Monday, March 30, 2015

Every Entrepreneur Dreams Of A Startup Without Risk

face-dreams Outside of dreams, there is no real business opportunity without risk. Serious entrepreneurs know that, but too many “wannabes” still fall for that elusive get-rich-quick scheme with no risk. As an active Angel investor, I still hear entrepreneurs asserting large opportunities with minimal risk and no competition. My conclusion either way is that they have no market, or haven’t looked.

According to a book a while back by serial entrepreneur and former race car driver Tom Panaggio, “The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur's Unexpected Edge,” smart business owners embrace two essential risks to every opportunity – decision and change. First, they decide on a direction to jump, and then they make adjustments and innovations to keep going and growing.

In simple terms, the way you balance risk and opportunity is to look at both as two sides of the same coin. Obviously you are looking for the opportunity side to be bigger than the risk side. Great entrepreneurs have learned how to realistically assess and manage both sides of the coin in the following business opportunity and risk categories:

  1. Strategic. Visionary entrepreneurs tend to identify and map strategic new opportunities, rather than grow existing current ones, based on market insights emerging technology. The risks in new opportunities are usually not evident, so the challenge here is to reduce the probability that the assumed risks actually materialize and to improve the company’s ability to manage or contain the risk events, should they occur.

  2. Financial. Both risks and opportunities in this area can arise from many aspects of your startup, before and after product development. First you need to assess the risks and value of investor funding and carrying debt. Then you walk the delicate balance between burn rates, revenue flows versus expenses, investment in marketing, and employees.

  3. Operational. Once a business is operational, the opportunity can be maximized, and risk managed through best-of-breed processes, and a rules-based control model. Examples are the risks from employees’ unauthorized, illegal, unethical, or inappropriate actions and the risks from breakdowns in routine processes.

  4. Growth. The way you scale your business is a huge balancing act between risk and opportunity. You can grow organically, or stretch out with big capital investments for volume and reach. Grow too fast, and risk quality and delivery ability, or go slowly only to be overtaken by your competitors or a new technology. Find the balance.

For entrepreneurs, both Panaggio and I agree that the first step is adopting a winner’s mindset, and not become a prisoner of hope. When entrepreneurs become prisoners of hope, they look for others to solve their problem. After that, the key is to embrace risk, rather than fight it, which gives you the real advantage:

  • Embrace the risk of failure. Every entrepreneur must realize that failure is not defeat, but a signal that it is necessary to invoke the two essential risks: decide that change is necessary, and change. Every investor believes that entrepreneurs learn more from failures than from successes. Short-term failures lead to long-term successes.
  • Embrace the risk of proactive marketing. Marketing is fraught with risk, but playing it safe or no marketing is the ultimate risk. Proactive marketing is a marketing strategy that focuses on one objective – to generate customers now. Look at marketing as an investment, not an expense. Risk being known for who you are, as well as what you sell.
  • Embrace the risk of standing in your own line. All entrepreneurs should face the risk of being one of their own customers, by using their own products and standing in their own customer service lines. Only shortsighted leaders assume that customers have unreasonable expectations, or their demands will increase once you have a relationship.

Embracing risk and learning from your mistakes really is an entrepreneur’s edge, since only startups and small businesses can afford to fail quickly, maybe multiple times, and all the while having the ability to pivot quickly to achieve success. In fact, these are the keys to balancing risks against the opportunities. When was the last time you felt your business was in balance?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

How Valuable Are Stock Options Offered By A Startup?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

No Expert Has A Startup Checklist To Ensure Success

checklist-startup A common request I get while mentoring entrepreneurs is for a copy of the startup checklist they need to follow, in order to build a successful new business. I wish it was that easy. The challenge is that every new business needs to be innovative and different, in order to rise above the crowd, bring real change to the world, and give you the satisfaction you seek.

Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with studying and learning from the wisdom and experience of others. So for those of you that love checklists, I saw some real value in a recent book by James M. Kerr, “The Executive Checklist: A Guide for Setting Direction and Managing Change.” His checklists cover everything from building a vision, to consistently delivering results, for entrepreneurs up to mature business executives.

Although I’m not an aficionado of checklists in general, I really appreciate one he has included for keeping up with the latest technological trends that are reshaping business strategies, which should be the drivers for many startups. See if you understand each of these technologies:

  1. Internet of Things. The physical world is quickly becoming Internet enabled, allowing it to be fused with the digital world. Everyday devices, like Internet soda vending, have an embedded computer allowing full remote reporting and control. Other examples include smart-home remote control, cell-phone tracking, and remote auto traffic sensors.

  2. Mobile Computing. From tablets to smart phones to the Apple watch, people are increasingly relying on their mobile devices to assist them in managing their lives. The next phase of evolution will demand device independence, enabling an uninterrupted computing experience as we move from device to device throughout our daily lives.

  3. Cloud Computing. This is a phrase used to describe a variety of computing technology concepts that involve a large number of computers connected through the Internet. There are already a variety of cloud computing solutions available for common business usage, including the following:

    • Software as a Service (SaaS). This is a software distribution and pricing model in which new applications are hosted by a service provider and made available to customers over a network, rather than requiring customer hardware. Upgrades and troubleshooting can normally be provided over the network, as well.

    • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Data storage, hardware, and networking equipment are provided to the customer on a per-use basis by the IaaS vendor, who holds the equipment and is responsible for running, and maintaining it.

    • Platform as a Service (PaaS). This is a service delivery model that provides the capability to lease the hardware, operating systems, storage, and network capacity over the Internet. It allows startups to rent virtualized servers and associated services needed to develop, test, and run applications.

    • Business Process as a Service (BPaaS). Procurement, payment processing, and payroll are just a few of the business functions that can be supported through BPaaS provider, who delivers the necessary infrastructure so that organizations no longer need to staff and perform the activities in-house.

  4. Social Media. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn manage communities comprised of millions of people worldwide. The challenge for most businesses is determining how to best harness the potential. Every entrepreneur needs to leverage social media for better marketing, requirements, and customer service.

  5. Gamification. This refers to the use of game thinking and software design mechanics to make it more effective and friendly for people to engage with technology. Many businesses are already weaving gamification into their strategies to enhance loyalty programs, customer retention, productivity measurement, and training.

It is time for entrepreneurs and all executives to stop being intimidated by technology discussions and, instead, establish a foundation for understanding the basic constructs that are reshaping the ways in which organizations process information and conduct business.

If a checklist like this one helps you get it done, then by all means find one and use it. But don’t be bound by it. Success in business today really requires that you go beyond any known checklists, with vision, innovation, and determination. Are you driving the technology, or is it driving you?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Is Your Use Of Social Media For Marketing Working?

social-media-working Isn’t it frustrating to think you finally understand something in business, like marketing with social media, only to realize that the landscape changed while you were looking at other priorities? For example, it used to be that marketing via social media meant banner ads on Facebook, buying search engine results, and sponsoring blog entries, but these don’t suffice anymore.

In a recent book on social media by Jim Tobin, “Earn It. Don’t Buy It,” he asserts that “earned” social engagement drives better business results than paid social exposure. Jim should know, since he is the president Ignite Social Media, of one of the best known social media marketing agencies. Here are a few bits of current wisdom from both of us along these lines:

  1. Nobody clicks on Facebook ads anymore. Banner ads routinely average a .1% click through rate and Facebook manages to be about half as good as that. That’s 99.96% of people not clicking on those ads. When the glass is only .04% full, you should start looking for a new container.

  2. Where are the young social media users going? They are going to Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Snapchat. In 2014 Tumblr overtook Instagram as fastest-growing social platform, and Snapchat is the fastest-growing mobile app, driven largely by Millennials and teens.

  3. You need influencers more than advocates. Brands need influencers working on their behalf because they provide the third-party credibility and social proof that validates their products. 92% of people trust “recommendations from people I know” and 70% trust “consumer opinions posted online.”

  4. Where did your friends go? While Pinterest and Tumbler saw activity increases approaching 100%, Facebook was the only big network to experience a drop in active usage last year, even if only by 9%, according to GlobalWebIndex (GWI), a research firm that interviews 170,000 internet users in 32 markets.

  5. Maybe they just don’t care. As far back as 2013, Pew Internet & American Life Project started reporting that their focus groups found “waning enthusiasm for Facebook” among teens, that Facebook has become a “social burden” for them, and that “users of sites other than Facebook express greater enthusiasm for their choice.”

  6. New can turn old very quickly. Friendster was a fad, Second Life was a fad, MySpace was a fad, and Facebook suddenly seems old school. Don’t connect the latest platform, which may be transient, with the larger phenomenon of digitally enabled social conversations. If you can figure out why people care about your product, you’ll have success regardless of the platform du jour.

Earning social media clout for your business, rather than buying it, seems to be all about engagement. Engagement occurs when customers and stakeholders become participants by sharing ideas with you, or talking to their friends about you, rather than merely viewing what you publish. Each participant becomes part of your marketing department, as other customers read their output, and become part of the conversation. It’s the principle underlying “viral marketing.”

So how do you facilitate engagement and conversation with your solution? According to an explanation I first saw on Social Fresh, it’s really a cycle consisting of three key phases:

  • User to product (engaged user base). This part isn’t new. In order to build any following, you need a solution that solves a real problem, not just technology that wows you, or great functionality with a painful learning curve. How engaged people are will depend on how much value they see, and how much they enjoy using the product.
  • User to brand (engaged audience). Once someone is engaged with your product, you’ll want to get them engaged with your brand. This happens today when you talk to people through social media and responsive customer service. Get in the habit of having genuine conversations with your engaged users to create an engaged audience.
  • User to user (engaged community). Now you have an engaged audience of people who feel an emotional connect with your brand and product. Time to start connecting them with each other. You can do so using conversation platforms like forums, Facebook groups or build something yourself.

So that’s how you earn customers through social media, rather than buying them with banner ads. But don’t be misled, social media marketing to get customers and brand recognition through engagement still costs money (and time and effort). There is no free lunch. But don’t spend your money on things that don’t work anymore. That won’t build any competitive advantage.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Is Your Advisor a Critic Posing as a Mentor?

critic-or-mentor Every startup needs a couple of advisors with deep experience and connections in your business domain or financial skills to complement your technical focus. Advisors need to be mentors, looking ahead and directing you on key actions to take or avoid. Unfortunately, many prefer the role of critic, looking backward to highlight your mistakes. These people don’t help you or your startup.

Obviously, you can learn from both, but mistakes already made cost you more in time and money to recover, while mistakes avoided save both. A mentor’s objective is to build your confidence and business understanding with forward-looking insights, while a critic tends to undermine your confidence and spend time on weaknesses rather than strengths.

The same considerations apply to every constituent inside and outside your team, including co-founders, investors, strategic partners and every team member. Here are some clues that will help you see and attract the best advisors, as well as the right team members:

  1. Is there a sense of trust and mutual respect? The most productive business relationships are built on trust and respect, where both parties have the other’s interest at heart. The results are win-win relationships. Mentors have no interest in win-lose relationships.

  2. Do advisor credentials include practical experience in the domain? Critics tend to rely on anecdotal or academic evidence to support their position, as opposed to a mentor’s insider perspective based on years of practical experience. Good mentors don’t talk in terms of right or wrong, but in terms of best practices and elements of risk.

  3. How effective are the advisor's communication skills? You need advisors that are effective and unemotional direct communicators, face to face, over the phone or via email. Beware of people who are prone to emotional outbursts, pick public forums for their discussions and hope to influence you through messages to friends and cohorts.

  4. Do advisor ethics match your own expectations and culture? You will not be well served by an advisor whose ethical rules do not match your business area or government rules. In ethics, one size does not fit all, particularly in international business roles and cultures. Questionable ethics are not a risk any entrepreneur can afford.

  5. Can you visualize a long-term relationship with this advisor? Advisors that are good mentors often lead to career-long relationships and friendships, such as the one between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. An advisor’s value goes up over time as they better relate to both you and the business. Would you nurture a long-term relationships with your critics?

Nevertheless, you don’t always get to pick all your advisors, and we all have to anticipate some critics. Every entrepreneur needs to improve how they deal with critics to make their lives less stressful and more satisfying. Here are some recommendations that work, but all take self-discipline to implement:

  • Do not take every criticism personally. All critical comments are not meant to reflect on your personal character. If you take every criticism as a personal attack, and react defensively, even the best-intentioned advisor or mentor will stop providing you the feedback and recommendations you need to improve your skills and your business.
  • Be an equal-opportunity listener. It’s a natural human reaction to discount even good recommendations if they come from someone you don’t know well, is in a different age bracket or a non-native culture. Smart entrepreneurs learn to evaluate the content of the communication independently of the speaker.
  • Practice the pregnant pause before responding. Pushing to reply immediately prevents comprehension or even hearing any advice or feedback. Think before you respond, and always answer with a reiteration of the points of agreement, before answering any points of criticism.
  • Always respond with a smile and calm sincerity. Responding with anger and emotion leads to a confrontation. A smile projects confidence and a calm resolve to listen. The smile is contagious, and helps to put all parties at ease during serious and potentially volatile critiques. Your critic may actually see your perspective and become a supporter.

Most advisors I know really believe they are mentors and not critics. So before you sign up, it pays to check references or peers who have worked with them. True mentors are rarely confused with critics. Every entrepreneur needs help moving forward, and knows it’s hard to be a leader if you are always focused on the past.

Find more mentors and walk away from critics.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 3/13/2015 ***

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Close Relationships At Work Bring Value And Risks

Laughing_couple We all have to communicate and collaborate with other people at work, but most of us start out instinctively trying to maintain an emotional distance from others in the work environment. In fact, most employee training courses recommend the distance if the work relationship crosses management levels, and most management policies strictly forbid fraternizing with the team.

Yet the 2015 Office Romance Survey by Vault, Inc. found in polling more than 1,000 professionals at companies nationwide, that 51% had participated in not only a friendship, but an office romance, and only 5% think that office romances are never acceptable. So recently I started looking for some expert guidance on the pros and cons on this issue.

One source I like is the classic book “Who’s That Sitting At My Desk?” by Jan Yager, who is a Ph.D. in sociology, and a coach and speaker on work issues and friendship. She outlines the potential benefits of “workships” (work relationships) evolving into friendships and romances as follows:

  • Improve communication and productivity. Even casual friends at work are more likely to understand your requests, be convinced of the value of your ideas, and more likely to work in concert with you on projects. That’s a win-win situation for both sides as more positive things happen more quickly. Warm feelings also make the work seem easier.
  • Offer support through tough times. Positive workplace relationships can help balance some difficult issues you are facing outside of work. Even at work, if you are struggling with a difficult project, getting some help and support from friends there can easily make the difference between success and failure. We all learn more from people we trust.
  • Aid in self-esteem. Work places provide that day-to-day interaction opportunity that is a key to self-esteem for many. Friends are more likely to provide the positive feedback and accolades that we all need from time to time. Friends are also less likely to exhibit aggression and rudeness, which can lower the self-esteem of any receiver.
  • Can be a competitive advantage. Despite accusations of favoritism, if your friendship with the boss is one of many factors in why you get promoted, that friendship may be a big plus for you at work. If you easily make friends with people at work, it means that you have good relationships skills, which is a key requirement as you move up the ladder.

Of course there can be negative consequences to close friendships and romances at work as well:

  • Work-related betrayal. According to most experts, romantic betrayals are the most frequent type of friendship betrayals, with work-related issues a close second. Betrayals at work run the gamut from telling lies, coloring the truth, plagiarizing work, to saying negative things to the boss. Of course, all these things can happen in any workship.
  • More vulnerable emotionally. Through friendship you open yourself up to acceptance, being liked, admired, respected, trusted, and appreciated. You also open yourself up, as do others when they befriend you, to the greater possibility of disappointment, rejection, and misunderstandings. Success is the best antidote to emotional vulnerability.

  • Competition over salary, promotions, and position. Sometimes friends share too many details on salary levels, work habits, and promotion expectations. This can cause feelings of unfairness, and initiate emotionally competitive efforts. The result can be a loss of friendship, and even loss of any working relationship.
  • Hard to keep work-related disagreements separate from personal relationship. Work-related disagreements break up many romantic relationships, and broken personal friendships break up many businesses. In this new age of collaboration, unemotional different perspectives and disagreements have been proven to lead to better decisions.

If you are contemplating a transition from a workship to a more intimate friendship, according to Yager, you should make sure that it satisfies the following three conditions:

  1. Make sure the move is a shared wish. There are three distinct kinds of friends: casual, close, and best. A fourth category is more intimately romantic relationships. None of these four work well if they are "one-sided,” meaning only one of the parties is committed.

  2. Be ready to reveal and involve your non-work experience. Some people find that they have much in common in workplace duties and perspectives, but have nothing in common outside of work. Or they really don’t want to share their personal life details.

  3. Expect increased pressures from trust and discretion issues. All friendships bring increased demands for your time, and bring expectations and pressures during any changes in your life, or at work. Make sure you both have the shared values in your personal life, as well as at work.

In my view and experience, the benefits of more friendship at work far outweigh the disadvantages. Socializing at work today, contrary to a couple of decades ago, is considered collaborative and productive, rather than a waste of time. Today the trend is to “open” office spaces, even for executives, versus the private and quiet offices of yesterday.

Going further in the friendship direction, to a romantic relationship, is still almost always a negative at work, because the emotional ties and tolls often override rational actions. As an example, I find that most Angel investors still decline to fund startup founders that are romantically involved, citing the high risk of breakup.

Work relationships are in vogue, inside a company for collaboration and teamwork, and outside to customers and partners through social media for loyalty and interactive marketing. But all good things can be overdone. Are you maintaining the right balance in your work relationships?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Protect Your Business Reputation Online Or Lose It

online-reputation-business Every startup fears that one angry and unfair customer who can jeopardize the business by a negative post on Ripoff Report, Yelp, or one of the hundreds of other consumer complaint and review sites on the Internet. Most entrepreneurs don’t even know how to keep track of what people are saying about them on the web, much less how to respond or remove it.

Web reputation management, both business and personal, has become a top priority requirement. On the personal side, these items can kill your career, as I discussed in an old article “Google Yourself to See How Other People See You.” Luckily, the basic principles for reputation management are the same for both business and personal environments:

  • Actively monitor what people are saying about you. You may assert that monitoring the entire Internet space is an impossible problem. Fortunately, there are already tools out there, like Google Alerts (free) and Brand Yourself, which can do the work for you, and send you a daily email report of every link where your name or brand appears.
  • Proactively build a positive reputation. Maintaining a good reputation means you have to build one early and maintain it. There is a big difference between no reputation with one negative comment, versus 1000 indications of a positive reputation and one negative. Most people accept that no person or organization is perfect.
  • Quickly address every negative. Many negative customer experiences can actually be turned into positives, if you quickly and unemotionally acknowledge the problem, resolve it, and spread the positive message before the negative one gets amplified. Don’t emulate the “United Breaks Guitars” experience.
  • Push negative content out of view. In reality, most people will never find negative content, unless a link appears on the first page of search engine results. With the right focus on search engine optimization, or the help of companies like DefendMyName, you can usually push negative links out of sight into the swamp of the Internet.
  • Remove unwanted content, where possible. Removing your content from the Web is not as easy as canceling your accounts, nor is it completely impossible. You can easily remove content you own (comments on your site or accounts). Experts, like Reputation Defender, have proprietary techniques to correct or completely remove other unwanted content.
  • Your reputation is your responsibility. The last step is to recognize that you alone are responsible for managing the reputation of your business and your life. Doing nothing, or counting on more laws, is not an answer. Due to First Amendment rights, offensive content, once entered, is often untouchable, and the sources are immune from liability.

The upside to the difficulty of removing unwanted content is that it does justice to those who have come by their bad reputations legitimately. For curbing bad guys, the speed and visibility of the Internet can be a very useful thing. For all the rest of us, it’s nice to know that we can shout back quickly and broadly, when someone starts to whisper about us.

As I have discussed in previous articles, social networking sites like Facebook are now the most frequently used websites on the Internet. Unfortunately, they have also become some of the most abused websites on the Internet, due to the emotions of failed relationships and the immature whims of young users.

So the social networks are the early place to start, in learning the discipline of building and maintaining a positive reputation. If you get that right, the transition to your business will be easy. On the other hand, if you let your reputation slide early to be “cool,” it may take a lifetime to recover. It’s easier to make Google remember than to forget.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

8 Signs Of Change That Good Entrepreneurs See First

InnovationLifeCycle When the economy tanks as it did in the last recession, that’s a strong signal that things have to change, and it’s hard to miss. But most of us in business have to deal most of the time with weak signals, or change that is happening in a far more subtle way. These changes can be cultural, like the increasing need to be social, spawning Facebook and a hundred others, or technological, like the explosion of mobile devices around the world.

No business or startup wants to be the next Myspace, or even the next RIM (BlackBerry), where changes in the marketplace were subtle. Recognizing and interpreting weak signals into timely decision making is critical to your business, and it takes skill and focus.

The challenge is knowing what to look for, and how to react. I saw some real guidance in a recent book by Loc de Brabandere and Alan Iny, “Thinking in New Boxes.” While the focus of the book is really on business creativity, the following triggers were outlined as weak signals which should not be overlooked in your efforts to think outside the box, or think in a new box:

  1. A changing value proposition. For example, if it’s getting harder to charge a price premium for the product you’re marketing, or others are offering your subscription service for free, it may be time to start thinking in a new box. Another example is seeing substitute versions of a product, like eBooks, for a low price displacing hardcover books.

  2. New unmet consumer or customer needs. Perhaps you own a consumer products store and see that following the introduction of the new iPad, there are no attractive protective cases for them yet available. Or you notice that people are getting overnight delivery from Amazon, but your retail store offers no home delivery options.

  3. The entry of new competitors and new suppliers. You are selling several successful computer video games, but notice more and more new ones popping up on smartphones. Or you notice that your line of high quality tools is being undercut by cheap knockoffs manufactured in other countries.

  4. The advent of new breakthrough technologies. You are still providing conventional digital wristwatches while Apple and others are delivering high-tech new versions that sync with your smartphone. Or you are still delivering coupons via the local newspaper, while new entrants are loading them onto your loyalty card or smartphone.

  5. Changes in your organization’s core performance metrics. For example, quarterly sales on one of your most important products suddenly decreases, or your inventory across a whole category has surged. If one metric changes, it may not be significant, but someone needs to monitor whole categories for fluctuations that may be a weak signal.

  6. Unfulfilled business and other potential opportunities. Sometimes you might be astonished to notice something that has not yet occurred, and therefore signals to you an opportunity, like new transportation alternatives. Taxi or bus companies are often slow to recognize a new popular travel location based on population shifts or resort communities.

  7. Broad disruptive events. Everyone notes macro changes, but the weak or secondary implications are often overlooked. Look hard for unanticipated consequences of events like new government regulations on financial processes, changes in environmental patterns, or sociological changes in other countries. First responders are the winners.

  8. Premonitions, anxieties, and/or intuitions. Weak signals may be even more subtle or insidious. Perhaps your assistant mentions that your phone has been ringing much less lately. Or you sense that some of your best people are getting bored. Such inklings and realizations can be valuable warnings of significant impending change.

All weak signals need to be treated with a continuous innovation mindset and urgency, to stay competitive and current. Here is the recommended five-step approach to thinking in new boxes:

  • · Doubting everything you think you know.
  • · Probing the possible issues to fully understand what is happening.
  • · Divergent thinking to create many new boxes, concepts, and hypotheses.
  • · Convergence through testing and validating back to a small number of viable changes.
  • · Re-evaluating relentlessly for the agility to survive.

New entrepreneurs are notoriously great at capitalizing on new opportunities, both weak and strong. But nurturing this ability after the first burst of creativity, to accomplish the necessary pivots, and keep from getting seduced by their own initial success, is a more rare commodity, even in the startup community.

If you aren’t reacting to weak signals almost every day in this era of fast-paced change, then you are missing opportunities and falling behind. What new boxes are you implementing these days?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, March 16, 2015

7 Critical Questions Before You Become an Entrepreneur

entrepreneur-questions As a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, the most common question I get is, “I want to be an entrepreneur -- how do I start?” The obvious answer is that you need an idea first, but I’ve come to realize that the process is really much more complex than that. Many people with great ideas never make it as entrepreneurs, and true entrepreneurs can make a business out of anything.

The first myth you have to get past is that having an idea will make you an entrepreneur. In fact, even implementing the idea into a solution doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. According to my definition and Wikipedia, an entrepreneur is someone who builds a new business. Based on my experience, creating the solution is usually the easy part of starting a successful business.

So before you quit your day job, tax all your friends and investors for money, or max out your credit cards to design and build a product, I recommend that you seriously contemplate the following more basic questions:

  1. Are you prepared to adopt the entrepreneur lifestyle? Starting a new business is not a job, but an adventure into the unknown, similar to Columbus setting out to find the New World. It’s a big step into a new lifestyle, like getting married after being single for many years. Yet startup founders are often lonely, since no one else can make their decisions.

  2. How strong is your passion for this opportunity? You have to enjoy working with people -- partners, customers, investors and more -- as well as products to start a business. You have to embrace making decisions and the responsibility of setting milestones, measuring progress and celebrating the victories and defeats.

  3. Are you confident and disciplined in facing tough challenges? Starting a business at home or on the Internet is hard work -- not a get-rich-quick scheme. You will be operating outside of any proven realm, no mentor can give you the answer, and it won’t help to blame anyone else for missteps and environmental changes you can’t predict.

  4. How familiar are you with the contemplated business domain? Remember that the grass always look greener on the other side of the fence. It may make more sense to work for a similar startup before charging ahead on your own. The ultimate best teacher is failure, but a less painful one is getting related work experience and training.

  5. Which business model best suits your mentality? Some people love to deliver services, where personal acumen is tested every day. Others love technology and products, to be replicated and sold while you sleep. If something totally new is not your forte, you can always buy a franchise, acquire an existing business or be a consultant.

  6. Have you mapped out a complete plan? Few entrepreneurs can assimilate and hone a complete plan in their head. That’s why I believe the process of writing down your plan is more valuable than the result. Also, a written plan multiplies your ability to communicate to constituents, and facilitates parallel feedback. Money is not a substitute.

  7. What is your funding situation and alternatives? Fundraising is stressful and difficult, which is why 90 percent of successful entrepreneurs choose bootstrapping (self-funding). Too much money too early kills many startups, according to investors. There are always non-cash alternatives, such as recruiting partners with equity and bartering services.

After asking yourself these questions, and finding yourself still determined to be an entrepreneur, you will have already started. From there, it’s a simple matter of forging a trail to success, and conquering all the problems and challenges that are sure to surface. Starting a business is a marathon, so you have to make an overt decision to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 3/6/2015 ***

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

10 Indications That Your Startup Role Is Killing You

A_frustrated_and_depressed_entrepreneur If an entrepreneur doesn’t find themselves in over their head at least 20% of the time, they are probably not pushing the limits, not taking enough risk, and probably not working on an idea that’s worth doing. The challenge in to know when and how to ask for help, and not let bravado and ego mask anxieties. The best people know when they don’t know, and know how to find the right help.

Unfortunately, too many entrepreneurs I know are terrible at finding and accepting help. Perhaps it’s because they jumped into this lifestyle because they are passionate and stubborn about following their own vision, and they enjoy being their own boss. Too often they are also hesitant, inexperienced, and fearful of hiring people or a mentor to be the partner they need.

In the spirit of mentoring and helping entrepreneurs recognize their own weaknesses, here are ten key indications from my experience that you as an entrepreneur may be in over your head, and it’s time to look for some help:

  1. You start seeing every business problem as a personal affront. Your business is not all about what is best for you, but what is best for your customers. In reality, your customers care more about your product and service, so feedback on product shortcomings or service glitches are meant to help your business, not hurt you.

  2. Startup challenges become more depressing than energizing. The best entrepreneurs thrive on being able to push the limits, and tackling the tough challenges that ultimately result in real innovation which can change the world. If you find yourself dragging in to work, and dreading the next surprise, you may be in over your head.

  3. You have no idea how to pivot with the latest market trends. Successful entrepreneurs pride themselves on always having more ideas than can possibly be explored, so they are never at a loss for new alternatives to explore. If you don’t see a new trend as a new opportunity, you may be in over your head. Seek help or get out.

  4. You are completely surprised by a negative event you should have foreseen. At the end of a given month, you suddenly are totally out of cash. You know you should have been tracking the burn rate, or inventory requirements, or late receivables, but have found yourself totally distracted by a flock of emergency daily issues.

  5. You know what is required, but you continue to procrastinate. Sometimes it’s obvious that closing a deal requires some tough negotiation or sales calls at the top, but these are not your forte, so you can never find the time or energy to get them done. Maybe it’s time to find an advisor, or a board member with the right connections.

  6. Angry outbursts become more common than real leadership. Too many executives revert to bullying and micromanaging when they are in over their heads. In the long run, this tactic does not work, and your business suffers, as well as all those around you. If you catch yourself acting out in anger, get some help before more damage is done.

  7. You start playing the blame game. We all know entrepreneurs that are quick with an excuse for every problem, like we were too early for the market, the vendor let me down, the economy took a downturn, or my competitor is cutthroat. Every startup founder has to remember that the buck stops with them, and they must learn from every mistake.

  8. Lives in a state of denial, and misrepresents the truth. When an entrepreneur is in over their head, they can’t face the hard facts of business losses and missed customer commitments, and they can’t face their team. Thus they find themselves communicating less and less, and downright lying to people, while rationalizing that this causes less pain.

  9. Jeopardize their integrity to hide shortcomings. If you catch yourself saying things and doing things that violate your own sense of ethics, you are likely in over your head. These could include cutting quality corners, shorting vendor payments, and sabotaging team members. Now is the time to get help before you destroy yourself and your startup.

  10. Letting a sense of entitlement show through. It’s easy for an entrepreneur in over his head, and frustrated with all the challenges, to convince themselves that they are entitled to that fancy sports car or a six-figure salary once the first investor money rolls in. They let the burn rate go up too fast, and the business burns down before it really starts.

As a serious entrepreneur, you need to differentiate these symptoms from the plateaus we all feel from time to time as we jump from one learning curve to the next. In most cases, if you focus for a couple of months, you will find yourself happily afloat at the new level. That is just getting in over your head in a healthy way, rather than an unhealthy one.

According to Whitney Johnson in an old Harvard Business Review article on this subject, the smart recovery is to send out an SOS (stop, organize, secure) before you drown, when you find yourself really in over your head. As an entrepreneur, you are expected to swim in unexplored waters, so there is no shame in accepting life preservers, as long as you learn from the waves.

So remember, none of us is perfect, and almost no entrepreneur gets it right the first time. If you never make mistakes, you are not taking enough risk to win in today’s market. But always be self-aware, and not be afraid to take a hard look in the mirror. Do you like what you see, and are you willing to change it?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Don’t Let Too Many Features Ruin Your Next Product

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

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

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

  1. Document the requirements. A well-run requirements phase is your best chance to ensure that scope creep will be recognized when it happens, and it will. If initial requirements are not documented, then there is no base, and no one can recognize that the stack is getting higher as time passes.

  2. Lock down the sign-off authority. In all documents, clearly define who must sign off on content and provide business-side feedback. If you are the sign-off, don’t be afraid to say “no.” Draw the line between need versus want. Founders who constantly give in to changes will get more until the startup breaks.

  3. Final features approval event. Make a visible event at the executive level out of the final specification approval, detailing features, costs, and time frames. Make sure everyone knows that changes after this point will have personal consequences, and will delay the product and increase the cost.

  4. Define milestones for cost review and sign-off. Milestones are for early warning, because there is no recovery when you are out of time and money. Good milestones include completion of specifications, prototype, beta testing, final documentation, and final delivery.

  5. Implement and enforce a change process. Changes will be required to every project, so plan for them. The market changes, executives learn new things, customers demand changes, and technology changes. Change requests should be documented, sized, and tradeoffs presented for approval or disapproval.

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

5 Keys To Raising Ethical Standards In Your Startup

The_Downward_Spiral Many people seem to have the sense that ethics are spiraling downward in business, and unfortunately most startup professionals and entrepreneurs I know don’t believe they can make a difference. They don’t realize that if they don’t take an active role in the solution, they really become part of the problem.

I do believe that most business people want to do the right thing, but many just don’t have the skills to develop an unemotional ethical position, or confidence to act on their ethical beliefs, or simply are not sure how to go about making a difference in their daily actions, without jeopardizing their own career.

Most people don’t need tools to agree on the ethical problem with Lockheed bribing foreign officials to get business, but many may come to different conclusions on how safe a startup’s innovative new child car seat has to be before it is sold. If people are dying of cancer every day, how many clinical trials should be required for a new drug that clearly saves some lives?

I found some good analytical tools on how to sharpen your own ethics sense in a recent book by Mark Pastin, “Make an Ethical Difference.” Pastin has consulted with many organizations around the world on ethics issues, and I like his practical steps to get beyond the emotion and the theoretical, to pragmatic yet ethical solutions for tough problems:

  1. Identify the ground rules of the all parties. When a situation presents an ethical issue, look beyond the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations to uncover the ground rules of each that help explain their actions. Only then can you understand what you have to change to be a successful ethical change agent.

  2. Reason backward to find the interests. Summarize the possible outcomes, and reason backward from each to find what interests each outcome will serve and for whom. Unstated or hidden interests are often the key to resolving ethical issues. Support outcomes that advance many interests without violating any ground rules.

  3. Face the relevant facts. Look for facts that all parties, irrespective of their ground rules and interests, will agree upon. Then look for non-debated facts, and finally contested facts. The acid test for each fact is that if it were true, would it change your judgment as to what is right in the situation. Now you have the potential to make an ethical difference.

  4. Stand in the shoes of affected parties. Once you understand who is affected, reduce the distance between you and them. Pick ones that differ from you the most and meet with individuals or group members. Verify or reject each interest and ground rule. You remove obstacles to the functioning of the ethics eye by bringing its objects closer.

  5. Use the global benefit approach to rate possible outcomes. Ask which course of action produces the greatest balance of benefit over harm for all concerned. You first ask who counts, then what counts, as a benefit or harm in considering the possible outcomes. Any action with great benefits without violating ground rules could be the right one.

Real agreement in ethics only exists when what your ethics eye shows to be the right action matches what the ethic eyes of others see as the right action at the same time. Thus these steps are part of an iterative convergence process that all relevant parties must follow to reach the right solution. Pastin provides examples of this process transforming good ethics into decisive action.

It does work, but in all cases each of us has to accept at the outset that our own ethical perspective may be the one that changes in the process of seeking ethical agreement. There is no room in any business decision for hard unbending positions, with closed eyes and ears and an open mouth.

If you and I disagree about ethics, there are only three ways to reach agreement. You change your mind. I change my mind. Or we both change our minds. When you undertake a sincere process of seeking ethical agreement, two of the three options for doing so involve learning and changing your mind. But how does that differ from every other challenge where you have made a difference in moving your startup forward?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Startups Need Great Execution More Than Great Ideas

Elon-Musk-Tesla-Spacex A popular approach for aspiring entrepreneurs these days seems to be to corner anyone who will listen, with a pitch on their current “million dollar idea.” The initial monologue usually ends with the question “How much money do you think this is worth?” In my opinion, ideas are a commodity, and are really not worth much, outside the context of a visionary leader who can execute.

Over the past couple of decades, experts have perfected the art of brainstorming and other idea-generation techniques. Executives and investors are now increasingly exposed to a wealth of ideas. The result is that ideas are no longer in short supply, and no longer a differentiator in competition.

Visionary execution, on the other hand, is not so common. A visionary is someone who can make sense out of the wealth of ideas, and weave together a plan for implementation that will make a difference in the world. Elon Musk, for example, likely receives thousands of ideas from friends, but he has been able to focus a few of these into initiatives that demonstrate real innovation.

What separates an idea person from a visionary leader? Most experts agree that a visionary leader not only has ideas, but also has a vision of where these ideas can lead, with strong core values, key relationships, and demonstrates innovative actions, as follows:

  • Commitment to core values. Visionary leaders radiate a sense of energy, strong will, and personal integrity. This usually results in a focus on multiple related ideas, leading to real innovation, rather than bouncing from one idea to the next, looking for the Holy Grail.
  • Positive inspirational communication. People with vision usually start by communicating an inspirational picture of the future, and then integrating individual innovative ideas into this fabric, and show how to get there. The best ones can make the impossible look easy, so everyone, including investors, line up to commit.
  • Build strong relationships with strong people. Great relationships are key to every leader. They see people as their greatest asset, and listen as well as talk. Theirs is not the autocratic style of leadership, which tells people what to do and dominates them, but a style which treats partners, investors, and customers as family.
  • Willing to take bold actions. These actions somehow always seem to embody a balance of rational (right brain) and intuitive (left brain) functions. Visionaries are often “outside the box” of conventional approaches and move toward long-term change and innovation. They are proactive and anticipate business change, rather than reactive to events.
  • Radiate charisma. People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.

Every investor wants to fund the true visionary leader, but the truth is that these people often don’t need funding, or don’t ask for it. The best investor pitch, then, is to sell the vision with such conviction that people want to be a part of it, with their money, their skills, or whatever they can bring to the table.

But not every entrepreneur has to be a visionary. There is still plenty of room for incremental improvements, and creativity in providing solutions to short-term problems. This is really the realm of bootstrapped startups, and a small segment of the Angel investor community that is looking for a “quick hit” with a quick return.

So my message to entrepreneurs is to tune your approach and your expectations accordingly. I’m always impressed with entrepreneurs who pitch how they plan to bootstrap an idea, but if you need a million dollars, you better be able to communicate and lead with a vision.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, March 7, 2015

8 Questions To Help Set Expectations With Investors

entrepreneur-investor-dreams One of the big questions that every entrepreneur struggles with is how much funding they should request from investors in the first round. They know from forums such as Shark Tank on TV that asking for either too much or too little will derail credibility in the eyes of the investor, and leave the entrepreneur with no money and a struggling startup.

Strategies that I do not recommend include opening the discussion with a big number, hoping to make a more reasonable value feel like a good deal, or starting with a tiny number, hoping to entice interest from everyone. Both of these will brand you as an amateur to avoid, rather than a savvy business person with an exciting new opportunity.

The right answer is to ask for an amount that is just right, based on your real needs, and consistent with the capabilities and interests of the investors you are addressing. Here are eight key questions that will you get in the right ballpark with the right investors:

  1. Who is your investor audience? Every type of investor has comfortable ranges and limits. Angels usually won’t consider requests above $1 million. On the other hand, venture capital organizations typically look for needs that exceed $2 million. If you are talking to your rich uncle, do your homework to find his limits before you meet.

  2. What business milestones have you met? If you have a good idea, but haven’t started yet, only friends, family and fools will likely be interested. Angel investors will perk up if you have a prototype or a few real customers, while venture capitalists will likely choose to wait until you have achieved several million in revenue or customer count.

  3. How much do you really need for the next 12 to 18 months? Here is where projections of cost, pricing, volumes and cash flow are critical. If your financial model projects a negative cash flow in this period of $400,000, you should buffer this amount by 25 percent, and ask for $500,000. Be prepared to explain your business model.

  4. Can you justify your use of funds to this investor? Professional investors expect to see your top three use of funds categories, and how these relate to scaling the business, rather than initial development. Ancillary objectives, like retiring existing debt, buying a building or paying salaries to people with equity ownership will not get traction.

  5. How much equity ownership are you willing to offer? This is all about setting a credible current value on your startup -- not future value. If you ask for more money than your company is now worth, no investor will bite. The average valuation for angel investments is $2 million, which will get you $500,000 for 20 percent of your startup.

  6. Are you flexible on the terms of the investment? Most professional investors will expect preferred stock, a board seat, rights to later rounds and perhaps anti-dilution protection. If you refuse to offer these, or balk at negotiating even more restrictive terms, the amount of a viable investment will be compromised.

  7. Are you willing to offer milestones for staged investment delivery? Many investors like to reduce their risk by delivering their investment in stages or tranches, based on your successful achievement of specific milestones during the period covered. However, this reduces your ability to plan or pivot quickly based on unforeseen events.

  8. Can you project a compelling rate of investor return? Equity investors typically look for 10 times return projections, since they expect many of their investments to fail totally. The best way to show return on investment is to declare an exit strategy, such as being acquired or going public in the next five years, which allows the investor to cash out.

In fact, the most successful entrepreneur strategy is to bootstrap or fund your own startup, such that you don’t need to expect or require any external investor involvement. Despite all the hype you hear on attracting investors, more than 90 percent of startups are still self-funded, and avoid the hassle of dealing with partners and giving up a portion of the company.

The best and happiest entrepreneurs build a successful startup that attracts investors, rather than waiting for an investor to kick-start their success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 2/27/2015 ***

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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

8 Steps For Entrepreneurs To Avoid The Ego Trap

offer-respect In my years of mentoring entrepreneurs, a problem I have seen too often is low self-esteem, and over-compensating through arrogance and ego. These entrepreneurs find it hard to respect customers or team members, and their ventures usually fail. As a team member, low self-esteem leads to low confidence, poor productivity, and no job satisfaction. Fortunately, both can be fixed.

Organizational change expert Paul Meshanko, in his classic book “The Respect Effect,” explores the human science behind these issues, confirming that people with a healthy self-esteem perform at their best and treat others with respect, getting their best. All of us shut down when disrespected. He assures us that anyone can train themselves to get on track to stay on track.

With my updates to focus on entrepreneurs, I like Meshanko’s eight steps to help build business self-esteem and avoid the ego trap, which support a broad range of attitudes and behaviors that are individually and organizationally beneficial to startups as well as mature companies:

  1. Identify the qualities and skills most closely linked to your idea of success. Current research is conclusive that self-esteem is linked to our sense of competence in the areas that are important to us. As you look at your entrepreneur goals, make sure you are following your own definition of success that gives you pride and passion in its pursuit.

  2. Identify your current strengths and establish plans for improving. Once you have clarified your personal definition of startup success, examine where you currently are relative to where you want to be Whatever your goals, there are few things more esteeming than knowing you’re making progress toward your picture of success.

  3. Be on the lookout for new opportunities to grow your talents and experiences. Part of our sense of self-worth comes from the belief and confidence that we have the ability to grow the business both today and in the future. Entrepreneurs have a natural base for adventure and curiosity, and should relish trying new things each day to stretch them.

  4. Identify and redirect unhealthy competition and comparisons. Make you the base, not others. Your sense of worth should not be determined by other startups, or what you think peers expect of you. Competition sabotages teamwork and leaves feelings of isolation and alienation. Use others as a source of inspiration, rather than envy.

  5. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and poor decisions. From a rational point of view, berating ourselves for past startup failures makes no sense. Free up your energy to be spent on more productive activities, and learn from past efforts. The great entrepreneur Thomas Edison said that every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.

  6. Hold yourself completely accountable for your actions, decisions, and outcomes. The legitimate place for short-term guilt and remorse is making these lead to some type of behavior change. Failing to hold yourself accountable sends subtle messages that may damage others self-esteem, and it doesn’t promote lasting confidence or competence.

  7. Develop a pattern of self-talk that validates your worth and abilities. Each of us has developed a way of interpreting and explaining the business world around us. It’s important that our stories neither damage us nor free us from blame. We should continue to feel worthy, accountable, and capable, with a mindset that allows us to continue to follow our entrepreneurial passion.

  8. Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Our short-term destiny is not always in our control. What we can do is make a commitment to do our best in whatever entrepreneurial environment we find ourselves. We can also make sure we build strong relationships with successful business leaders in advance of our needing their wisdom.

For every entrepreneur, a healthy self-esteem, leading to self-confidence, is critical to a constrained ego and more success, since every startup is entering uncharted territory, and must take risks to seize a new opportunity. Not all entrepreneurs have a background to start from a position of strength in this area, but all have the ability to learn and the passion to succeed.

In my experience, the most common cause of entrepreneur failure is giving up too early, rather than running out of money. Are you selling yourself short on your own potential, and not working on your own self-esteem, thus jeopardizing your business success and job satisfaction?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

10 Guidelines For An Entrepreneurial Strategic Plan

strategic-planning Deciding to be an entrepreneur is a lifestyle move, and should be part of a long-term strategic plan. You shouldn’t be making this decision just because you are mad at your boss, you would like to be rich, or someone else thinks it’s a good idea. In these changing times, if you already have a startup, with no plan, maybe it’s time to think ahead for a change.

Formally, that’s called developing and maintaining a strategic plan. Usually that means writing something down, since it’s hard to maintain something, or track yourself against it, if it’s not written down. From my experience, and the experience of other entrepreneurs, here are the key elements you should think about as part of the process:

  1. Personal interests and aspirations. Do you love managing your own schedule, overcoming obstacles, starting a new adventure, facing financial risk, and relish the opportunity to change the world? Money should not be the big driver here.

  2. Right idea at the right time. Do you believe that you have an idea for a company that you can implement better than anyone, and maintain a competitive advantage? If you are thinking non-profit (social entrepreneur), can you rally the world around your cause?

  3. Take inventory of what you have. Look critically at yourself and your existing organization for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). What resources do you have, skills and functions, and what do you do best?

  4. Assess customer demand. Do customers really need what you want to do, or might they see it as “nice to have?” In the relevant market large enough, and growing fast enough, to make it a profitable opportunity?

  5. Providing minimal resources. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for all entrepreneurs is time and money for the ramp-up period. Do you have money saved, or available from friends, or current employment to support the transition?

  6. Visualize the future. What do you envision your business looking like in five to ten years? Is your mind full of ideas for repeating the experience, or are you looking to build a family business that you make your legacy?

  7. Manage existing relationships. How important to you is the balance between family, outside relationships, and work? Do you have dependents that must be factored into every career and lifestyle equation? What personal support resources are available?

  8. Education and training roadblocks. Does your dream require additional time and money for training or academic credentials? If so, can these be done concurrently with an entrepreneurial rollout plan? What other roadblocks exist?

  9. Location, location, location. Most entrepreneurial efforts can best be done, or can only be done, in a specific geography or country. Are you willing to relocate as part of your strategic plan? Can you start where you are and relocate later?

  10. Willing and able to measure. Can you define measurable milestones to help you track progress and provide feedback? Strategic plans that cannot be measured will never be accomplished. Are you committed to achieving milestones and measuring progress?

I’m not suggesting here that a strategic plan is a one-time set-in-stone effort. In fact, quite the opposite, every plan must be improved and adapted as you learn more and the world changes around you.

On the other hand, if your way of doing business might be described as fire first and aim later, to seize today’s opportunity, you are charging into the future on only a wish and a prayer. The crash landings can be tough, and definitely won’t feel good as a long-term strategy.

Marty Zwilling

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