Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Business 2015 - Optimism, But Upgrade Your Strategy

2015-Business-Optimism Even though it has been a long haul since the recession, it’s nice to see more optimism as we close out this year and head into a new one. A November 2014 report by Kiplinger asserts that economic momentum is back on track. Growth is projected to continue at a 3 percent rate, consumer confidence is gaining strongly, hiring is on the rise, and job openings are at a near record level.

According to earlier studies from Forbes Insights, many entrepreneurs and small businesses not only feel the lessons learned during the past few years have helped them survive, but the recession also exposed flaws in their business strategies that they were able to fix. Here are some recommended strategic planning initiatives, culled from multiple studies, that you can apply to your business in the New Year:

  • Better Cash-Flow Controls: Obviously, falling income over the past years put additional pressure on small business cash flow. Some companies turned to cutbacks over boosting financial reserves; others focused on reducing overhead and expenses. But you need a balanced strategy, along with new lines of credit and financing.

  • More Focus on Strategic Planning: Small business owners now recognize the importance of planning amid the new economic environment and want to spend more time doing it. Less than half indicated they had a strategy in place during the recession, or to guide growth during the coming recovery period. This should be core for you.

  • Fight for More Government and Policy Support: Small businesses now believe they have played a key role in the U.S. economic recovery, but in spite of, rather than assisted by, support from the federal government. You can join the fight for action, particularly for even higher Small Business Administration (SBA) loan limits.

  • Continue to Increase Operating Efficiencies: A majority of small business leaders intend to be more aggressive going forward by implementing a range of actions to advance their businesses. Many cited a greater focus on cost cutting and efficiency as the number two step to achieving growth, with increasing sales still number one. See where you can maximize this type of profit.

  • Add New Revenue Streams and More Aggressive Marketing: At the same time, most small businesses plan to spend more on digital marketing in the year ahead, and pursuing new revenue streams is seen as a top priority for transforming bottom line profits. This approach will help you diversify and broaden your business’s product lines and services.

  • Grab Market Share from Competitors: A large majority of respondents to these studies acknowledged that the old way of doing business no longer works and that they need to find new ways to take advantage of market opportunities. Many are planning to be more aggressive in grabbing market share from competitors, and you should, too.

If small businesses tackle these initiatives, we will be supporting economists’ forecast and moving the U.S. economy toward a self-sustaining and continuing economic expansion. A healthy manufacturing sector, likely to gain even more strength in 2015, is creating an impetus to invest. Recent drops in gas prices are now extending to diesel and even home heating oil.

The National Federation of Independent Business’s Small Business Optimism Index is now up to 96.1, and is working its way back to pre-recession levels. This was led by a modest increase in the net percent of owners who plan to increase capital spending and more who expect higher sales in the next few months. But overall, small business owners are still looking for more clear direction to drive their optimism.

My take on all this is that entrepreneurs are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, and the light is no longer a freight train heading straight at them. We always learn more when times are tough, and we should come away with more strength and determination, as well as real results. It’s time to soak up the optimism, do some real financial planning, and push the limits on all business fronts.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 29, 2014

8 Keys To Creating A Memorable Customer Experience

customer-brand-loyalty Most businesses spend big money testing their brand logo, catchy marketing phrases, and demographics, but spend little time training and validating that their employees can and do deliver memorable experiences to their customers. The result, according to a recent Gallup survey, with 70 percent of workers not fully engaged, is unhappy workers and poor customer experiences.

The customer experience is really your brand, since that is what customers remember and communicate to others, rather than your marketing. Thus the real challenge in building your brand is building the level of engagement and delivery of your team. Gregg Lederman, in his recent book, “ENGAGED!: Outbehave Your Competition to Create Customers for Life,” offers eight key principles for defining and managing the experience to keep it consistent and profitable:

  1. Keep every employee on stage, delivering an experience. At work, all team members (everyone who gets paid for doing a job at the company) are on stage responsible for delivering a branded experience to coworkers and customers. They have to out-behave and outperform your competition. Is your team performing like they are on Broadway?

  2. Keep your team happy to create engaged customers. An unhappy team member can’t create an engaged customer. Yet less than half of the people working today claim to be satisfied and happy at work. How many of your employees would say that what they think, what they say and what they do are in harmony? Money does not buy engagement.

  3. Don’t just announce your culture, make it visible. Your mission, values, brand positioning, and guiding principles are invisible, unless your employees know specifically how to act them out through their day-to-day behavior. You have to define these behaviors, measure them, and reward them. Walking the talk is the place to start.

  4. Focus on culture change rather than culture talk. Culture is changed by how we act (perform) and interact (employees and customers). Define and document a common mindset and make related behaviors non-negotiable. Everyone must know and do these things consistently. The secret to success is 1% training and 99% reminding.

  5. Turn common sense into common practice. The only true employee-driven measure of whether the workforce is “living the brand” is the perspective of others in each work area. Use a company-wide assessment at least twice a year to understand and remind the team to out-behave the competition. No more gamed employee satisfaction surveys.

  6. Build relationships and stop surveying customers. Every senior leader needs to have regular quality conversations with customers. These enable leaders to learn firsthand about how the company is living the brand and when it is not. Relationships will get referrals, drive more sales, and build loyalty. Use the feedback to improve and grow.

  7. Incent engagement with training and recognition, rather than rewards. Employees get much greater value from the power of recognition and much less from the actual rewards. Reward programs don’t drive sustainable culture change or business results. Provide recognition for the right behaviors consistently, and the results will accrue.

  8. Build trust in you as the leader by managing the experience. Without solid leadership people simply won’t follow. Earn trust by making the right experience a part of the day-to-day conversation, and reminding people by your actions what you expect. Demonstrate a culture of responsibility and accountability.

Lack of engagement is very expensive. According to Lederman, engaged organizations grew profits as much as three times faster than their competitors. Highly engaged organizations have been shown to reduce staff turnover by 87%, improve performance by 20%, and increase customer satisfaction by at least 12%.

Overall, successful startups and world-class companies are known to have fiercely loyal customers driven by fully-engaged team members, resulting in proactive referrals and more purchases. That’s the brand you want, and it needs minimal focus on the logo and advertising to survive and out-perform your competition. How would you rate your customer experience today?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

10 Keys To Success When Turning To Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneur,_Author_and_Marketer_Pete_Williams As the economy recovers from some tough economic times, more and more people seem to be turning to entrepreneurship as an alternative to traditional employment. I applaud this trend, but caution all of you thinking this direction to approach entrepreneurship with your eyes wide open. It is not for everyone, as the entrepreneur’s path is fraught with challenges.

Many experts have tried to clearly lay out the criteria for survival in a way that allows you to judge your own situation and your own temperament, and make a rational decision before starting down this path. I recommend the ten points in a book a while back by Bill Murphy, Jr., titled “The Intelligent Entrepreneur,” outlining the keys to successful entrepreneurship, as follows:

  1. Make the commitment. Entrepreneurship can be learned. But you have to be committed to the process of building your own thing and the act of creating something, rather than just coming up with an idea. It will likely take several ideas, with the learning process of failing on a couple, before you can call yourself a successful entrepreneur.

  2. Find a problem, then solve it. Rather than finding a new idea first, try finding a problem first. Problem solvers make successful entrepreneurs. Idea people are dreamers, who often don’t enjoy the hard work of a solution in a specific timeframe to make money.

  3. Think big. Thing new. Think again. In other words, make sure your solution will scale up. Professional investors will tell you they look for business plans that can credibly project revenues of at least $20M within five years, or they won’t justify an investment.

  4. You can't do it alone. Have a support team of people you know and trust. An idea person and a problem solver make a great team. Successful entrepreneurs have to work well with people, whether they be partners, investors, employees, suppliers, or customers.

  5. You must do it alone. But the dichotomy is that there are things that you have to do alone. “The buck stops here.” You have to be decisive, accept responsibility, and provide the vision. Vision is not a group-think activity. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly, and with very little hard data, so you need the confidence in your gut.

  6. Manage risk. Without risk, there can be no innovation. Not every idea can, or will, be a winner. Fear of failure will kill innovation, but reckless disregard for risk will kill a business. The successful entrepreneur is able to find the balance between these two extremes.

  7. Learn to lead. In a startup, the entrepreneur leader has to do two things. First, drive the business creation process, and secondly, inspire all the others. The others include the rest of the team, investors, and customers. That means hands-on leadership and effective communication.

  8. Learn to sell. Don’t believe the old myth that “if we build it, they will come.” Selling is a learned skill, and takes effort, just like building a product. Everyone in your startup, especially the entrepreneur, needs to understand sales, and needs to be a salesman.

  9. Persist, persevere, prevail. Experts say the prime cause of failure in business is quitting too soon. The successful entrepreneur never gives up, and uses creativity to overcome all obstacles, including personal, financial, and technical ones.

  10. Time, not money, is the key resource. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle, not a job. Be prepared to play the game for life. There are no quick fixes, or quick get-rich solutions. Learn to manage and balance your time; it’s the one thing that belongs to you alone. Great entrepreneurs have a life outside of work, and find time to give back.

Reporter Bill Murphy compiled his book based on three real-life success stories of Harvard graduates, all of whom proved the points by their failures as well as successes. There is no magic here, but I believe these rules can shorten the learning curve and increase the success rate for every budding entrepreneur. They can also help you be happy and have some fun.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Super Angels Are A Boon To Startups Needing Funding

brian_cohen Venture capitalists (VCs) have long been seen as the top of the pyramid for startup funding sources, but in fact angel investors now fund over 60 times as many companies, according the Center for Venture Research. A major chunk of this activity is provided by the new class of Super Angels, who may look more like micro-VCs, except that they are investing their own money.

Examples of some leaders in this space include Ron Conway in Silicon Valley and Brian Cohen, chairman of the New York Angels, who each may have over 500 startups in their portfolio. What characterizes them is the number of companies they invest in, as well as the size of their investments (less than $250,000), and the seed or startup stage where they specialize.

Based on the best evidence I can find, the genesis of this trend and the advantages come from several evolutionary changes in the startup investment industry, and some innovations driven by the recent recession:

  1. Venture capital funds are still recovering from the recession. Institutional venture capital dispensed thus far in 2014 has been up significantly over the last few years, but is still less than half of the peak hit way back in the year 2000 (over $100 billion). Individual angel investors have been filling the gap, and now match VCs in total amount invested.

  2. The cost of entry for tech startups continues to go down. Twenty years ago, it cost several million dollars to launch an e-commerce startup, which can be done today for a few thousand dollars. Mobile and web software apps may cost even less. The large investment amounts preferred by VCs are no longer needed to launch winners.

  3. Some VC firms are bogged down by their own weight. Many have disappeared, and others have forgotten how to be agile and innovative. They have too many highly paid partners, fat fees, an aging corporate infrastructure and difficulty raising money from institutions. Super Angels are individuals or small teams using their own money.

  4. VCs are committed to servicing existing portfolios. As lifecycle investment partners, they have become weighted down with portfolios still recovering from the economic downturn. Like big corporations with a heavy investment in existing product lines, it’s hard to stop linear investing to look for innovative new opportunities.

  5. The investment model is changing from hard selection to “spray and pray.” The conventional VC approach of giving a big boost to a few good startups that were born to be great, doesn’t seem to work anymore. Now the model is to seed many good teams with a smaller amount, and find out which ones can execute.

  6. Super Angels have greater scope to match talent with a startup. Because of their high visibility and huge portfolios, this new class of investors can match the right talent to the right startup quickly and efficiently with introductions and mergers. This helps the startups with the most opportunity move forward quickly to greater success.

Of course, every new direction has some challenges, so the Super Angel model isn’t perfect. Here are a couple of concerns and possible negatives to avoid:

  • More startups left in the funding gap. Angels of any size are usually not as capable or interested in multiple rounds of investment, leaving good startups that are not superstars stranded without funding after an initial round or two. VCs tend to carry their partners much longer, in hopes of a big public offering (IPO) that could produce a windfall.

  • Super Angels sometimes drive up valuations. Perhaps because of their focus on building a large portfolio, or their competitiveness, these angels sometimes accept valuations that cause later friction while moving to VCs, or even other angel groups. This can cause early investor dilution, lower ultimate returns or leave the startup stranded.

Yet, in my view, every early-stage entrepreneur should be exploring this new funding alternative before approaching VCs. It’s the right way to get money without giving up too much equity or control of your business. Yet, it is important to remember that the most optimistic Super Angel is looking for a proven business model, rather than research and development, or just an idea.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/19/2014 ***

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Driving Your Startup With Fear Has Bad Consequences

businessman-running-scared Trying to be a business leader by instilling fear in your employees and partners is never a good approach, but it is particularly devastating in a startup. Yet I see this approach used all too often by new entrepreneurs, most of whom are not natural tyrants, but who are fighting to mask their own internal fears and insecurities about starting a business.

A book I read a while back, “Leading Without Fear,” by Laurie K. Cure, PhD, convinced me that fear is a natural reaction to the risks associated with a new venture, and different people handle this fear in different ways. Some are able to read the danger signals, and catapult themselves and everyone around them into action without fear, resulting in progress and success.

Others intentionally or unintentionally project their own fear into a weapon that gets used on their team and constituents to get things done and assure accountability, at least in the short term. According to Cure, there are three main reasons that entrepreneurs resort to propagating fear:

  1. Need to establish a sense of urgency. Sometimes it seems like instilling fear is the quickest and most effective way to instill a sense of urgency in other team members. In fact, it does work in the short term, but in the longer term it breeds mistrust and cynicism, which quickly erodes morale and leads to reprisals worse than the challenge.

  2. Don’t know any other way. Often new entrepreneur leaders reach a point of desperation in dealing with people, and hope that they can somehow shame, anger, or scare people into behavior change and desired results. This approach usually stems from primal reactions during early childhood, or a specific cultural background.

  3. Engulfed in the flames of their own fear. Others use fear because they are simply afraid, and unable to hide it. It requires extreme discipline not to project your fear onto others. When leaders are in fear, be it for their own security, sense of affiliation, or self-esteem fears, they become blind to how they might be using fear in their own leadership.

Smart entrepreneurial leaders avoid these reasons, and don't use fear because of its devastating consequences on their long-term business success. Here are a few of the consequences:

  • Fear drives the team into fixed and safe positions, allowing competitors an easy advantage.
  • Fear short-circuits change, creativity, and innovation, which are the life-blood of startups.
  • Fear limits rational discussion of alternatives, leading to poor decisions and inaction.
  • Fear fosters suspicion, mistrust, and cynicism of the leader and the startup.
  • Fear tends to turn the focus inward to survival, rather than outward to customers.

Based on the insights I see from Cure’s book and others, I recommend the following strategies for reducing fear in your own mind and in the minds of your constituents:

  1. Increase your own self-awareness. This is essentially your ability to know yourself, your motives, desires, and personality. Who are you, and why do you do what you do? It is only with self-awareness that you can grow and learn. Self-awareness simply requires an ongoing practice that you can engage in and make a part of your lifestyle.

  2. Be clear on all your goals, and communicate these regularly to your team. If either you or they don’t know the goals, neither of you will know when a threat is imminent, or if everyone is in alignment. When you are out of alignment with the team in terms of goals, everyone feels torn, dissatisfied, and fearful.

  3. Focus more on the positive side of risk. Everyone’s brain has a reward pathway that creates a sense of euphoria and pleasure when you overcome high odds, or do something innovative. Stop focusing so much on the things that can go wrong, and anticipate the joys of progress and success.

All entrepreneurs have to take risks and provide leadership to succeed, but driving yourself and your team with fear is not the answer. The best leadership is providing real motivation from the work itself, and the drive to build something lasting. Fear has no role in either of these.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Innovative Services Are A Huge Boon For Startups

Pebble-smartwatch Startups that sell innovative new products seem to get all the attention these days, but services may be the quicker way to larger profits and faster growth. Of course, we all love disruptive new products, like the Pebble Smart Watch and Google Glass, but recent innovative services startups, including Uber for transportation and Airbnb for lodging, have grown much bigger and faster.

If you think about it, services make more sense in this social media age where relationships, personalization, and interaction are king. Services entrepreneurs can more easily capitalize on the trend to treat each customer personally, whether entrepreneurs be interior designers working from home, marketing consultants, or offering Angie’s List to find the best local handyman.

Even many well-known corporate giants, including IBM and GE, have transformed, redefined, and re-invigorated their businesses into services businesses, and are downplaying their traditional product focus. I saw this trend highlighted well in a recent book, “Profiting From Services and Solutions,” by renowned academics Zeithaml, Brown, Bitner, and Salas.

The authors outlined the multitude of services that every company should consider offering, whether they be startups or more mature organizations. Here is just a sampling to give you the idea:

  1. Software as a service (SaaS). Software is one of those entities that can be provided either as a product or a service, so this is where the movement to services started. Charging by the month or user lowers the entry cost, provides a predictable revenue stream to startups, and allow updates to be done transparently. Everybody wins.

  2. Advisory services. This the new name for professional consultants and matchmakers, whether they be for personal fashion design, business marketing, or healthcare. In the corporate world, these services are needed for human resources, process improvements, and transportation routing. The power of relationships and interaction are key.

  3. Value-added services. Every innovative product startup can spawn many services startups to provide utility beyond the basic entitlements. These range from extended warranties, to home delivery and setup, to on-site technical support. In many cases, the revenue from innovative value-added services can exceed that of the base product.

  4. Product sharing services. Not everyone these days wants to manage or count on dedicated vehicles for short rides, or wants to buy movies for a single view. Hence the popularity and wealth of new services like Citi Bike, Lyft, and NetFlix. I’m sure there are many more just waiting to be found.

  5. Process outsourcing services. In businesses, many have found improved efficiencies in outsourcing their payroll, programming, or manufacturing. Now startups are extending this concept into the consumer world with personalized concierge services, gift shopping, and smartphone apps that find the nearest and best restaurant for you.

  6. Smart sensor services. These were once relegated to the realm of sensors built into aircraft engines, but now every consumer device has sensors built in. That means smart refrigerators, home control, and personal health monitoring, all of which need services to provide and interpret the feedback. The opportunities have just begun on this one.

  7. Integrated product-service solutions. When a startup wraps an innovative service around someone else’s product, the result can be a solution with a whole new opportunity. New apps have turned smartphones into everything from flashlights to credit cards to health monitors. GPS devices with the right services now become safety systems that alert parents when their kids get lost, or wander into dangerous areas.

I intentionally left out the traditional entitlement services, which are typically defined as product support, warranties, and maintenance, since these often are expected free with the product purchase, and are more often cost centers to providing companies

So if you are an aspiring entrepreneur, be sure to explore the need for creative services, as well as innovative products, in your next startup. You don’t have to be an engineer, or make a huge investment in hardware, to come up with a winner. Also, you don’t need a huge investment to build a services startup. There is no excuse for not starting today.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Discipline Of Execution Defines An Entrepreneur

TED-Conference-Dream When entrepreneurs come to me with that “million dollar idea,” I have to tell them that an idea alone is really worth nothing. It’s all about the execution, and investors invest in the people who can execute, or even better, have a history of successful execution. Execution is making things happen, and for startups it usually means making change happen, which is even more difficult.

For most people, execution is one of those things that seems obvious after the fact when done correctly, but is hard to specify for those trying to learn to do it better. I found a book on this subject, “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling, which seems to talk well to startups as well as the corporate world it was written for.

These authors argue effectively that the hard part of executing most strategies is changing human behavior – first the people on your team, then partners, vendors, and most importantly, customers. No startup founder or leader can just order these changes to happen, because it isn’t that easy to get other people to change their ways. Changing yourself is tough enough.

Here are four key disciplines that I believe the best entrepreneurs follow to expedite the change and forward progress implicit in the successful execution of a million dollar idea:

  1. Focus always on one or two top priority goals. We all live with the stark reality that the more we try to do, the less well we do on any of the elements. Thus focus is a natural principle. Narrow you and your team’s focus to one or two wildly important goals, and don’t let these get lost in the whirlwind of daily urgent tasks and communications.

  2. Identify and act on leading measures first. Some actions have more impact than others when reaching for a goal. Hold the lagging measures for later (results available after the fact), and focus on lead measures first (predictive of achieving a goal). For example, more customer leads are predictive of more sales revenue later.

  3. Define a compelling scoreboard. People on your team play differently when someone is keeping score, and even better when they are keeping score, and even better when they have defined how their score is measured. This is the discipline of engagement. If the scoreboard isn’t clear, play will be abandoned in the whirlwind of other activities.

  4. Create a frequent forum for accountability. Unless we feel accountability, and see accountability on a regular cadence, it also disintegrates in the daily whirlwind. It’s even better if team members create their own commitments, which become promises to the team, rather than simply job performance. People want to make a contribution and win.

These four disciplines must be implemented as a process, not as an event. That means your team needs to see them as a normal and continuous focus, not a one-time push which fades in the rush of other daily priorities. The team needs to see the process practiced by the startup founder, as well as preached regularly.

Startup founders also need to realize that building and managing a company is quite different from learning to search for and solidify an idea that can grow into a company. Every entrepreneur has to navigate that personal change from thinking to doing to managing.

It’s not only the change from thinking to managing, but also the change and learning from constant iterations. Major changes, called pivots, are terrifying to a team that has put months of constant focus into executing what they thought was a great idea. If you don’t have an execution process, you have chaos.

Overall, every entrepreneur should be concerned if they don’t regularly feel stretched beyond their comfort zone, meaning mastering the art of execution if you are mainly creative, or developing creativity if you are mainly process driven. Don’t forget that the fun and challenge is in the learning, so enjoy the ride. The entrepreneur lifestyle is not meant to be comfortable.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

10 Approaches to Handle the Burden of Leadership

leadership-burden Most new entrepreneurs don’t anticipate the burdens of being the leader, including the sense of loneliness and isolation at the top. People outside the team can’t relate to the pressures of “the buck stops here,” and everyone on the team assumes that they are the primary ones under pressure to deliver. Even in a single entrepreneur startup, the leader carries a heavy weight.

This unexpected burden often results in a dysfunctional startup, as the entrepreneur reverts to micro-management, burnout or even grandstanding to get some attention or sense of direction and feedback. Those who have big egos often fall into the use of intimidation, edicts and even deception. Of course, that only leads to antagonism and further isolation.

As with other challenges, it takes effort and a special focus to lessen the burden and avoid the loneliness of being a founder or top executive. Here are some key approaches endorsed by successful entrepreneurs and leaders to stay healthy, and be a respected leader:

  1. Seek affirmation and guidance from your peers. Every business domain has organizations of peers, such as Vistage or Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO), where entrepreneur leaders can find and give support, and resolve problems with no jeopardy among like-minded leaders who face similar challenges.

  2. Actively solicit guidance from trusted members of your team. Even if they don’t see you as a peer, it’s your view that counts here. Don’t isolate yourself. You can always learn from the experience of others on your team. If your startup is a one-man show, there are outside advisors who can offer you an unbiased view as a team member.

  3. Keep your family and friends in sync with you as peers. Their feedback and perspective is vital to your health and success, if you maintain a balance between business and personal. Their guidance will help to keep you centered and effective. The best leaders learn to sometimes say no to work, and learn how to mix work and play.

  4. Separate your work and play environments. Everyone needs a regular change of scenery and separate time to switch modes from work to external challenges. These outside activities may be sports, non-profits or family activities where you can change roles, rely on someone else for leadership, or simply relax and recharge.

  5. Interact with customers in a non-pressure situation. Social-media vehicles, including Twitter and LinkedIn, allow interactions with hundreds of people, or one on one, without the pressure of your leadership role. Use the opportunity to anonymously test new ideas and strategies, with direct and unfiltered feedback.

  6. Proactively schedule business networking opportunities. Take the initiative on a regular basis to ask for time with peers or even competitors that you respect, without waiting for them to come to you. This not only counters isolation, but helps balance your business focus, and keep you up to speed on new developments in your industry.

  7. Actively improve your charismatic image. Charisma is that magnetic energy implying confidence and strength, arousing loyalty and admiration from others. Charismatic leaders don’t succumb to loneliness, and develop a wide range of positive habits. Key elements of charisma are listening actively to others, and reading body language.

  8. Inspire and empower your team members. The more you empower others in your organization, and the better you communicate your vision, the more they will be with you at the top. You won’t be lonely when you feel the team is with you every step of the way. This will strengthen the business for all of you, as well as relieve your burden.

  9. Share your fears and challenges with selected insiders. Too many entrepreneurs like to pretend that they have it all together, all the time. It’s healthy and productive to be more transparent with trusted team members and advisors. This leads to sharing progress on struggles, and discussing ways of mitigating business problems.

  10. Join your board of advisors, rather than contend with them. Accept that a good board will tell you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear. They really are on your side, so there is no need to be defensive or isolate yourself. Join them in actively looking for ways to lighten your burden at every opportunity.

More focus on improving your personal motivation is also a clear antidote to the burden of leadership. Of course the best antidote is incremental success and seeing real results, giving you the positive feedback that we all need. Make your leadership role the source of pride and accomplishment that attracted you to the entrepreneur lifestyle in the first place.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/12/2014 ***

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Friday, December 19, 2014

7 Ways to Feed The Growth Beast In Every Business

business-growth “If you build it, they will come.” It's a line from an old movie "Field of Dreams" which is still leading to the demise of too many startups, led by entrepreneurs who really started their business to build an exciting new product or service. Most struggle with the idea and practice of marketing and sales, and see these as a necessary evil, if even required.

Of course, for a price, there are many marketing organizations and gurus willing to come to your aid. But marketing is not “rocket science,” so I’m a big proponent of self-help and practicing the pragmatics in-house first. A great resource for all is a recent book by Drew Williams and Jonathan Verney, “Feed the Startup Beast: A 7-Step Guide to Big, Hairy, Outrageous Sales Growth.”

This book correctly characterizes every startup as a beast that has to be well fed to grow. The ingredients for growth are well known: patience, persistence, and a plan. The first two p’s are up to you, but I agree with the authors that an effective plan and execution in this new Internet world needs to be built around a minimum of the following seven steps:

  1. Ask the single most important question. The only question you need to ask is “How likely are you to recommend my [product/service/company] to a colleague or business associate?” In every constituency, there are fans, fence-sitters, and critics. Fans contribute 2.6 times more revenue than “somewhat satisfied,” and critics kill revenue at twice the rate that fans increase it. Too many critics and not enough fans spell disaster.

  2. Listen to targeted prospects through real engagement. Engage first, sell later. The laws of engagement require targeting the best prospects first, offering a real value proposition, and making an offer which is valuable, timely, and relevant. Continue building the relationship to nurture them into paying customers.

  3. Focus your resources to convert prospects to customers. Build a plan with automation to manage the volume, but every customer has to feel like you are reaching out to them personally. Fine-tune the marketing and sales conversion engine to narrow the funnel, and build a sales team to close every sales-ready lead.

  4. Attract and get found by the right prospects. The planning is done, and now it’s time to execute. Make your startup valuable and visible, with great content that can not be missed by online search, influencers, and offline events. Use social media in concert with a web site and offline media. In all venues, 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the results.

  5. Pursue and intrigue prospects who respond. Put your best efforts into helping prospects break through the clutter, engage them, and intrigue them. Your goal is to get them to think different, like Apple, or be surprised and delighted with the experience. Be sure to track the engagement rate, and be quick to pivot if the breakthrough rate is low.

  6. Nurture customers and influencers into real fans. Turning your customers into real fans is the best leverage you have. Fans have a triple impact: they are more profitable, stay longer, and bring in others. Effective fan-nurture programs include an advisory panel, a “constant contact” program, referral program, and a one-question survey.

  7. Grow and measure the conversion rate. Here are four essential conversion rates you need to track: prospects to engaged prospects (target 38%), engaged prospects to sales-ready leads (20%), sales-ready prospects to customers (35%), and customers to fans (60%). This kind of conversion can easily result in 100% year-over-year revenue growth.

If you want success in selling your product, you need to put the same focus, intensity, and innovation into marketing and sales, as you have put into building the product. It won’t happen magically, but it doesn’t require an army of experts or a huge budget. Really, it’s all about having great information, great tools, and the determination to learn what customers really value.

Completing each of the above steps allows your startup beast to pick up momentum, fueling a breakthrough in growth, and ultimately making it unbeatable in the marketplace. The modern day field of dreams mantra has pivoted to “If you market it, they will come.” Are your customers coming fast enough?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 15, 2014

10 Incentives For Entrepreneurs To Bootstrap Their Startup

startup-funding I’ve always wondered who started the urban myth that the best way to start a company is to come up with a great idea, and then find some professional investors to give you a pot of money to build a company. In my experience, that’s actually the worst way to start, for reasons I will outline here, and also the least common way, according to an authoritative survey of new startups.

Based on the Startup Environment Index from the Kauffman Foundation and LegalZoom a while back, personal money, or bootstrapping, continues to be the primary startup funding source. Eighty percent of new entrepreneurs use this approach, with only six percent using investor funding. The remaining entrepreneurs borrow from family and friends, or acquire a loan.

So before you become obsessed with landing investors to fund your idea and minimize your risk, consider the following:

  1. Finding investors takes work, time, and money you can ill afford. Entrepreneurs who plan to complete a business plan the first month, find an investor the second, and roll out a product the third month are just kidding themselves. Count on several months of effort and costly assistance to court investors, with less than a 10% success rate.

  2. Anyone who gives you money is likely to be a tough boss. If you chose the entrepreneur lifestyle to be your own boss, don’t accept money from anyone. Every person who gives you money will want to have “input,” if not formal approval on every move. Be prepared to live with communication, negotiation, and milestones every day.

  3. Don’t give up a chunk of your company and control before you start. Even a small investor in the early days will take a large equity percentage, due to that pesky valuation challenge. At least wait until later, when you ready to scale, and have some “leverage” based on a proven business model, some real customers, and real revenue.

  4. You will squeeze harder on your own dollars than investor dollars. It’s just human nature that we remember the pain of earning our own dollars, versus those “donated” by someone else. Focusing on the burn rate and prioritizing every possible expense will keep overhead down, help you stay lean, and achieve a higher profit earlier.

  5. Sometimes survival requires staying under the radar. People who give you money like to talk about their great investment, and competitors see you coming. Sometimes creative efforts need more time before launch, or your efforts to run the company need tuning. Investors like to replace Founders who don’t seem to be moving fast enough.

  6. Managing investors is a distraction from your core business. Fundraising and investor governance are never-ending tasks, which will take real focus away from building the right product and finding real customers. Having more money to spend, but spending it on the wrong things, certainly doesn’t pave the road to success.

  7. Entrepreneurs need to start small and pivot quickly. Start with a minimum viable product (MVP), as well as a minimum viable team. Investors like a well-rounded team, working in a highly parallel fashion. That takes more money and time to set up, and more people to re-train and re-educate when forced to redirect your strategy.

  8. The best partners are ones who share costs and risks. With no investors, you will work harder to find vendors who will absorb costs and associated risks for a potentially bigger return later. Since they now have real skin in the game, they will also work harder to show quality and value, which is a win-win-win for you, them, and your customers.

  9. You will be happier and under less pressure. You should choose to be an entrepreneur to be able to do what you love. Yet we all apply pressure to ourselves to do these things to our own satisfaction. Investor money brings so many additional pressures, that personal happiness and satisfaction can be completely jeopardized.

  10. Show you are committed to your startup, not just involved. When you put your own financing on the line, your partners, your team, and eventually your customers will know that you are committed to solving their problem. That increases their motivation and conviction, which are the keys to their success as well as yours.

Of course, some of you will say, I don’t have a dollar and my big idea can’t wait. Unfortunately, outside investors are not an answer to this problem. To investors, having no money indicates that you may not have the discipline to manage their money, and manage a tough business process as well.

In these cases, I would suggest you work in another similar startup for a while, to learn the business, save your pennies, and test your startup concept on the side. A startup idea executed hastily and poorly will be killed more completely than any timing delay. Are you sure the money you seek is really your key to changing the world?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

10 Tough Quandaries That Lead Entrepreneurs Astray

right-way-dilemma Most entrepreneurs struggle with many startup Founders dilemmas in building their business, and these key dilemmas are probably the biggest source of pain and failure for the entrepreneur lifestyle. People may jump into the lifestyle to be their own boss, achieve great wealth, start a new trend, or all the above. The dilemma is that these goals are usually mutually exclusive.

For example, is the person who starts a new trend likely to be the one who controls it through the growth phase? In a famous study of 212 new ventures a few years ago, Harvard professor Noam Wasserman found that half the Founders were no longer at the helm after three years, and over time 80% were forced out. That’s not an attractive statistic if you crave control and power.

Don’t wait for the harsh reality of the demanding business world to start thinking about these tradeoffs. The research from Wasserman and others outlines the following top ten dilemmas that every Founder needs to deal with sooner or later in their career as an entrepreneur:

  1. The make money or serve humanity dilemma. Your great idea for the next Facebook may make you wealthy, but it probably won’t help the hungry. The answer is to look hard inside yourself, to see what makes you happy and satisfied. If living on Raman noodles while you make the world a better place is fine, skip the investors and growth race.

  2. The right time to start dilemma. The right time to jump is a function of favorable career, personal, and market circumstances. While it’s unlikely that all three of these will ever be true at the same time, most experts don’t recommend jumping at the first opportunity, but first gaining some skill, financial, and business experience first.

  3. The founding team size dilemma. Should you start a company solo or find co-Founders to help you? With one or more co-Founders, you gain complementary skills, spread the workload and responsibilities, and reduce the risk. The downside is loss of control and financial dilution. In my view, two heads are always better than one.

  4. The co-Founder relationship dilemma. While long-time social friends and family may seem like the natural choice for co-Founders and team members, these relationships often get in the way of hard business decisions or necessary business adjustments. Old co-workers or new friends with complementary skills usually make the best partners.

  5. The Founder’s title and role dilemma. Usually co-Founders expect to get a C-level title associated with their area of interest, like CFO for the financial expert. Make sure these titles are handed out only to people who are willing and able to accept the responsibility and workload of the associated role. It’s tough to downgrade titles and roles later.

  6. The compensation model dilemma. Every founding member wants to be compensated richly for the risk and the unknown. You have very little money, and you don’t want to give away your equity. Recognize that the best people don’t work for free. Giving equity is realistic, but base it on contribution and role, with vesting after time and milestones.

  7. The right investors and right time dilemma. You don’t want to take money from friends and family, but it’s too early for Angel investors and VCs. No one wants to put in money until you have a product, and you need money to build the product. Bootstrap if you can, otherwise climb the pyramid of family, friends, Angels, and VCs.

  8. The right motivated employees dilemma. Very early, you need generalists who can cover multiple areas, but you can’t pay for experience. Later you need specialists and managers. Offer low cash early, with bonuses or stock options for milestones, to people in your personal network. Later use LinkedIn and other job sources for professionals.

  9. The Founder succession dilemma. Startups are usually founded by product or service experts who don’t enjoy the various growth phases. Should the Founder keep the company small, try to adapt, or step aside in favor of a seasoned business executive? Transition to a specialist role, plan to exit, be prepared to be pushed out, or plan to fail.

  10. The control and growth dilemma. If you take investor money, expect a push for hockey-stick growth and a liquidity event, like going public (IPO) or sale (M&A), to get the payback. If you prefer a private company with organic growth, keep control within friends and family, and prepare for the long haul. Otherwise exit and startup with another idea.

Not facing these dilemmas squarely and honestly is one of the biggest pitfalls facing every entrepreneur. You can’t have it all, just like your startup can’t be all things to all customers. You have to focus on the things you can do and love to do, and do them better than anyone else. Turn these top ten dilemmas into your strengths, and you will have a competitive advantage, as well as the fun and satisfaction you sought to find in the entrepreneur lifestyle.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

10 Actions That Highlight You As A Business Leader

Phil_Libin_at_LeWeb People who have been followers too long as an employee don’t realize how hard it is to be a leader. Every new entrepreneur has to initiate the right actions to be perceived as a leader in their chosen business domain by their team and by their customers, or the road to success and satisfaction will be lost along the way.

Driving these actions are some basic principles that entrepreneurial leaders, such as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and Evernote CEO Phil Libin, seem to have learned early. These have helped them build trust and confidence among team members, and effectively sell their message to partners, investors, vendors and customers.

If you want to be like them, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror to see how many of these actions already show in your persona, and which need a bit more of your focus and learning:

  1. Ability to communicate clearly where you are going and why. This requires that you first know who you are and what you stand for and have a vision for change. Then you need to be willing to communicate that vision to everyone around you. People won’t follow you if they have no idea where you are headed and why it’s good for them as well.

  2. Feels a passion and commitment to the cause behind your business. This conviction is what motivates everyone around you to their best efforts, and keeps them going in hard times as well as good. Building a business is harder than it looks. Seth Godin said that “the average overnight success takes six years,” and he is an optimist.

  3. Can demonstrate domain expertise and experience. In any business domain, there is no substitute for skills acquired by personal experience to supplement any academic training and the Internet. You have to lead by example, setting a personal standard for competence for all to follow if you intend to lead your competitors and customers.

  4. Constantly strengthening your network of relationships. No entrepreneur can build a business alone. Your network of connections needs to grow with you and your business. That only happens if you take an active role in your community and relevant business associations with like-minded people. Make an honest effort to help others.

  5. Willingness to make timely decisions and take action. Remember that a good decision made early will more likely save your business than a better decision made later. In general, any decision is better than no decision. Smart entrepreneurs take reasonable time to consider alternatives, and then move forward, never looking back.

  6. Practices self-discipline and calm predictability. People don’t like to follow a leader who is unpredictable, inconsistent and prone to daily changes in direction. Authentic leaders are willing to open up and establish a connection with everyone around them. They build trusting relationships that result in loyalty and commitment from others.

  7. Encourages innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. In business, this means fostering a mindset of creativity, risk-taking and continuous improvement. Don’t wait for competitors to force the need for better products, lower prices and better customer service. Reward failures as well as successes if the result is a lesson that advances the company.

  8. Allocates adequate resources to overcome constraints. Hoping for good luck and applying pressure is not leadership. Being able and willing to size and allocate the resources to win the small battles will ultimately win the war. This means hiring the right people, providing training and tools, and improving systems to overcome challenges.

  9. Incents business growth and people's well-being. As a role model, you must continuously upgrade your own skills, be alert for new developments and hone your listening ability. It means rewarding team member growth, no punishment for failures and opportunities for success. This applies to suppliers and business partners as well.

  10. Always accepts responsibility for business actions and results. Entrepreneur leaders don’t need excuses, like a down economy, bad timing or demonic competitors. Every company and every one of us makes mistakes, which are a normal consequence of tackling new business challenges and unknowns.

The good news is that no one is a born leader -- all of these habits and mindsets can be acquired by learning and a determination to improve. Leadership doesn’t come with success, but success does come with leadership. Don’t wait for someone else to show you the way -- you don’t want another entrepreneur out in front of you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/05/2014 ***

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 Innovative New Global Ways To Grow Your Business

innovative-marketing The world of marketing is changing faster than technology these days. Winning entrepreneurs have long since supplemented conventional print and video “push” marketing with digital online interactive “pull” marketing, and more recently added social-local-mobile (SoLoMo) to the mix. Mobile and global are driving all of these in innovative new ways to grow your business.

For all those entrepreneurs and startups who can’t yet afford a new age marketing agency, it’s impossible to keep up with “best of breed” marketing activities and strategies. I found some help in catching up via a new book “Sell Local, Think Global,” by marketing message expert Olga Mizrahi. Along with her insights, she offers 50 innovative new tips to grow your business.

I’ve paraphrased here a subset of her guidance which I believe characterizes the key changes and the implications for entrepreneurs just starting, as well as more mature businesses:

  1. Pinpoint your Unique Value Proposition (UVP). These days it is often more about being unique than being valuable. A UVP sells a product or service because it differentiates it from other products or services that are available. Skip the better, faster, or stronger; you need to be the best, fastest, or strongest to truly stand out.

  2. Reach your target audience intimately through interaction. Target marketing has moved to a whole new level both geographically and demographically. With social media, you can interact more precisely and create custom products and marketing to be almost all things to all people. The broad-brush push-marketing is no longer competitive.

  3. Build word-of-mouth into your product or service. The very best marketing is word-of-mouth from your very happy customers. You need to give them something to talk about and incentives to be brand ambassadors. These include an aura of exclusivity and cultivating an “under-the-radar” vibe that pushes people into one-up-style revelations.

  4. Proactively seek out win-win alliances. Voluntary open-ended alliances are more important than ever, and easier than ever. Consider collaborating via shared marketing efforts, trade-show both space, co-branding promotional products, referral agreements, and cross-linking web sites. With informality, these must be win-win relationships.

  5. Modernize the user website experience. The standards for user-friendly continue to move up. Make sure your users don’t have to think, and participating in your call to action is intuitive and organic. Modern web layouts flow smoothly and quickly for an easier to read, satisfying experience. How many website visits have you aborted in frustration?

  6. Incorporate live chat into every online service. No one wants to call an 800 help line anymore. Online shoppers like online chat, because it makes the experience more like in-store shopping. The same applies to other aspects of consumer experience: customer questions answered, problems fixed, and aggravations soothed, to close more sales.

  7. Understand the power of online reviews to your advantage. Stop fearing bad reviews, and see any review as an opportunity and an asset. Respond to reviews to give a personable picture of you, your company, and your products. People want to go with tried-and-true choices, and many positive reviews will offset that occasional negative one.

  8. Optimize how you website looks on mobile devices. Mobile will soon be the number one way people do web browsing, as it already is for e-mail. Yet nearly half of all small businesses still lack any website, much less a mobile-friendly one. Modern websites adapt to the mobile environment, or you can provide a separate mobile site at low cost.

  9. See the world through the eyes of Generation Z. The newest generation has never lived life unplugged, and their blend of innocence, simplicity, and pure excitement appeals to every customer. Optimize for them, and you will be a winner today, as well as in the future. It starts with a willingness to engage, listen, and learn without fear.

  10. Embrace giving back to the world community. Bring new awareness to your business by promoting a higher goal, which will garner additional respect and new business from your supporters. The first steps are effective communication to your clients, employee participation, and partnering with other organizations that have similar initiatives.

If you are not happy with how fast your business is growing, pick one of these areas to focus on first, then a second and third. Don’t try to do everything at once, and don’t expect that you can do it once and forget about it. Your business is a living entity, just like you are. Treat it with ongoing respect and attention, or the growth you expect and deserve will fade as the world changes.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 8, 2014

7 Elements Of Inspiration From The Steve Jobs Model

quote-from-steve-jobs Steve Jobs was one of those entrepreneurs who seemed universally either loved or hated, but not many will argue with his ability to innovate in the technology product arena over the years. He was instrumental in creating Apple, which has pioneered a dazzling array of new products, and even surpassed Microsoft, to become the world’s most valuable technology company.

Carmine Gallo, in one of his books a while back on secrets, “The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs,” outlines Jobs “insanely different principles for breakthrough success.” I’m not convinced that Jobs’ world was that simple, but Carmine has boiled it down to seven principles, which I suggest every entrepreneur can learn from even today, as follows:

  1. Do what you love. Think differently about your career. Steve Jobs followed his heart his entire life and that, he said, made all the difference. Innovation cannot occur in the absence of passion and, without it, you have little hope of creating breakthrough ideas.

  2. Put a dent in the Universe. Think differently about your vision. Jobs attracted like-minded people who shared his vision and who helped turn his ideas into world-changing innovations. Passion fueled Apple’s rocket and Jobs’ vision created the destination.

  3. Kick start your brain. Think differently about how you think. Innovation does not exist without creativity, and for Steve Jobs, creativity was the act of connecting things. Jobs believed that a broad set of experiences broadened the understanding of the human experience.

  4. Sell dreams, not products. Think differently about your customers. To Jobs, people who bought Apple products were never “consumers.” They were people with dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Jobs built products to help them fulfill their dreams.

  5. Say no to 1,000 things. Think differently about design. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, according to Jobs. From the designs of the iPod to the iPhone, from the packaging of the Apple’s products to the functionality of the Apple Web site, innovation means eliminating the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

  6. Create insanely great experiences. Think differently about your brand experience. Jobs made Apple stores the gold standard in customer service. The Apple store has become the world’s best retailer by introducing simple innovations any business can adopt to make deep, lasting emotional connections with their customers.

  7. Master the message. Think differently about your story. Jobs was a great corporate storyteller, turning product launches into an art form. You can have the most innovative idea in the world, but if you cannot get people excited about it, it doesn’t matter.

Carmine suggests and I agree that these principles for breakthrough innovation will only work if you see yourself as the brand. Whether you are an entrepreneur working out of your bedroom, or a small business owner looking for ideas to improve your business, you represent the most important brand of all – yourself.

How you talk, walk, and act reflects upon the brand. Most importantly, how you think about yourself and your business will have the greatest impact on the creation of new ideas that will grow your business and improve the lives of your customers.

Thus you need to look inward first and assess your basic potential. Then imagine what you could achieve in business with the real insight and inspiration. Imagine what you could accomplish if you had Steve Jobs guiding your decisions. What would Steve Jobs do? Follow the principles above and you can do it too.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

7 Entrepreneur Traits That Let You Soar With Angels

Elon-Must-with-investor As a startup mentor, I’m always amazed that some entrepreneurs seem to be an immediate hit with investors, while others struggle to get any attention at all. Finally I realized that Venture Capital and Angel investors are actually humans, despite some views to the contrary. As with most business and personal interactions, first impressions tend to become lasting ones.

Investors know that building any business is a challenging and risky proposition, so they start with entrepreneurs who give a first impression of passion, commitment, and determination to succeed. There is no room in this realm for negativism, excuses, or lack of confidence. People like Elon Musk, who have the energy to work 100-hour weeks for years, will always attract investors.

But the right personal characteristics are just the beginning. Successful businesses are measured by their results, so relevant skills, attention to details, and problem-solving abilities are critical. Early in the relationship, every investor instinctively looks for some key indicators of the ability to get results, like the following:

  1. Communicates well in every business medium. Some entrepreneurs love to talk and produce videos, but hate to write anything down. Others send investors email and business plans in all uppercase or no punctuation. Effective communication requires real listening, as well as talking. Message delivery must be customized for each investor.

  2. Surrounded by the right people and track record. It takes more than one person to build a business, so the lone entrepreneur, without support from any visible team, advisors, partners, or potential customers, will not attract investors. Of course, previous successes provide more direct evidence of a network of the right people.

  3. Exudes integrity, humility, and stability. Even business plan has strengths and weaknesses, and the best entrepreneurs are able to recognize the difference. They seek to establish win-win relationships with all partners, including investors, and treat them all as trusted advisors, rather than win-loss opportunities.

  4. Registered patents and other intellectual property. From an investor perspective, understanding and acting early to establish a sustainable competitive advantage, and barrier to entry, is the best assurance of a financial return. Being the first mover or lowest cost is not a good long-term strategy.

  5. Already set and achieved initial milestones. Contrary to popular belief, most investors are not looking for entrepreneurs who are desperate for funding. They prefer to see a rational staged plan, already in progress, with some checkpoints achieved, as well as future ones planned. A proven business model, ready to scale, is particularly attractive.

  6. Evidence of adaptability and flexibility. A strategy of learning and willingness to pivot, based on market feedback, is a great survival skill and attitude, cherished by investors. Rather than hide seemingly non-productive gaps in your work to-date, investors look for logical actions, and iterative small steps that could be quick to market or quick to fail.

  7. Expert in your chosen domain. Many key insights to success in any business can’t be learned from books or the Internet. There is no substitute for experience and trained skills in the business area you are attacking. In this context, investors are attracted to thought-leaders visible on social media, and people with strong technical credentials.

By definition, entrepreneurs need to love the art of the start, and that love needs to come across as part of the first impression you deliver to any investor. Since your product or technology may still be in the early stages of development, the investor in actually investing in you, and your previous achievements, as much as your current startup.

My advice is to start your networking early with potential investors, to establish a relationship before they see you as an entrepreneur asking for money. The strengths of those early relationships can override all of these results indicators, and let you fly with the Angels without a second look when the time is right.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 11/28/2014 ***

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