Wednesday, December 30, 2015

10 Leadership Traits That Can Damage Your Business

Tony Hayward BP CEODoes it really take a few flaws to make a great entrepreneur, or are the rest of us just confused about what a perfect business person is all about? In the past I’ve written about the positive attributes of great entrepreneurs, so this time I thought I would focus on the negatives that I see often, and I challenge you to find someone that has all the positives and none of the negatives.

We’ve all heard the old adage that “nice guys finish last,” so I would quickly concede that positive and negative are relative terms, depending on the context. For example, if a customer is being particularly obnoxious or demanding, would a great entrepreneur respectfully show him the door, or accommodate his demands, with the positive goal of satisfying every customer?

The business leader with the positive traits to calmly and patiently handle tough customers, vendors, and personnel situations, balancing all the issues, I would evaluate as a great one. Yet here are a few other traits that I see in great business leaders, which don’t seem so positive for the entrepreneur, his team, customers, or investors:
  1. Multitasking to the extent of thrashing. Entrepreneurs often have a thousand things going in their mind, and switch so rapidly from one to the other that they leave many people confused, including themselves. The result is that important tasks get short shrift, and relationships suffer. Don’t let multitasking supersede focus and real listening.

  2. Demands perfection from all. Entrepreneurs who are perfectionists are never satisfied with their own work, as well as the work of others. This can cause delays and costs in the business, as well as friction and frustration in relationships with team members, partners, and customers. Steve Jobs survived this imperfection, or it made Apple famous.

  3. Strong convictions bordering on obstinate. The best leaders have strong convictions, but listen to others, and are willing to compromise when required, to move the ball forward. In business, if you refuse to compromise to meets the needs of customers, your competitors will replace you. Business is no place for stubbornness.

  4. Not a team player. Most entrepreneurs start their business because they perceive a need in the market not seen by others, and often they just don’t enjoy working with others. In time, however, every business requires a team, and giving up control becomes a constant struggle. Some entrepreneurs simply jump ship and start again.

  5. Over-confident to the point of being egotistical. Letting your ego drive decisions is not the same as confidence based on knowledge and trust. While entrepreneurs need a healthy ego for body armor, it can quickly become the negative trait of arrogance if not tempered. Many put Ted Turner and Larry Ellison in this category.

  6. Procrastination on certain challenges. Sometimes I see very smart entrepreneurs who struggle with tough issues, like hiring and firing people. They may ignore these, or hand them off to a capable business partner. The positive traits of learning, management disciplines, and timely decisions have to step forward consistently to grow a business.

  7. Paranoid reaching delusional proportions. The good trait of being alert and cautious when approaching new people and new partners can easily morph into paranoia, where the entrepreneur trusts no one, and thinks all deals are a potential plot. The best entrepreneurs believe they can find win-win relationships with partners and investors.

  8. Work-life balance and workaholic tendencies. Most entrepreneurs will admit to being a workaholic at some stage of their startup. Ultimately this dedication will be seen as a negative trait by partners, family members, and team members, and can limit your business growth. Migrate to the positive traits of delegation and organization.

  9. Often emotional and temperamental. Passion and sensitivity to people are key traits in every good entrepreneur, but in some cases, these can seem to escalate to mood changes and emotional outbursts for no reason. At this point the leader may make less rational decisions, and loses the loyalty and trust of associates and customers.

  10. Looks at the world through colored lenses. Successful entrepreneurs can easily lose sight of the real business world, once the perks of power and influence set in. Many say this happened to Tony Hayward, BP CEO, after the Gulf oil spill, and AIG executives before the Depression a few years ago. The time to worry is when you start seeing humility as a character flaw, rather than a positive trait.
Every successful business leader can probably relate to these not-so-positive traits, and in many cases, will attest that without one or more of them, their business would likely have failed. The question is whether that makes them good traits, which should be learned and nurtured by every young entrepreneur who is striving to be great. I think not. There has to be a better way.

Marty Zwilling

*** Published on IvyExec.com on 11/27/2015 ***

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Monday, December 28, 2015

The Only Thing Not to Fear Is Success Itself

business-fear-successCan you imagine an entrepreneur who is actually afraid of success? None will ever admit it openly, but I’m a strong believer that actions or lack of action speaks louder than words. In my years of advising startups, I’ve seen too many cases of seemingly irrational actions, or just freezing with that “deer in the headlights” look when it’s time to make a critical move.

I see it in the technologists who never get around to shipping their product, nominally because it isn’t finished yet. I see it in the business person who has plenty of funding, but won’t spend a dime on marketing to get the word out, just to conserve resources. After years of hard work, they always have rational excuses but really no one to blame but their own internal fears of success.

So, if your startup seems stuck in a rut these days, maybe it’s time to take a hard look at these common internal challenges, to see if you are actually the real limit to your success in business than the faltering economy or tough competitors:
  1. You need to be in control of every detail. Control freaks find it hard to survive as entrepreneurs, primarily because none of us have the time or skills to do everything that needs to be done in a business. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from advisors and to hire help (do what needs to be done) rather than just helpers (do what you tell them).

  2. You just want to be treated as another member of the team. Every successful business needs someone in charge -- the buck stops here, and hard decisions have to be made. Some entrepreneurs fear being seen as the boss, so they try to make every move a team decision often resulting in no decision or analysis paralysis. It’s time to be the leader.

  3. You don’t want to give up your current lifestyle. Some entrepreneurs unconsciously fear that the focus and dedication required for success will change their lifestyle to one they don’t enjoy or their friends won’t appreciate. In fact, one of the many challenges of a new business is to balance personal and family life and continue outside activities. Face it.

  4. You're afraid to ask for and spend other people’s money. It takes money to make money. Real startup growth usually requires an initial infusion of cash to kick-start marketing, hire staff and build inventory. Soliciting and managing outside funds is a fear that every entrepreneur has to overcome for success. The challenge is not to let it get too easy.

  5. You're unable to take enough risk due to fear of failure. There are no certainties in business, so taking a risk is required, and one or more failures is about average. Neither is life-threatening, and true friends and family will not desert you after a few setbacks. Successful entrepreneurs never give up and wear their failures as a badge of courage.

  6. You can’t possibly be smart enough to succeed in business. Maybe your parents were not supportive, or you struggled in school, so your self-confidence has never risen above a certain point. These fears can be overcome, by setting small milestones early and often and working upward. Business success requires street smarts, not book smarts.

  7. You hate stepping out of your comfort zone. Even experienced entrepreneurs often keep coming back to the same formulas and tools, which worked at some level and at some point in time. The challenge is that the business world keeps changing, and future success requires new creativity and innovation. Force yourself to step outside the box.
Successful entrepreneurs almost always start with a vision and a higher level purpose than just making money. It helps to communicate this higher purpose, to motivate you and overcome the fear of the unknown. Success does not require that you be fearless, but only that you be determined to transform fears into positive learning actions rather than negative roadblocks.

The ultimate fear to overcome is the fear of success per se. This is the most debilitating, since it usually comes from a deep-seated desire to conform and blend in. It can cause you to lose faith in your abilities and give up your vision at the slightest setback. Keep your vision and purpose at the forefront to motivate you and allow you to step beyond all your fears to the entrepreneurial success you deserve.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/18/2015 ***

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

6 Reasons Why Bigger Is Not Better In Your Startup

focus-businessMany passionate entrepreneurs fight to add more features into their new products and services, assuming that more function will make the solution more appealing to more customers. In reality, more features will more likely make the product confusing and less usable to all. Focus is the art of limiting your scope to the key function that really matters for the majority of customers.

YouTube did it with videos, Instagram did it with photos, and Amazon did it with books. Many of the business plans I have seen as an investor, like trying to integrate all the social media features of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn into a new platform, don’t do it. Of course, once you have a brand and more resources, it can pay to expand your book selling to a full e-commerce site.

In fact, there are a host of reasons why a non-focused startup business is more likely to struggle for survival, lose market and investor attention, and miss out on the opportunity to capitalize on their scope:
  1. Time to market is tied to the size of your offering. In many business domains today, the market seems to change about every ninety days. With the current low cost of entry, nimble competitors appear quickly and seize the high ground of your existing customers and potential. No startup can implement a broad strategy quickly enough to stay ahead.

  2. Broad product offerings require too much infrastructure. More money is hard to find, and building efficient multiple processes is even harder. Every aspect of every product requires development, testing, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. The probability of failure goes up exponentially as the number of product features increase.

  3. It’s tough for an elephant to be agile. Every successful startup I know has pivoted a couple of times, as they learn what really works in the marketplace and in the sales process. Did you know that both YouTube and Facebook started out to be dating sites? Even IBM, with their personal computer, had trouble making their elephant dance.

  4. Ongoing market leadership requires continuous innovation. The initial larger cost in time and dollars is only the beginning. The first-to-market advantage doesn’t last long. You need continuous innovation in all elements of your product line to stay ahead, or your startup will be quickly left in the dust.

  5. Marketing a product with too many features is self-defeating. It’s almost impossible to craft a memorable message that has more than three bullets. The more you try to capitalize on the breadth and depth of your solution, the more people don’t get the message at all, and settle for a competitor that focuses on their personal hot-button.

  6. Your personal bandwidth is quickly exceeded. When your solution has too many elements, even you can’t keep the priorities straight, and your team gets frustrated, tired, loses motivation, and tends to not do anything well. As a new entrepreneur in a new startup, it’s better to walk before you try to run.
At the same time, focusing on the wrong things is equally destructive and unproductive. In some environments product focus is not the most important element. Perhaps the focus should be on a single distribution channel, better customer service, or a simplified pricing structure. In all cases, hiring the best people is likely more important than adding a few features to your solution.

Thus the first and top focus for every entrepreneur should be on strategy. The strategy needs to be simple, written down, and communicated regularly to the entire team. A simple test is to see if you can quickly name your top three priorities, and if every team member is able to respond quickly with the same three. Too many strategy elements generate lots of work, but few results.

The final focus should be on emphasizing strengths and measuring success, rather than on solving the crisis of the moment and eliminating weaknesses. Only by focusing on the right elements of market, product, business, and people, can you really hope to win. Bigger is not necessarily better. Be the best in your chosen niche and you can change the world.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

6 Keys To Make Sure Your Product Fits Today's World

BMW_Hydrogen_7_EngineGreat technology leads to innovative solutions that are possible, but not necessarily great businesses. Rube Goldberg illustrated this principle many years ago in cartoons, but I still find inventors that are creating solutions today looking for a problem. In addition, every solution has to fit into the current political, cultural and economic environment to make it a viable business.

For example, hydrogen-fueled engines were invented over a century ago, with a continuing promise of breathing air and exhaling pure water vapor and having over 200 companies active in the hydrogen sector today. Yet, due largely to non-technology business considerations, including pricing, safety concerns and support infrastructure, there are none that most people can name.

Every entrepreneur needs to keep a priority focus on these big-picture business issues, well before he commits his resources and his future to a technology that he loves. Here are some specifics that I recommend as a startup advisor for maintaining a properly balanced perspective.
  1. Keep up on business issues as diligently as on technology issues. Most technologists pride themselves on their link to relevant technology developments, but very few apply the same discipline to business and big-picture changes. Good entrepreneurs know they have to be experts in business as well as technology.

  2. Regularly communicate with major business leaders in your domain. Business leaders are the ones who best understand the balance that must be achieved between a technology and business success. Effective communication is not a debate, but active listening and an exchange of perspectives in a personal and informal environment.

  3. Develop written business plans as detailed as product plans. Good technologists produce written product specifications, to help them personally be confident that all the technical requirements are covered. Yet their business plans rarely get more than a page or two written. Defining a good business is as complex as defining a good solution.

  4. Participate in business leadership groups outside your technology. Effective personal networking involves reaching outside your level of expertise, and interacting with people who can balance your perspective. Activities that broaden your focus to societal, environmental and economic issues will help make you a winner in business.

  5. Find a business advisor with credibility to challenge your assumptions. Sometimes it takes some humility to even ask for input, and even more to really listen to negative feedback. Most successful entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, maintain mentor relationships with key advisors that they highly respect.

  6. Focus on advancing return on investment, rather than state of the art. By prioritizing customer need and value first, you will more likely achieve the satisfaction of seeing your paradigm shift become reality. Technology opportunities require effort and money, so they should be driven by value to customers, rather than the intellectual challenge.
Finally, remember that investors fund business people before technology. They look for expertise and experience in building a business as a higher value than expertise in building a solution. An even more fundable alternative is a pair of founders, one with business credibility and the other with the relevant technology expertise. It’s a clear example of how one plus one can equal three.

Successful entrepreneurs must understand and fit into the world today, and it’s getting more complex every day. In today’s world, social and environmental values often are more important success drivers than technology. The most important technology in business may be the business intelligence and big-data tools to curate the real needs in every business segment.

In fact, most customers no longer care about and many actively fear and avoid new technology. Thus technology is best hidden under better user interfaces, and simple yet powerful solutions to their problems. Can you imagine Facebook and the iPhone being sold as paradigm shifts in technology? Yet both are new technologies that have garnered huge business opportunities.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/16/2015 ***

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Friday, December 25, 2015

It’s Time To Design Human Experiences Versus Products

Apple_Store_YonkersToday’s customers demand more than a good product; they expect a great customer experience. A few companies are leading the way, including Apple with their iPad and iPhone, offering irresistible stores with friendly experts, elegant packaging, and customer service that never ends. People love Apple’s whole customer experience, and willingly pay a premium for the product.

Much has been written about product design, but designing the total experience from the front rarely happens yet. In a new book, “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design,” Brian Solis details how to design the whole experience, rather than just the product. Solis is a globally recognized thought leader in this area, and he asserts that the experience is now the product.

Every entrepreneur needs to learn how to do this by starting with the six principles of User-Centered Design (UCD), as outlined by Solis in his book, and already adopted by key International standards organizations:
  1. Apply multidisciplinary skills and perspectives. The total experience design begins with a common vision, but then must cross the borders between product, packaging, marketing, customer support, and many other disciplines. Human-experience design always supplements technology-driven design, and environmentally sustainable design.

  2. Explicitly integrate customers, tasks, and environments. Designers must factor in people behaviors, context, preferences, as well as customer goals and aspirations. The objective is to build a sustainable relationship between the product and customer. This requires people on your team who have real-world experience, as well as design training.

  3. Insist on customer engagement and user-centered evaluation. With the advent of interactive social media, as well as high-bandwidth video tools, there is no excuse for not involving real customers, and prospects who fit the desired demographic. With these, you apply common tools, such as field research, user groups, questionnaires and interviews.

  4. Include the total user experience from shopping to support. Experience using the product is only one stage. Others include the marketing awareness and education stage, online and in-store shopping stage, setup stage, support, and upgrade considerations. While there are many models for the design process, every stage should be included.

  5. Keep users engaged throughout design and development. Don’t assume that early input is adequate. In today’s fast paced market, trends and user needs evolve. Results show that when users are engaged throughout the development process, a number of key system requirements are identified that would otherwise be entirely missed.

  6. Make user-centered design processes iterative. Early testing of conceptual models and design ideas often suggests a complete overhaul and rethinking of the design. In all cases, designs can be refined and improved by iteration. Full customer experience use cases are key because they help identify interactions between stages of design work.
Customer experience should be one of the biggest priorities in startups right now, but I still don’t see it happening. Technologists focus on building a product that works, marketing people try to build a story around the result, and support people figure out how to deal with customer feedback on shortcomings. Good customer experiences happen only by accident, rather than by design.

Most new customers are now mobile or digital first as a result of the devices and apps that shape their lives. These products with their pinch, swipe, zoom, and instant delivery have reshaped customer preferences and decision making. A great customer experience today requires an acceptance of these engagement models and building on them, rather than ignoring them.

If you are looking for a competitive advantage, creating a positive total user experience is the place to start. Too many existing companies have evolved into silos of expertise, which make user-centered design and delivery difficult, if not impossible. As an entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to take the lead, and become the world’s next super-brand. Now is the time to do it.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

10 ‘Best Of Breed’ Marketing Practices For Startups

marketing-strategy-practicesThe 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 recent 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 21, 2015

Are You 'Intelligent' Enough to Be an Entrepreneur?

Image via Flickr by tinto
Many people feel that they just aren’t smart enough to be an entrepreneur, yet there seems to be no convincing evidence that a high IQ is a prerequisite for this lifestyle. We all know of successful businesses started by first-time entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, and according to many sources, “street smarts” (experience) tends to trump “book smarts” (intelligence) every time.

Another perspective is that there are in fact multiple types of intelligence, and we all have strengths and weaknesses along all of these scales. It does appear that most successful entrepreneurs are those with the broadest range of interests, skills and experiences (street smarts), while a maximum depth in any given discipline is not so important.

Here are basic definitions for the eight most commonly recognized intelligences that cover the potential of most humans, prioritized by my view of applicability to the entrepreneurial role:
  1. Word-smarts (linguistic intelligence). People with a high linguistic intelligence display a high facility for word usage and languages. They are typically good at communicating ideas, reading, writing and telling stories. Good entrepreneurs need these skills to lead a team, sell ideas to customers and investors and write business plans.

  2. People-smarts (interpersonal intelligence). These attributes are the embodiment of social skills. Entrepreneurs with high social skills interact more effectively with all their constituents. They are able to sense the feelings, motivations and temperaments of others, to enlist their support and negotiate effectively. They love working with people.

  3. Self-smarts (intra-personal intelligence). Intra-personal intelligence is the capacity to understand your own strengths, weaknesses and motivations, and to capitalize on these insights in planning and strategy. Good entrepreneurs must be able to surround themselves with advisors and partners who complement their skills to find satisfaction and happiness.

  4. Number-smarts (logical-reasoning intelligence). Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to calculate, quantify and think logically. Entrepreneurs use strengths in this area to balance their passion for a specific solution and to develop the specific steps and financial resources required for building, rolling out and scaling the business to success.

  5. Nature-smarts (naturalist intelligence). This sort of environmental and cultural insight is deeply rooted in a sensitive, ethical and holistic understanding of the world and its complexities. I believe that good entrepreneurs use this to see new markets first, predict world trends and devise effective marketing campaigns and demographics for focus.

  6. Picture-smarts (spatial intelligence). Spatial intelligence is the ability to think in three dimensions and the ability to visualize with the mind's eye. Core capacities include mental imagery, spatial reasoning and an active imagination. It’s easy to see how this is important for entrepreneurs in marketing, solution design and product branding.

  7. Body-smarts (kinesthetic intelligence). This intelligence involves a sense of timing and the perfection of skills through mind-body coordination. Business entrepreneurs who are also good at invention and building innovative new products are especially strong in this area. Strengths here also lead to leadership presence and public-speaking prowess.

  8. Music-smarts (musical intelligence). Musical intelligence is the capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, timbre and tone. In addition to being key to any business directly or indirectly related to music, this skill help entrepreneurs to be better listeners, orchestrate events and develop marketing programs. Music-smart people also tend to be logical.

In addition to looking at intelligence, every aspiring entrepreneur needs to look at mindset. The mindset that works best is one that sees challenges as exciting rather than threatening, setbacks as learning opportunities and a conviction that effort and perseverance will overcome any obstacle.

If you have that mindset and even a few strengths among the multiple intelligences described above, don’t let anyone, including yourself, tell you that you aren’t smart enough to be an entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/11/2015 ***

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

6 Ways To Keep Your Team Happier And More Productive

happy-productive-teamWhether you are an entrepreneur managing a startup, or a corporate executive with thousands of employees, it’s hard to ignore the evidence of big value from happy employees. For example, the Harvard Business Review a while back included an analysis of hundreds of studies showing an average of 31% higher productivity, 37% higher sales, with creativity three times higher.

The challenge is to find the best way to keep everyone on your team happy and productive. Google, which was ranked by Fortune magazine as the world’s best place to work, seems to put a lot of stock in providing a free food source to every employee, within three minutes from each office, via many micro-kitchens open 24/7 throughout their campus.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s a little more complicated than that for most companies. Most experts agree that workplace happiness is hard to find, partially because we as humans are not particularly good at staying happy. Psychologist Ron Friedman, in his recent book “The Best Place To Work,” explores this problem in detail, and I like the insights he offers to maximize your efforts:
  1. Reward frequency is more important than size. Business feedback indicates that smaller frequent positive feedback and rewards will keep people happy longer than a single large infrequent happy event. Even the biggest awards or raises “wear out” in less than a year, with most employees responding better to small doses every few days.

  2. Positive event variety prevents adaptation. People tend to discount events that happen repeatedly, no matter how positive. The value of going away on vacation is that it breaks the routine of everyday life, as well as making you recognize the pleasures of being back home. At work, variety could mean unique events or awards each month.

  3. Unexpected positive experiences deliver a bigger impact. When something surprising happens, our brains automatically pay closer attention, lending these events greater emotional weight. Thus you must make positive surprises more frequent, like special lunches or activities, to override the occasional unavoidable bad news.

  4. New life experiences have more impact than reward objects. Evidence indicates that providing new positive life experiences (for example, a hot-air balloon ride, wine-tasting class, or vacation to Italy) tends to provide a greater happiness boost than spending a comparable amount on material objects (flat-screen television, fancy suit, or purse).

  5. Happiness can be triggered outside of conscious awareness. Relaxing music can lift employee moods unconsciously, as can pleasing scents (nearby bakery, candles, or coffee). Stores and casinos use “aroma marketing” to put customers in positive moods, not for productivity, but to increase their optimism and willingness to spend.

  6. Focus on achievements leads to better job appreciation. Businesses need to spend more effort asking and listening to employee achievements, rather than a continuous focus on what’s broken or not done. Asking about achievements in a group setting encourages recognition of co-workers and gratitude expression, which catches on.
Research also shows that when team members are happy at work, they are better collaborators, work to common goals, and are more innovative. That means it pays to elevate people’s mood at the start of a team effort by using refreshments, good news, or an interactive activity. The trick is to promote a mindset that benefits the activities that you are asking them to undertake.

Managers and executives should never confuse recognition events and group lunches with unproductive time. All interactions that bring employees together in a positive way extend productivity in the long run. In a similar vein, don’t confuse people presence with productivity. Productive employees are the ones who are passionate, focused, and excited to be there.

Believe it or not, it is possible for employees in business, as well as entrepreneurs, to be both happy and productive. As a business, happy employees lead to success, more than success leads to happiness. If you want to emulate Google’s success as a great place to work, and as a successful company, maybe it’s time to think more like they do about employee happiness.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

6 Questions To Validate A Digital Marketing Message

Image via Flickr by socialautomotive
Most technical entrepreneurs cringe when they finally realize that marketing is still king, despite the power of technology, and they are up against competitors who have a hundred times their spending power. Luckily, the digital revolution has been a great equalizer in the marketing world, if used effectively to target the audience, engage the customer, and measure results.

Digital marketing is simply the move to the digital tools and technologies that most people depend on every day, including smartphones, search engines, tablets, video on demand, and the social media channels like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube. The cost of entry to market on these is low, and marketing leverage has very little to do with the size of your budget.

The best strategy and tactics to accomplish this digital marketing leverage are detailed in a recent book, “Taking Down Goliath,” by Kevin M. Ryan and Rob “Spider” Graham. These industry veterans have been teaching smaller companies how to compete with digital marketing for many years, and have a wealth of case studies to show it really works.

The first step is to create the perfect online marketing message. This message is defined as the knowledge or information that will be retained by customers after they are exposed to your company. The authors reiterate what I often say to business to business (B2B) entrepreneurs, it’s all about selling solutions (not technology) to real customers who have real needs and problems they want solved:
  1. How does this solution solve an existing problem? Every business faces challenges that affect their sales efforts, manufacturing efforts, human resources, and other things that keep them viable and profitable. Not only must the solution benefit the company as a whole, but there can be emotional benefits as well for employees who feel the pain.

  2. How does this solution provide a competitive advantage? Solutions that can turn a threat into an opportunity are especially enticing. In a world where the common scenario is “eat or be eaten,” being able to help companies to be better predators and less likely to be prey will be compelling.

  3. How does this solution make the customer a visionary/market leader? Part of the competitive advantage in the marketplace is being perceived by that market as a leader in some way. Every company is striving to find an identity that highlights its unique selling proposition, to stand out from the crowd as a visionary.

  4. How does this solution enable a significant value exchange? Smart companies are always looking for a return on investment. If they spend time, money, or other resources on a potential solution, then that solution should pay for itself. That’s a value exchange, as are solutions that empower employees to make better use of existing resources.

  5. How does this solution represent an exclusive opportunity? In the business world, exclusivity isn’t just a social ego boost. Companies that have access to, or can sell products and services not available to their competitors, can position themselves better in the marketplace. Like people, businesses need to be known for what sets them apart.

  6. How does this solution increase performance and productivity? Companies that are more efficient in the use of all their resources will be more profitable. Solutions that increase performance include automation tools, equipment upgrades, and new approaches to manufacturing and distribution.
For business to consumer (B2C) audiences, effective marketing messages are also about triggering strong emotional triggers that consumers rely on to make decisions about the value and benefits of the offers they receive. These include a sense of well-being, convenience, security, significance, exclusivity, positive social standing, and others.

In both business and consumer environments, with digital marketing technology, the playing field between big companies, mid-size businesses, and even startups has been leveled tremendously. The new success factor is not the size of your budget, but your skill in crafting the right message, sending it out through the right channels, and tuning the system for maximum results.

Only in this age of digital marketing could a small non-profit, with a very limited budget, reach an audience of millions per month worldwide, with their “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” marketing message last year, and achieve results exceeding $100 million. Don’t let big-budget Goliaths trample you merely by the size of their footprint.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, December 18, 2015

6 Ways To Stop Selling And Get More Customers Buying

Image via Pixabay
Making more sales quickly today is no longer about selling. It’s all about getting customers to make a buy decision. Customers are more in control of their buying decisions than ever before, with the wealth of alternatives and information available online, and interactive access to sources they trust via social media. They don’t want to be pushed into a sale, but they love to be pulled in by what is important to them.

Thus, it is critical for sales and marketing people to spend more time understanding what motivates their customer decisions today and less time pushing for a fast close. It means more focus on the customer buying process rather than the customer selling process. Here are some specifics I recommend to accomplish this.
  1. Get the view from the customer early by talking to real people. With interactive social media and customers anxious to provide input, companies no longer need expensive customer panels and market research to get a true customer perspective. It’s important to do this early and continuously, since needs and motivations change quickly.

  2. Structure your sales process based on customer buying steps. Replace your sales process steps with customer action steps. Continually drive for more specifics on the steps customers follow, such as seeking friend recommendations, scanning for good reviews and checking impact on the environment. Tune your sales process to address each of these.

  3. Make selling collaborative rather than the domain of a single sales person. With today’s online tools, let the customer see and hear from your support organization, marketing and top executives. The customer needs to feel like he is joining a team who has his back rather than negotiating a special deal. Make every sale a win-win outcome.

  4. Identify specific decision points and demographics of the buyer. Individual buyer demographics can no longer be generic titles, such as mother, owner or organization. With today’s analytics, you can -- and need -- to look deeper at each customer for culture, age, lifestyle and buyer-experience expectations. Selling to the wrong profile loses sales.

  5. Identify the key relationships behind the customer buy decision. Trusted advisor connections and personal relationships often outweigh price and feature comparisons. This is true even with corporate executives, as well as individual consumer decisions. These relationships may be from support groups, online influencers or industry experts.

  6. Forecast lead closure rates based on customer buying steps completed. Sales projections based on sales steps completed puts the focus on the wrong equation. Closing sales requires an understanding of how to get the customer to move to the next step in his buying process. Where this need is not met should be a new marketing task.
Another way to speed up the customer buying process and improve your credibility is to know your customer so well that you can effectively address potential objections before they are even raised. This includes recognizing that you have competition, and using the competitor offering to highlight your advantages. It’s never a good thing to denigrate your competition.

Also, don’t forget to follow-up with and nurture existing customers. In today’s open communication environment, every satisfied customer can bring you four to six new ones quickly with credibility already established and without any selling. In addition, the cross-selling and up-selling opportunities can be far more lucrative than a sole focus on new customer acquisition.

Overall, the key is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes, and lead them through their own buying decision process. Most customers don’t mind being led, if they are convinced that you are a leader rather than a pusher. It’s important that you listen to their needs before charging down a specific path. Nobody trusts someone who has all the answers before they know the question.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/09/2015 ***

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

5 Surprising Truths From A Crowdfunding Advocate

Boy wearing Oculus Rift via Wikipedia
As an advisor to many entrepreneurs, I still hear frequently the irrational exuberance that crowdfunding is the quick alternative for startups that are passed over by overly demanding angels or venture capital investors. In reality, crowdfunding has become a major startup funding vehicle, with an estimated contribution of $30 billion in 2015, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I just finished a new book, “A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide,” by Jamey Stegmaier, one of the biggest thought leaders on crowdfunding, and who has also run seven successful Kickstarter projects, that together have raised more than three million dollars. He starts out by outlining five reality checks for the uninitiated who are too quick to jump in with both feet:
  1. Community building has to happen before collecting cash. He points out that the word crowd precedes funding in crowdfunding. Entrepreneurs who don’t focus on what people really want and need to know, before trying to collect money, are unlikely to be successful. Startups need to build a large passionate group of fans before the campaign.

  2. It’s not easy money, so expect to work harder than you ever have. Don’t expect to run a crowdfunding campaign in your free time. Stegmaier recommends that you start by writing a regular blog, joining a few related campaigns, building a high-quality video, and completing up to a hundred additional lessons before you even launch your own project.

  3. You need a polished, tested concept, not just an idea. If you want money, rather than just feedback, you need to actually design, develop, and prove that you have something worth people’s hard-earned funds before you launch your campaign. Crowdfunding to gauge demand is not recommended, since failed campaigns don’t usually recover later.

  4. Making something awesome will cost more than you expect. Don’t assume that any money collected from a winning campaign will go into your pocket. It usually takes more than you can collect just to build and deliver the product. Startup revenues come later. Of course, if the campaign does not meet or exceed the funding objective, you get nothing.

  5. Crowdfunding is just the beginning of your business launch. Crowdfunding success does not mean business success. Many successful crowdfunding campaigns, just like many startups funded by angels and VCs, fail miserably due to normal business challenges, including inventory buildup, marketing, competition, and customer support.
Thus crowdfunding is clearly not the panacea for funding and success that many entrepreneurs envision. According to recent stats from Kickstarter, only 36 percent of projects meet their funding goal. Of roughly 170,000 unsuccessful projects, nearly 143,000 failed to reach even 20 percent of their goal. There is no substitute for validating your solution before launching your campaign.

The latest surge in expectations is just now occurring, as the SEC has finally “democratized” everyday citizens (non-accredited investors) to participate in equity crowdfunding. This means that instead of getting a memento or pre-order for a funding contribution, people can now get a portion of the business ownership, which may someday be worth millions for the next Facebook.

At this point, equity crowdfunding is still surrounded by many rules and restrictions on how much one person can invest, and what every startup must document and disclose to protect equity investors. Non-accredited investors can contribute a maximum of only 10 percent of their income, so they can’t lose it all on a single startup. We still have no experience on how well this will work.

Despite the unknowns, I’m definitely a proponent of crowdfunding, to support the upswing in the number of entrepreneurs and startups, and a new focus on entrepreneurship in every university and every community development organization. I don’t see crowdfunding replacing or crowding out angels and VCs in the near future, as there is never enough money to feed the startup beast.

The ultimate truth is that it takes about the same amount of effort and discipline to present a convincing story to investors, whether they be angels, venture capitalists, or ordinary members of the crowd. The odds of crowdfunding success are as low as the alternatives, despite what you hear about the response to Pebble Watch, and the Oculus Rift acquisition by Facebook for $2B. There are no shortcuts to success.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Don't Fall for These 6 Deadly Myths of Startups

Image via Flickr by Side Wages
Some entrepreneurs forget that they need an innovative business model along with an innovative solution to have a successful startup. Inventors alone, or business gurus alone, generally fail. It really takes a complementary pair of founders to improve the odds. That’s why I say “two heads are better than one” in a startup. Consider the original founders of Apple and Microsoft as examples.

Michael E. Gerber memorialized this concept many years ago in his classic book E-Myth, which postulates that most startups are initiated by entrepreneurs with technical skills, rather than business skills, resulting in a high failure rate. Since both skills are required in equal amounts for success, the single founder failure rate today is reported to far exceed 50 percent.

As an angel investor, I certainly see continuing evidence that this phenomenon hasn’t changed much in the past couple of decades. Technologists, in particular, who spend most of their time working in the business, rather than on it, still harbor several myths that contribute to their frequent demise:
  1. "A great technology will lead a successful business." In fact, both customers and investors often avoid the perceived high risk of innovative technology pitches. Customers don’t like new learning curves or dealing with unstable solutions. Early adopters love new technologies, but mass market customers want solutions, not technology.

  2. "If we design a great product, investors will find us." Technologists forget that investors are buying a chunk of the business, not the product. Every solution needs a business team first who knows how to market, distribute and support the product. Investors want proof of a business model and real customer revenue, as well as a product.

  3. "Business work should start only after the product is done." Business experts recommend that entrepreneurs start their marketing first to confirm that they have real customer interest and an appealing product concept. In addition, good marketing and support plans can take as long as product development. Do both in parallel to be timely.

  4. "Marketing is a necessary evil to sell weak solutions." In today’s world of information overload, everyone relies on marketing and social media to find solutions to match their needs. Even the best technical solutions often fail due to lack of good marketing. For innovative solutions, marketing is the education consumers need in lieu of experience.

  5. "Paradigm-shift solutions have no competition." The real competition to a new paradigm is the old paradigm. The first airplane faced major competition from trains and automobiles. If there is no competition, investors see no market, meaning no customers, slow growth and big marketing costs. Mention paradigm shift only with other technologists.

  6. "Free solutions are the way to build critical mass quickly." For many customers, free implies no real brand value, so loyalty is low, and support costs can still be high. Thus you need deep pockets or generous investors before advertising or alternative revenue streams can kick in. Premium pricing with exclusivity is often a better business strategy.
Every investor looks first for an entrepreneurial perspective that includes understanding how the business must work, and then how the solution does work. The required business work encompasses the long-term people and process growth associated with marketing, sales, distribution and customer support, as well as product costs, support and follow-on plans.

The best entrepreneurial perspectives go well beyond the technology and making money, into an integrated vision of the world where satisfying a customer need leads to the greater good for the environment and society. They provide a personal legacy, satisfaction and happiness. The challenge is to maintain a balanced view between inside and outside business drivers.

Social media and the Internet are great channels to test your balance and overcome the myths and biases we all carry as startup founders. I recommend more time building the right team and the best business with the best solution will evolve naturally. Finally, make sure your investor story is as strong on the business elements as it is on the solution.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/02/2015 ***

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

5 Disruptive Startup Events Which Demand A New Plan

Most entrepreneurs are so convinced that they are the disruptive element, they fail to anticipate that unknown facts or events can and will occur to disrupt their own well-laid plans. While it’s true that there is no way of know specifically what might happen, you need to anticipate the worst, and actually build a Plan B. People who haven’t thought about a Plan B often don’t survive the shock.

In my years of mentoring and working with startups, I’ve seen and read about some amazing disruptions, as well as recoveries, and I’m sure each of you could add your own. For example, you probably didn’t realize that both Facebook and YouTube started out intending to be dating sites, but implemented a Plan B when they found dating had become an over-saturated market.

While thinking about the most common surprises that I have seen with startups, and contemplating how to best prepare for them, I found some good guidance in a recent book, “Think Agile,” by successful entrepreneur and startup advisor Taffy Williams. I will key off his list of situations requiring dramatic plan changes, as well as the best ways to plan for these changes:
  1. Indispensable people jump ship at the worst possible time. The surprise departure of a key staff member is inevitable, no matter how strong the financial and passion incentive. Every entrepreneur needs a succession plan early on the top three people, with a reshuffle and replacement strategy. Get to know your headhunter or freelancer.

  2. Your rollout timetable suffers a big setback. You can’t predict big quality problems, funding shortfalls, and viral events that don’t work. You can and should create realistic time ranges around deadlines, and work up “what if” scenarios around your milestones. Don’t succumb to blind optimism, or pressure from investors to go for broke.

  3. A new market opportunity emerges which you can’t ignore. It’s not just undesirable circumstances that require big plan changes. Natural disasters or economic conditions can create new markets, or an offer to partner or merge may materialize suddenly. The agile way to respond is to research for flaws in the opportunity, and test the waters first.

  4. Your biggest or only customer dumps you. This can happen through no fault of your own, or rapid market erosion you didn’t foresee. Your Plan B should always include a diversification plan you can implement quickly, as well as an emergency “right-sizing” plan to weather the gap to some new customers or services.

  5. Another disruptive technology trumps yours. What seemed like a winning technology, like RIM with its Blackberry, can quickly be superseded by a new entrant, such as the iPhone from Apple. Every startup needs to build and monitor their list of top competitive risks, and size the cost of a quick direction shift if the worst case happens.
Each of these initiatives has to be led by an entrepreneur who is willing to manage with an open mind, not only during the formative stages of the business, but also during the growth stages. Most entrepreneurs start losing their agility with that first taste of success. The best ones are often viewed as paranoid, since they proactively look for problems well after the first success.

One of the best ways to increase agility is to focus on specific problems and drive them to resolution, rather than instinctively flailing through several problems at the same time at a high level, hoping that one of your many actions will stick. Scientists have shown that the best creative problem-solving consists of these five-steps:
  1. Learn as much as possible personally about the problem.
  2. Engage a qualified and diverse team, staff, and advisors.
  3. Document the ultimate goal, so people can work backward as well as forward.
  4. Ramp up communication to bring in outliers and spark fresh thinking.
  5. Step back for a while to let the creative juices flow before making a decision.
These are turbulent times, as well as time for great opportunities, for the entrepreneurs that are agile, innovative, and open to change. Don’t get stuck in the past, or let some early success lead you to competitive lethargy or crippling indecisiveness. Those are the diseases of too many big business executives. You didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur to be like them.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

6 Ways Employees Kill Productivity Through Gossip

As an entrepreneur, you should treat gossip among the members of your team as a reduction in productivity at best, and at worst, an indication of unhappy, un-empowered, or non-collaborative employees. As a leader, you should be asking yourself if you are the problem, and working hard to improve the situation before it gets out of hand, causing lost clients as well as lost productivity.

Occasionally I see articles, like this one from a while back in Forbes, that claim gossip in the workplace can be beneficial in getting unspoken information out in the open for leaders to see, or it allows people to release pent-up negative energy before it explodes. Good gossip, as opposed to the malicious kind, some argue, might promote camaraderie and accountability on the team.

I personally think that good gossip is an oxymoron, since most dictionary definitions agree that the essence of gossip is sharing personal details about others that are not confirmed as being true. In any case, it behooves every entrepreneur and business leader to keep their antennas up for an increase in gossip, and know how to address the problem without causing more.

I recently saw some good insights on this challenge in a recent book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership,” by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp. They concur with me that gossiping is a key indicator of an unhealthy organizational culture, and one of the fastest ways to derail creativity. They summarized the following key motivators for gossiping:
  1. Make others appear wrong. Many team members relate to others on the team from a one-up or one-down position: They see each person’s position as either less than or more than their own. Gossip is a way to engage in one-upmanship, relieving them from feeling inferior. It allows people to twist reality to make others wrong so they can be right.

  2. Gain validation for a personal view. People’s egos live in a world where they are either right or wrong. Since they don’t want to be wrong, gossip allows them the opportunity to validate their righteous perspective. Gossip provides the vehicle to bounce off our thoughts with friends and associates to gain validation and support.

  3. Control others not under their authority. By gossiping, team members feed their judgments to others, manipulating the information flow and attempting to control the beliefs and behaviors of others. This is often driven by fear of their real persuasive ability, or lack of confidence in the organizational hierarchy or decision making process.

  4. Get more individual attention. Absent something meaningful to share with others, team members may choose to reveal a critical or private story about someone else to keep some attention on themselves. Unfortunately, spreading gossip or rumors is like buying attention; it’s temporary and has little foundation.

  5. Divert attention from possible weakness. When someone feels vulnerable, gossip is a great way to shift potential negative attention to someone else. For example, team members may gossip about the personal lives of their boss or business leaders to highlight faults, making their own faults less significant.

  6. Avoid face-to-face negotiation and conflict. A popular reason for gossiping in teams is a concern that direct opinions or preferences are going to upset someone. Thus they vent to people not directly related to the issue, such as friends and other team members, somehow hoping that will get the message across with having to confront anyone.
Gossip doesn’t work without a willing listener, so agreeing to listen is really as contributory as speaking it. Team members who refuse to listen will kill gossiping as effectively as no speakers. The authors agree with me in observing that candor and authentic expression of feelings and facts are more effective in communication and maintaining the health of the organization.

The only way to really clean up gossiping is to reveal both the gossiper and the listener to each other, to the person about whom they have been gossiping, and to clearly delineate the relevant business facts from the stories. People who refuse to change need to be removed from the team before they destroy it.

Every business needs creative energy and collaboration to survive in today’s competitive environment, and these are undermined wherever gossip is present. It only gets worse if you pretend you don’t hear it.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Respect Competitors and Capitalize on Your Strengths

Running businessman. As an angel investor, I hear many entrepreneurs making negative comments about competitors or asserting they don’t have any competitors. They don’t realize that knocking competitors is assessed as a weakness and denying that you have any competition suggests there is no market for your solution. The smart approach is to find competitors to highlight your strengths.

For example, if your new software adds innovative new features and mobile access to a classic offering, you could name and degrade current vendors for their lack of support, or you could highlight your innovative additions over the current market leaders. The first approach makes you look vindictive, while the latter will tag you as a positive thought leader in the industry.

Smart investors, competitors and smart customers, will listen and watch carefully as you position your new offering. Don’t let your passion and ego overcome good business sense and common courtesy as you educate people on other alternatives in the marketplace. Here are my thoughts on the right steps to prepare for these discussions and how to capitalize on your strengths:

  1. Declare and file your innovations early as intellectual property. Taking action to file even a provisional patent shows you have the conviction and skill to execute while others have no barrier to entry. Investors invest in people who take action rather than find the excuses that patents are not defensible, cost money or may be done later.

  2. Position your solution as broadening the market, not killing a competitor. Focusing on a competitor is dangerous, since you don’t know what they plan to announce soon. Highlight one specific offering for rollout, but make it clear that this is just the first of a long line of planned solutions which will expand the market and keep you growing.

  3. Quantify your value over current market alternatives. When comparing competition, don’t use fuzzy terms such as improved usability, faster, less expensive and more productive. Investors are looking for significant (20 percent or greater) cost reductions, training savings or expense reductions. Use real case studies and customer feedback.

  4. Know every competitor but position only the top three. Every investor hates those large competitive analysis tables filled with check marks and red dots. If your space is crowded, define three groups, and name a specific in each group, such as “Company X is the best of the cloud solutions.” Dig deeper than Wikipedia for facts on key competitors.

  5. Solidify your exit strategy by picking a competitor as a comparable. The best way to support your acquisition potential for $100 million -- or going public -- is to find a competitor who has shown it can be done. Like selling your house, there is no valuation more solid than a comparable next door. Investors need a liquidity event to get their money out.

  6. Highlight opportunities for 'coopetition' and strategic partners. Pick the best of the competitors and explain how you could both win by expanding the market for both, reducing common costs or cross-referral agreements. Most large competitors no longer do new products internally and are looking to partner and invest if you don’t declare war.

  7. Define competition in the broadest sense and maximize your opportunity. Saying you have no direct competitors implies a very small market. Investors want to see you in a billion-dollar transportation opportunity rather than a tiny-future market for cars that fly. Acknowledge that the real competition may be status quo -- but focus on how you can change that.

  8. Capitalize on team experience and relevant business area strengths. Previous business successes or recognized expertise is a tremendous competitive advantage that is often overlooked. Equally important are relationships with key suppliers, distributors and potential customers. Remember that investors invest in people more than the idea.

Entrepreneurs who clearly respect their competitors and know how to capitalize on their own strengths will attract the right investors as well as the right business partners. Denigrating competitors -- or ignoring them -- is a recipe for disaster. It’s always smart to take the high road.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/04/2015 ***

*** Spanish translation on Bbooster.org

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

9 Principles For Countering Innovation Assassination

Robert-BrandsOne of the biggest challenges in any business, large or small, is overcoming the natural human preference for status quo, or fear of change. It means that most team members and executives alike have a natural tendency to prefer killing innovations rather than implementing them. Even customers, while they all want the next big thing, want it to happen with minimal new learning.

These fears and how every business can counter innovation assassination are explored in a new book, “Robert's Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation,” by Robert F. Brands, who brings decades of experience implementing innovation as the founder of InnovationCoach®. His goal is to teach us how to drive a culture of continuous innovation into every work environment.

Brands book is based on the implementation of nine principles of innovation originally developed by Google way back in 2008 by Marissa Mayer. I believe these principles, paraphrased here, should be adopted by every entrepreneur struggling to accomplish innovation in a startup in any market:

  1. Innovation can come from anywhere in the organization. Entrepreneurs should look for ideas from anyone, inside the organization or outside, top down or bottoms up, but the implementation responsibility is all yours. Startup leadership and survival is all about execution. That culture has to come from the top down, by your actions and messages.

  2. Focus on customer needs rather than profits. When innovations are implemented that have clear value and acceptance by customers, business success will follow. That’s the win-win equation we are all looking for. It also propagates back inside your company, via happier and more motivated employees, and far outside as societal advancements.

  3. Target factor of ten improvements, not 10 percent. Many experts feel it is easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better. It’s called radical innovation versus incremental improvement. It forces one to step away from existing assumptions and tools, and lean instead on creativity and thinking outside the box.

  4. Let new technical insights drive innovative products. For Google, this has led to self-driving cars, based on work with Google maps and artificial intelligence. Every startup technical team has unique insights, which should become new innovations. All too often, these insights are ignored by the company, and developers leave to become competitors.

  5. Ship and iterate, don’t expect instant perfection. Too many innovations get caught in analysis paralysis, and die an expensive death. No technical analysis has the power of real-time user and market feedback. Perfection is impossible in today’s rapidly changing market, and iterations are part of educating the market as well as your team.

  6. Spend twenty percent of work time on innovation. Everyone in a company should be encouraged to spend fully one-fifth of their time pursuing ideas for positive change, even if it is outside the core job or core mission of the company. This approach works best if you start with a focus on hiring change agents, and incentive programs for innovation.

  7. Set your default to sharing rather than proprietary. Information sharing and open source facilitates collaboration on a huge scale, and can bring in as many innovations as are sent out. It also increases market acceptance of innovations, by allowing concurrent work on integration, standardization, and support structures outside your company.

  8. Tolerate no negativity attached to failure. Stigmas and penalties for failing are among the largest gates to innovation. Like Thomas Edison famously said, failure is simply learning what doesn’t work. Failing well to Google means failing fast and failing cheap, all very positive attributes in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive world.

  9. Instill a mission and purpose that matters. People think harder if they really believe their innovations will impact millions of people in a positive way. Work can be more than a job when it stands for something people care about, and involves giving more than taking. Entrepreneurs are seeing huge premiums these days for giving back generously.

The Great Recession is now behind us and needs to be forgotten. There are no more excuses, no more reasons to postpone, ignore, or otherwise assassinate innovation in your organization. Whether you manage an entrepreneurial startup or a multinational conglomerate, the competitive pressures are unprecedented. Are you now unleashing your team’s full execution abilities?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 7, 2015

5 Steps To Job Satisfaction – Run Your Own Business

Portrait of a female executiveAccording to several reliable reports, job satisfaction for employees is at an all-time low. An online survey published earlier this year found that nearly two-thirds of the respondents were not happy at work. One obvious alternative is to become an entrepreneur. As a mentor to many aspiring entrepreneurs, I’m often asked what it takes to switch and get real satisfaction from this lifestyle.

I found some great help in outlining the elements of this process in the classic book, “Disruptors,” by Kunal Mehta. It’s a collection of stories from real-life young entrepreneurs, all of whom chose to break away from the comfort and security of unfulfilling corporate careers to be entrepreneurs. It outlines their perspectives, struggles, and heartbreaks, as well as their successes.

In fact, Mehta focuses on a special class of entrepreneurs that he calls disruptors. These are ones behind many of the modern game-changing companies, like Pinterest and Foursquare. He notes that they all seem to exhibit a special extra focus on preparedness, duality (one foot in reality and the other foot out), and a keen self-awareness of what they have and what they want.

Yet I know from experience that being an entrepreneur in any fashion is not for everyone. It takes at the very least a special blend of confidence, passion, determination, leadership, and problem-solving abilities. Given these, Mehta outlines five specific steps to get started and stay ahead of the game, which I agree are essential and have paraphrased here:

  1. Be open to new opportunities and options. Too many people flat-line in their careers and accept being unhappy because they think there are few other options available to them. It’s up to you to constantly look for options inside and outside your own network, and be willing to make the adjustments to capitalize on them. Be prepared to experiment.

  2. Build the courage to “Think Different.” Fear is a dangerous emotion with which to guide your actions. Put it behind you by setting your own realistic metrics for success and happiness. Quit looking for critics to flood disbelief on your vision. If your intentions are genuine and your work ethic is strong, meaningful and lasting success is likely.

  3. Expand your support group and test your limits. Find the men and women you wish to be more like, talk to them, study them, and learn from them. Surround yourself with people who are constantly striving to be better, and support each other. Erase the qualms about failing, and willingly accept failure if it comes, as the ultimate learning opportunity.

  4. Focus your efforts on creating value, not wealth. The glamour of wealth will quickly tarnish if you don’t feel passionate about the work you are doing. Find a role where you can work seven days a week without it feeling like a chore. Learn new skills that will make you an expert in that domain, and both satisfaction and wealth will follow.

  5. Take action now. Overcome complacency and re-test your limits to create impact in a more meaningful way. Set long-term goals, short-term goals, and micro-goals. Then write them down. By writing these goals, you add validity to each target and create a mental desire to see them fulfilled. Then accomplish one, sense the progress, and add another.

Thus it’s clear to me that your journey from corporate America to being an entrepreneur does not begin with just an innovative idea, or an annoying dissatisfaction. It has to start long before that, with a mindset event that drives a real change in behavior. That could be a burning need to fix a wrong, disdain of an existing system, or just the desire to be one’s own boss.

Regardless of the motivation, you should expect that the journey will be longer than you anticipate, and require immense courage. The rewards, as reported by everyone who has been there, will still be well worth it.

I do believe that every aspiring entrepreneur needs to look inward first, to understand their own drivers. So don’t be afraid to take a hard look in the mirror. Old habits die hard, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be to make the jump, and your odds of success go down. It’s a lot more fun to be a disruptor than to wish you were one.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, December 6, 2015

10 Practices That Lead To The Demise Of Any Business

business-failureUnfortunately, many entrepreneurs seem to prefer to fail their way to the top, rather than do some research and learn from the successes and mistakes of others. It seems to be part of the “fail fast, fail often” mantra often heard in Silicon Valley. As an advisor to many startups, I’m convinced it’s an expensive and painful approach, but I do see it used all too often.

In general I try to focus on the positives and tell entrepreneurs what works, but sometimes it’s important to reiterate the common things that simply don’t work. I remember a recent book by MJ Gottlieb, “How To Ruin A Business,” that highlights failures. He humbly outlines fifty-five of his own less-than-stellar business anecdotes over a career in business for all to see and avoid.

Here is my selection of the top ten things to avoid from his list that I have seen lead to failure most often. I’m sure each of you could add one or two more from your own experience, and I’m desperately hoping that together we can convince a few aspiring entrepreneurs to avoid some practices that lead to losses and suffering:

  1. Spend money you don’t yet have in the bank. In the rush of a startup, it’s tempting to start spending the money you expect any day from a rich uncle or a major new customer. But things do go wrong, and you will be left holding the bag. It’s not only embarrassing, but one of the quickest ways to end your entrepreneurial career.

  2. Open your mouth while in a negative emotional state. Many entrepreneurs have destroyed a strategic alliance, an investor relationship, or lost a key customer by jumping in with harsh words after a bad day at home or at the office. If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep quiet and wait for another day. You may be dead wrong.

  3. Over-promise and under-deliver. Always manage expectations, and always under-promise and over-deliver. As a bleeding-edge startup, you can be assured of product quality problems, missing business processes, and customer support issues. Use the rule of “plan early, quote late, and ship early,” to be a hero rather than a zero.

  4. Create a market you can’t supply and support. If your product is really new and disruptive, make sure you have supply to meet the demand at rollout, and a patent to prevent others from jumping in quickly. Too many entrepreneurs have had their new positions in the marketplace taken away by competitors and others with deep pockets.

  5. Count on someone who offers to work for free. As a rule of thumb, expect to get exactly what you paid for. People who work for free will expect to get paid soon in some way, or they may take it out in trade, to the detriment of your business. Student interns are an exception, since their primary objective should be learning rather than money.

  6. Underestimate the importance of due diligence. No matter how good a supplier or investor story sounds, it is not smart to skip the reference and credit checks. Visits in person are always recommended to check remote office and production facilities before any money is paid up front on a contract.

  7. Grow too quickly for your finances and staffing. Growing quickly, without a plan on how to implement that growth can be a disaster. Learn how to reject a big order if you are not prepared to handle it. It takes a huge investment to build large orders, and large customers are the slowest to pay. In the trade, this is called “death by success.”

  8. Be confused between working hard and working smart. In business (as in life), you should never reward yourself or your team on the quantity of time spent, rather than results achieved. Quality works at a thousand times the pace of quantity. Prioritize your tasks, take advantage of technology, and constantly optimize your processes.

  9. Be afraid to ask for help, advice, or even money. Entrepreneurs often let pride and ego stand in the way of leveling with trusted friends and advisors. The advice you don’t get can’t save your company. I always recommend that a startup create an advisory board of two or three outside experts, who have connections to even more resources.

  10. Rely on a verbal agreement in business. Get every agreement on paper early and always, put a copy in a safe place, and have the agreements updated when people and environments change. People come and go in every role, and there is no such thing as institutional memory. People only remember the agreements which benefit them.

If all these failures seem intuitively obvious to you, why do I see them repeated over and over again by new entrepreneurs? Perhaps it is because entrepreneurs tend to let their egos cloud their judgment, they don’t like to be told what to do, or because there is no single blueprint for business success.

The good news is that, according to the “DNA of an Entrepreneur” study a while back, almost nine in ten entrepreneurs (87%) found more satisfaction from running a small company than working in a large one, even with the pitfalls outlined here. I suspect that most of these have failed their way to this top satisfaction.

Marty Zwilling

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