is defined by action. You have to execute to succeed, so trust yourself and start moving forward.

  3. The importance of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, reflectively, and independently. Critical thinking is not just accumulating information, and should not be confused with being critical of other people. Entrepreneurs need to practice critical thinking to be leaders, rather than following conventional wisdom.

  4. Leadership comes with building and nurturing the right team. Entrepreneurs not only have to pick the right team members, but have to continually communicate the vision, tasks required, and provide mentoring and feedback to each member. Don’t focus on the product, and assume the team will come along by osmosis.

  5. Pretend to be a customer or client of the business you lead. Successful entrepreneurs practice stepping back to look at their business the way customers see it for the first time. It obviously helps to ask new customers what they see. Then it takes humility to swallow your pride and your biases, and make improvements regularly.

  6. Coaching and mentoring are key to the leadership role. A good leader will make sure that each person is getting exactly what they need for their role and their maturity. Depending on the individual, the entrepreneur may look like a dictator, a high school coach, a mentor, or a country club host. People ignored see no leadership.

  7. The importance of listening well. More entrepreneurs need to practice leadership by walking around (LBWA), and truly listening to the people on their frontline, as well as listening to customers, partners, investors, and vendors. It’s hard to listen while you are talking, and many people seem adept at listening without really hearing anything.

  8. Time for solutions versus problems. It’s easy to become so overwhelmed by the day-to-day problems of running a business that you have no time to work on solutions or strategy that will give you greater leverage and long-term success. Ask each member of your team to be the CEO of his own problems, and you will take time for the solutions.

  9. Know when to overreact or under-react. Real leaders stay in control of their emotions, and use reactions to highlight a point. For example, startup leaders should probably overreact to values violations, and under-react to the next crisis. Always reflect before you react. You don’t learn that in the classroom.

World-class entrepreneurship will never be learned totally in the classroom. It takes hard work, lots of practice, and lots of mistakes. It takes focus to become both a student and a teacher of leadership. You will soon be amazed by how things start to fall into place, despite what you don’t know. That’s the innate leadership coming out. Enjoy it.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Entrepreneur Leadership Today Demands A Human Focus

Susan-Steinbrecher-Joel-BennettMost entrepreneurs assume that success is dependent on their product expertise, coupled with some knowledge of how to run a business. In fact, I have found from personal experience and mentoring that both of these are necessary, but not sufficient, for building a business. Successful entrepreneurs today must practice human-centered leadership to compete and win.

There are many leadership styles out there that may have worked well in the past, including authoritarian and paternalistic. But in this new age of relationships, these often work against your business. There is more and more evidence that a more human-centered or heart-centered leadership yields the best results with your team and with customers in the long run.

As top business consultants and leading proponents of this leadership style, Susan Steinbrecher and Joel Bennett, in their latest book “Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well,” do a good job on the details of why and how this approach leads to greater satisfaction and well-being for the team, and by extension, to the bottom line profit and impact of the business.

Here are a few examples from their book and my experience of the many indicators, challenges that entrepreneurs will probably recognize, which highlight the value and need for increased focus on the human element:

  1. Collaborative team sessions seem to drag on. Entrepreneurs often complain about the amount of time wasted in meetings, because one of the team members just wants to be heard, or feels that what he or she has said is not valued. Great leaders learn to listen actively to conversations, so people don’t hold up progress just to be understood.

  2. Disruptive office politics start to show. Startups with weak directives, poor communication, and ineffective cultures are breeding grounds for negative interpersonal dynamics. Office politics are really about self-interest and self-esteem. Heart-centered leaders create engaged teams that are too highly motivated to waste time on politics.

  3. Investments and acquisitions fail. Failure is often not due to fiscal irresponsibility or lack of due diligence. Business-to-business relationships usually fail because the leadership team underestimates the impact and the importance of recognizing the human element. Effective entrepreneur leaders focus on getting people needs satisfied early.

  4. Team conflicts become personal fights. A conflict and a fight are not the same thing. The best entrepreneurs understand their people and embrace constructive conflict for steering through the maze of innovation and change common to every startup. Toxic relationships are emotional, often personal, disagreements which are counter-productive.

  5. Demand for coaching, counseling, and discipline training is high. The most-used workplace training programs are really about matters of the heart. Managers need training in coaching, counseling, and discipline because they resist or have difficulty communicating with team members. Punishment at work is not a motivator to change.

  6. Difficulties retaining key employees. Top team members rarely quit the company. More often than not they quit their boss. All too often, quitting is a response to a perceived lack of leadership or appreciation by key executives. Human-centered leaders connect with each team member at a personal level to assure ongoing commitment.

  7. Evidence of crossing the line ethically. If entrepreneurs show only an exclusive focus on the bottom line, team members may convince themselves that they have to bend the rules to be successful, which can easily lead to lying, cheating, and stealing. Leaders need to focus on a human-centered culture in their actions, as well as every message.

  8. Customer relationships culture is slipping. Your startup can’t sell and compete on the strength of your customer relationships, if the business culture in your startup is not human-centered. That startup culture has to come from the beginning and from the top, meaning heart-centered leadership from the entrepreneur.

There is an increasing body of evidence that teams and leaders focused on the human element not only live well, but are winning in their profit-making objectives as well. Examples of exemplary companies practicing this model include Starbucks Coffee and the Whole Foods. Both of these are human-centered businesses that boast high growth, high loyalty, and low employee turnover.

How evident in your leadership style is your commitment to personal understanding, open-mindedness, authenticity, trust and integrity? If you haven’t tried it, or you aren’t getting the feedback from your team than you want, maybe it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror. It’s never too late to learn.

Marty Zwilling


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Friday, July 4, 2014

How To Get The Right Investor To Fund Your Startup

Ron_Conway_InvestorTime is too precious to waste trying to close a deal with the wrong investors at the wrong time. Luckily, not all investors are looking for the same thing, so it pays to know what type of investors are most interested in what your startup brings to the table.

The key is understanding how potential investors see you, and especially how they view the maturity stage of your startup. For example, if you have a proven product, real revenue, a big potential market, and are ready to scale up the business, every investor will be interested. On the other hand, if you are a new entrepreneur, still in the idea stage, professional investors will only tell you to come back later when you have traction (customers and revenue).

Thus your startup maturity and growth stage is the primary key to success with potential funding sources. Different types of investors tend to specialize in capitalizing on businesses at different stages. Venture capital firms look for the most mature companies they can find, Angel investors typically deal a tier lower, while friends and family are most likely to help you get started.

It never hurts to start networking personally with all levels of investors early, but sending out teasers and business plans to every name you can find on the Internet is a waste of your time and theirs. It will be much more productive to categorize your startup in one of the following five stages, and limit your investor focus accordingly:

  1. “I have a great idea and I need money to turn it into a business.” For investors, this is the idea stage, where you may have a great idea, but no plan, product, or customers, and probably no success record in this business domain. No professional investor will be interested at this point, so count only on yourself, friends, family, and fools for money.

  2. “My invention and prototype works, but I need funding to continue.” Investors call this the seed stage, where money is required to build a market and a real product. Government grants and industry partners are you best bet here, but Angel investors might give you $250,000 to $1 million, if you have the right business case and credentials.

  3. “The final product works great, and all the early users love it.” You are now entering the rollout stage, with money required for marketing, hiring a full-time team, and a production process. At this point, most Angel investors and a few early-stage VCs will be happy to talk, assuming you have the business model validated, and a large opportunity.

  4. “It’s time to scale up and I need money to keep up with demand.” Congratulations! Every investor wants to be part of your growth stage, after your first $1 million in revenue. They call first investments at this stage the “A-round,” and often follow with a B-round through G-round. Growth stage investments from VCs are usually $5 million and up.

  5. “The ride has been fun, but I need my money out to start the next big thing.” This is the exit stage for the entrepreneur, and for all earlier investors. The new investors you need at this stage are investment bankers, private equity, or competitors, to buy you out via merger or acquisition (M&A), or to go public with an Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Obviously, maturity and growth are a continuum, so the rules are never absolute. My message is that your startup will attract a different class of investors, as it passes through each stage, just as it has to supplement and tune the team, process, and product to keep up with the needs of a growing company and customer base. Tune your investor pitch and funding expectations accordingly.

Another good indicator of your real stage is the valuation you can set for your company at any given moment, to determine what portion of your equity an investor will expect of his money. Prior to the growth stage, your company valuation is limited to goodwill based on intellectual property and team experience, since you have no revenue. Future opportunity size doesn’t count in the early stages.

Contrary to popular opinion, all investor money is not the same. Friends and family believe in you, and only want to see you achieve success. Angel investors probably will know your business, and want to me mentors along the way. VCs normally come with the highest expectations of board seats, controlling votes, and milestones to meet.

Don’t sign up for one, expecting the other. If you want to avoid all these stage and investment considerations, you can always bootstrap the business (fund it yourself, and grow organically). Otherwise, be sensitive to first impression you leave on every investor, and the efficiency of your time spent on funding. You will enjoy the lifestyle a lot more when you find the right investor.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 6/27/2014 ***


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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Startup Investor Money Always Comes With Strings

assorted_united_states_coinsAs an Angel investor to startups, I’m still surprised to find entrepreneurs who expect investors to give them money, and then disappear into the sunset. Would you do that if it was your money? If the entrepreneur wants total control of their own venture, with no one looking over their shoulder, they should work within the limits of their own resources, a process called bootstrapping.

Angel and venture capital money always comes with strings attached, starting with the obvious ones outlined in the term sheet for the deal. These normally include what percentage of the company the investor now owns, how and when tranches of money will be delivered, and even how and when you can sell your own shares (liquidation preferences).

Finally, entrepreneurs should never forget that investors really believe that they are there to help (not like “I'm from the IRS and I'm here to help”). In fact, they usually invest because they have extensive experience in your business domain, often have strong convictions on what it takes to succeed, and probably would like you to do it their way.

In any case, your startup is now part of some investor’s portfolio, so you need to treat the situation like reporting to a new boss, and not like a new freedom. That means listening to investor expectations, communicating regularly and effectively, and assuming that all your efforts will now be monitored in the following ways:

  1. You now must have a Board of Directors. As an early-stage startup, you may have some hand-picked mentors as an Advisory Board, but now you need a formal Board with approval rights on all your strategic decisions and pivots. Investors will expect at least one seat on the board, and expect a board report from you each month on key items.

  2. Progress milestones become management objectives. Every funding term sheet is followed by a set of milestone commitments, which should not be considered optional suggestions. Funding can be pulled, and future distributions withheld, if objectives are not met. Your very role as CEO is at risk if the Board is not satisfied with your progress.

  3. Your time is no longer your own. Many investors will feel the need to visit your office, or just call you to chat, for a personal update on how things are going. They see you as working for them, as opposed to them working for you, so these calls, visits, and questions are not something you can delegate, or postpone repeatedly.

  4. Communication to investors must be regular and proactive. A quick way to lose support of investors is to wait for prodding from them before providing communication updates, or answers to changes in status or direction. On the other hand, calling them on every minor issue, or asking them to make decisions for you is equally bad.

  5. You can’t keep bad news secret. Most entrepreneurs try to keep team morale high by limiting and editing the flow of information downward, so they try to do the same thing upward to their investors. Unfortunately, this practice can get them fired quickly, due to the legalities of the shareholders rights agreement on what must be shared and when.

  6. Cash flow tracking is even more important with someone else’s money. Since they now have money in the bank, entrepreneurs sometimes start delegating spending decisions, or they decide that it’s time to make that trip to Paris that they couldn’t justify before. You must be even more strict with investor cash than with your own.

If you haven’t done this before the investor deal was signed, now is the time to talk to each of your peers who may have received money from the same investors. These peers can tell you what works and what doesn’t work with a given investor. Also, these peers are now your competition in a portfolio ranking, so you need to know to stay ahead of them in the pack.

If your startup is one of the high fliers in the portfolio, be aware that investors may ask you to take even bigger steps into the unknown, hoping you can be the next Google. Certainly you don’t have full control, but don’t get talked into taking unnecessary risks just to make the investor’s portfolio a leader among their peers.

In reality, when you take someone else’s money, your job as an entrepreneur gets even tougher and riskier than before. I’ve seen many startups that might well have succeeded, if only they had not attracted all the money they wanted. In the startup world, hardship and struggles are often your best teachers. If you do take investor money, do it with your eyes open. It can disappear quickly, leaving you with just some heavy strings.

Marty Zwilling


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