Monday, May 29, 2017

Do You Have What it Takes To Be a Business Leader?

Bill_Gates_speaking_at_DFIDRunning a business is not rocket science. As a long-time business advisor, and occasional investor, I have seen many successful businesses lead by college dropouts and people with average intelligence. Investors don’t look at CEOs for advanced degrees, but they do look for experience and emotional intelligence, often before they even evaluate the business plan.

Every business has to start with a leader – someone to drive through the thousand unknowns of every new venture, no matter how big the opportunity, or how amazing the technology. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg never finished college, and all started with virtually no business experience, but still they attracted the team and funding they needed to succeed.

So what are the right attributes of an aspiring business leader or founder? I just finished a new book, “The EQ Leader,” by Steven J. Stein, PhD, who is a leading expert on psychological assessment and emotional intelligence. I like his list of competencies, with my tips on how to highlight them, to score certain people as potential business leaders to peers and investors:

  1. Agility in learning. Agility in learning is the ability to diagnose the need for new skill sets and to acquire them quickly, despite incessant business pressures of change and no time available. In business, this agility is called “street smarts,” and is a coveted attribute. As an entrepreneur, even with no prior startups, you must highlight non-business examples.

  2. Communication skills. Effective communication in business requires an efficient flow of information to all constituents, and ability to share in any media, including speaking, writing, and listening. It also includes using and reading body language and state of mind. My angel group always asks the CEO to do the talking, to test their communication skills.

  3. Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to work your way through tough business situations, and the ability to perceive, to understand, and to manage emotion, as well as to integrate thought with emotion when making decisions. Venture capital investors have been known to make controversial assertions to test your reaction.

  4. Resiliency/flexibility. Resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from failures, and pivot with lessor business changes. It includes the ability to discard experience that is no longer relevant or useful, and to change direction in accordance with new information. Be careful how you position any startups failures, and what you learned from the experience.

  5. Quest for excellence. A quest for excellence is the ability to hold your company and team to the highest standards, and to consistently exceed the expectations of customers. Leaders with this attribute always strive for the highest personal performance, as well. Positive examples from non-business experiences and efforts will help your case here.

  6. Self-confidence. Self-confidence is possessing and displaying credible assurance and self-reliance, without continual positive feedback from friends and advisors. It is the ability to envision business success and to communicate a sense of well-being to others. In business, don’t step over that fine line between self-confidence and overbearing ego.

  7. Creativity and innovation. These terms embody the ability to produce new ideas by thinking outside the box, and solving problems through calculated risks. In business, creativity and innovation are not a one-time thing, but must be done continually. When talking to investors, your examples from outside of business are equally valuable.

  8. Moral courage. Moral courage is a clearly articulated set of values and beliefs that drives business, as well as personal actions and decisions. Moral courage may also require physical courage when the consequences are lost business or physical peril. In business, actions speak louder than words. Associates and investors are watching.

  9. Accountability. Accountability is the willingness to accept full responsibility for all business actions and decisions, with a natural aversion to excuses. It implies the willingness to follow-up on fulfillment of all commitments, major and minor. I always listen carefully to the explanation, when aspiring entrepreneurs are late or miss a meeting.

  10. Cultural adaptability. Cultural sensitivity is the ability to perceive and learn from people strengths in different geographical regions, ethnic groups, and between different organizations and team subcultures, and to adapt behavior accordingly and positively. These days, the business value of cultural diversity is huge. Watch your team makeup.

  11. Decisiveness. Decisiveness is the practice of making a business choice or determining a course of action in a reasonable timeframe, by efficiently using and processing the best information available. It also means making good decisions with incomplete information. There is a reason that the savvy investors on Shark Tank often ask for a quick decision.

Of course, investors would prefer that all new businesses be led by entrepreneurs with a track record, and all the attributes highlighted here. But that never happens. All you have to do as a new business owner is highlight the strengths you have, and concentrate on developing at least one more than your key competitor. I haven’t yet found a perfect business leader yet.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/16/2017 ***

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Customer Service Can Kill Your Customer’s Experience

customer-service-experienceWith the advent of the Internet, social media, and instant communication via texting, customer expectations for service, as part of their entire customer experience, have changed. They expect you to be there, to know their history as a customer, and to treat them with priority and respect. They tell their friends and the world everything, and a bad experience can kill your business.

Everyone today is looking for a knock-your-socks-off customer experience, and they know the best companies out there are already doing it. I saw some great insights on how to do it in a new book, “More is More,” by Blake Morgan, a top thought leader and expert in this area. I particularly liked her points on the evolution of customer service as a key part of the overall experience:

  1. Now available 24x7 via multiple channels. With every business being global in scope and always-on, a phone-in service available in a local time zone during work hours only, is not competitive. As well as phone support, customers expect you to accept mobile messaging, and provide quick responses via social media and multiple Internet websites.

  2. Company finds customers based on interests. No customer enjoys being blasted by irrelevant banner ads, and they don’t have time to sort through all the noise of products out there searching for an audience. The best companies do their homework and find the right customers, based on demographics, prior purchases, and expressed interests.

  3. Technology must improve the customer experience. When you call customer service and it seems to take forever for the agent to help you, it’s likely that she is switching to different applications to get to the right information, or waiting for slow responses. Customers won’t tolerate being asked repeatedly for information you should know.

  4. Customer is in control of the support experience. Today’s customers expect you to find them when they need support, rather than the other way around. Witness the series of airlines public relations disasters, when customers don’t get the proactive attention they need. The days of brand control are over, so you need a strong outreach program.

  5. Customer service is a key part of the marketing budget. In the past, most companies treated customers like yesterday’s news – once they have the sale, the effort decreased. It was normal to find service as understaffed with no budget. Call center queues could put you on hold for thirty minutes or more. Great customer service is the new key to loyalty.

  6. Products must be designed for easy support. With the Internet of Things (IoT), your product can call home directly when it needs support, so you can surprise your customer with a solution, before he knows he has a problem, or the product can fix itself. Designing for support is now as important as designing for low cost, ease of use, and quality.

  7. Reward responsibility and creativity in support. Support has traditionally been the spot for employees with less skill and experience, and less motivation. Today you need your best team members, with the best incentives, focused on impressing customers with creative solutions. You too can be listed as a source of amazing customer experiences.

  8. Optimize experiences for the new generations. Generation Z (born after 1995) is a new major spending demographic, who expects to do everything via their smartphone, and lives on YouTube videos, instead of reading instruction manuals. Millennials really care about social and environmental impacts, so don’t ignore these support implications.

In fact, it’s no longer possible to separate customer support from the overall customer experience. Both are part of the relationship that you build with your customers through a compendium of all the interactions you have with them. Any one of these can be the key to an amazing advocacy, or the beginning of an aggressive visible campaign against you.

The world today is small, and there is no room to hide. Be responsive, do more, and you will get more.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/27/2017 ***

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Why Entrepreneurs Need To Keep Their Business Focused

business-focusEvery new business or product owner wants to attract the broadest possible audience, so they are prone to adding more features, multiple sales channels, and appealing to every demographic. Unfortunately, often the result is potential customers who are confused, the limited resources of your business are spread too thin, and customers and investors look elsewhere for a better fit.

Thus one of my key messages to entrepreneurs, as a business advisor and angel investor, is “focus.” It’s better to be known for and to do one thing extremely well, than to do many things poorly. For example, it’s all too common for a technology entrepreneur to highlight a new battery technology as the ultimate power for smartphones, medical heart pacemakers, and home lighting.

These are three different worlds from a business perspective. Focus simply means launching your first and most memorable initiative where you see a unique skill and experience fit, your best competitive positioning with the least risk, and the greatest potential return. People still remember Google for Internet search, Amazon for books, and Facebook for talking to friends.

Now, of course, they all do much more, but those things came later. In the beginning, like them, make sure you are focused on the following set of principles:

  1. Quantify one problem to highlight your solution. Focus means starting with solving a specific problem, rather than a generic list. Customers want a solution from you, not many. For investors, show the depth of your business potential by prioritizing a strategic plan for multiple later phases that capitalize on additional problems you plan to address.

  2. Pick a business model that you can best support. With limited resources, you can sell via ecommerce, but it’s much tougher to support retail as well, or hire a direct sales team. Consider a subscription model for a repeatable revenue stream, or full-purchase model, but not both. Your business model determines cash-flow, staffing, and funding required.

  3. Define no more than 3 to 5 goals and priorities. No organization can remember and deliver on a dozen goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. Keep these balanced and aligned between people (customers, employees) and process (quality, service), and keep the scope limited. Eliminating world hunger is too broad.

  4. Zero in on a specific market segment. Targeting all the people in China as your opportunity gives you big numbers for a small penetration percentage, but will be seen as lack of focus by key constituents. The more precise you can be in your definition of the target demographics (location, age, income, education), the more successful you will be.

  5. Limit solution scope and features. Focus means creating a minimum viable product (MVP) first, and validating it in the marketplace. Feature-rich products take too much time and money to build, are hard to pivot, and will likely be slow and difficult to use. Your product will never have enough features to satisfy everyone, and it will never be perfect.

  6. Realistically characterize the competition. If you really believe that IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle are your competition, you have a big challenge that you can’t afford to meet. It’s better to focus on a niche that none of them do well, and build your plan around that opportunity. Claiming you have no competition also implies lack of focus on competition.

  7. Simplify your solution positioning. You can’t win by trying to position yourself as both a premium provider (high quality, high service, high price), as well as a player in the commodity end of the market. Your team, customers, and investors will all be confused with your lack of focus. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.

  8. Concentrate your marketing efforts around a single channel. You always need a budget for marketing, but don’t spread it evenly or randomly across digital media, social media, direct, and traditional channels. Focus on one channel at a time, measure results, and then move to the next. Too many channels has the same effect as no marketing.

I understand the pressure to grow and scale the business to satisfy investors and your ego, but premature scaling is seen by many experts as the number one reason for startup failure. Don’t spend money, or expand your focus, into domains you don’t know, with an assumption that all new customers will be additive to your current base. One plus one sometimes equals zero.

In the same vein, you can also have too many advisors, and too many investors. If you listen to everyone, and take money from everyone, your focus will be diluted to the point that you won’t be able to satisfy anyone, especially customers. In the long run, it takes a narrow and memorable core focus to build a sustainable company.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/11/2017 ***

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Friday, May 26, 2017

10 Behaviors That Highlight Your Leadership Ability

business-leadership-activitiesBased on my years of experience as a new business advisor, I always find leadership to be more important to business success than any new technology or innovative solution. The challenge is to adequately define leadership in terms of everyday activities. Most entrepreneurs believe they are leaders, even though the feedback I get from their team and partners may indicate otherwise.

Thus I’m always looking for more practical guidance on the right activities to be perceived as a business leader. I just found some great specifics in a new book, “The Leadership Challenge,” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. These authors bring a wealth of experience in this domain from their workshops, writing, and lecturing on business leadership worldwide.

They have identified ten specific behaviors of exemplary business leaders that I believe every entrepreneur and business professional must focus on to improve their leadership abilities, as well as the perception of others around them as a leader:

  1. Clarify values by communicating shared values. Being viewed as an exemplary leader requires first that you find your voice on your own deeply held values – beliefs, standards, ethics, and ideals. Then strive to understand the same for your constituents. Affirming all shared values is the way to building productive and working relationships.

  2. Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. People listen to what you say, but they follow what you do. How you spend your time is the clearest indicator to all what’s important to you. Your questions determine the path people will follow and focus their search for answers. Show that you actively listen to feedback and model the values.

  3. Envision the future by imagining the possibilities. Even as you stop, look, and listen to messages in the present, you also need to spend considerable time reading, thinking, and talking about the long-term view. Leaders today need to express passion for doing something significant no one else has yet achieved, including society and environment.

  4. Enlist others by appealing to shared aspirations. Enlisting others is all about igniting passion for a purpose and moving people to persist against great odds. You have to engage the hearts and minds of your constituents. To foster team spirit, breed optimism, promote resilience, and renew faith and confidence, real leaders look on the bright side.

  5. Seize the initiative with innovative ways to improve. Leadership is inextricably linked with the process of innovation, of bringing new ideas, methods, and solutions into use. This means making things happen where others don’t, and rewarding initiative in others. It means looking outside your experience, and promoting diverse perspectives.

  6. Experiment to generate small wins and learning. Leaders break down big problems into small, doable actions and initiate experiments that don’t paralyze others with major risks. This creates a climate for learning and winning, to build resilience and grit, as well as incremental progress toward goals. It also builds personal fulfillment, rather than fear.

  7. Foster collaboration by building trusting relationships. Without trust, you can’t lead. You can’t get people to believe in you or each other. Trust is the key to productive relationships, and relationships with peers, constituents and customers are key to great businesses. Building trust requires showing concern for others, and open sharing.

  8. Strengthen others by developing their competence. A well-recognized paradox of leadership is that you become more powerful when you give your power away. The best leaders spend more time supporting and mentoring their constituents to develop their competence and confidence, and then delegate effectively with accountability.

  9. Show appreciation for individual excellence. The best leaders are clear about the goals and rules, expect the best, always provide feedback, and personalize recognition for results. One of the most powerful recognitions is a simple “thank you” delivered in a timely manner. Find out the types of encouragement that make the most difference.

  10. Celebrate victories and a spirit of community. Fun isn’t a luxury at work. Smart leaders find and create occasions to bring people together to publicly celebrate accomplishments and build community. Get personally involved in as many recognitions and celebrations as possible. Show you care by being visible in the tough times.

Exemplary leadership behaviors like these will always make a profound positive difference in people’s commitment and motivation, their work performance, and the success of their company. Especially if you are don’t yet carry an executive role or title, now is the time to start practicing these activities. The most effective and satisfying leadership comes without a title to lean on.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/24/2017 ***

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

10 Qualities That Will Make You An Entrepreneur Idol

American_Idol_logoTo be successful as an entrepreneur, you don’t have to be a fabulous person, but it helps. Some people, and some entrepreneurs, have that something extra that you can’t quite put your finger on, like Ryan Seacrest is searching for on American Idol. But the entrepreneurs that have it, including Elon Musk and Richard Branson, seem to be able to effortlessly get team members, investors, and customers to follow them anywhere.

In her classic book on this subject, “The Essentials of Fabulous,” Ellen Lubin-Sherman, who has been tracking fabulous people most of her life as a writer and journalist, tried to net it out. She identifies less than a dozen primary qualities for fabulous people in general, and I have honed and tuned these to ten that apply especially to entrepreneurs, in my experience:

  1. Be passionate about life, as well as your business. Entrepreneurs who have passion in business, as well as their life, may drive us all batty, but there is never a dull moment. These moments are always being transformed into options to be explored. They make life interesting and an adventure, and everyone loves an adventure.

  2. Be delightfully authentic and honest. Authentic entrepreneurs are destined and determined to have fun, as well as move forward in business. They have an unerring confidence that’s inspiring yet attainable. They savor relationships, and are generous with themselves and their smarts, so they attract a savvy following.

  3. Be revered for an amazing positive attitude. Rather than cave when things get tough, optimistic entrepreneurs go analytic, looking for pivots that keep their goals in sight. They are disciplined, upbeat thinkers, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and know how and when to laugh it off. A negative attitude takes everyone down.

  4. Be warm and completely accessible. Warmth comes from your smile, and facial expressions that indicate genuine interest. Investors and partners look for entrepreneurs that will look them straight in the eye when speaking, and give their full and undivided attention while you’re speaking. Everyone looks for “rapport talk” rather than “report talk.”

  5. Have impeccable manners and flair. Entrepreneurs who are always looking for opportunities to be gracious and considerate are going to be liked, admired, sought after, and trusted. In business, that means staying connected, showing up on time, with no signs of boredom or preoccupation. It’s not always about you, so dress and talk for them.

  6. Be competent and confident. Competent people accomplish more in business because they’re driven by a pronounced sense of purpose. They are willing to put themselves on the line, and have confidently done their homework to know what it takes. They are reliably consistent, and unafraid to ask for help.

  7. Able to just “get it.” Entrepreneurs who “get it” are emotionally attuned to peers and customers, so that their gut-level instincts become informed judgments that move the business forward. “With-it”-ness takes work, like reading the right blogs every day, challenging yourself to stay abreast of the latest technology, and social media marketing.

  8. Have a big bandwidth. Can you talk, with equal engagement and respect, to your company’s CFO and the guy who pumps your gas? Look for opportunities to praise and nurture the people with diversity. Get comfortable out of your circle of interest and expertise. Go for that black belt in networking.

  9. Be vivid virtually. Developing a superior virtual presence requires a mastery of several mediums – phone, email, text messaging, as well as handwritten notes – but the payoff is undeniable. But don’t overuse virtual communication to the exclusion of face-to-face time In all cases, don’t forget your sense of aplomb, mastery of tone, and the spell-checker.

  10. Attract a superstar board of advisors. The right board is a group of individuals who may not know one another, but know you, and know your business domain. Plus, they need to be willing to put their brains and their expertise at your disposal as long as you need it. No entrepreneur is an island, so take the initiative to build an advisory board.

Paying attention to all these things is how you become a fabulous entrepreneur, another entrepreneur idol. I’m sorry, but there is no magic, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, it will never happen if you don’t start or don’t believe. But it’s worth the effort, unless you have something better to do?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, May 22, 2017

7 Initiatives To Streamline and Focus Your Company

Chatting-Team-Business-MeetingSuccess in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive business environment requires a total alignment between the needs of each business function and the priorities of all team members. If you see signs of internal misalignment, such as too many meetings, overload of emails, or lack of engagement at any level, now is the time to take action before customers and employees both sense it and leave you.

As an entrepreneur advisor and startup investor, it always amazes me how obvious these alignment issues are from the outside, and how hard it is to make them visible inside and get them corrected. What every investor, and every customer, is looking for is a company where everyone is focused on the same objectives, the same values, and the same customer needs

I just saw some real insights on this challenge in a new book, “Total Alignment: Tools and Tactics for Streamlining Your Organization,” by Riaz and Linda Khadem. They bring over 25 years of experience in alignment strategy deployment for large and small organizations across Europe and North America. They summarize alignment as an embodiment of seven initiatives, as follows:

  1. Define a unified focus and direction, shared by all. You must have a clearly defined and communicated company purpose, with buy-in from everyone. The alternative is that people focus on their own agenda or other activities that will divert energy, cause confusion internally and externally, and impede the progress of your company.

  2. Measure execution on a single strategy, rather than talk. According to business expert Paul Sharman, nine out of ten businesses fail to implement their strategic plan. Failed strategies erode your competitive position. You must provide your team with constant training and support on what good execution looks like, and a follow-up process.

  3. Improve reporting structure support (vertical alignment). All too often, employees pay lip service to their management, but execute their own agenda, due to lack of understanding or disagreements. The solution is people-focused managers, who practice empathy and coaching to check alignment, rather than looking backward only at results.

  4. Enable cross-functional collaboration (horizontal alignment). This type of collaboration prevents silos from developing in the organization, which often work against each other, and certainly take more time to make decisions. Top business leaders arrange their agendas and time, building and maintaining cross-functional relationships.

  5. Give people the right skills to deliver (competency alignment). Delegation doesn’t work if the people are not qualified to deliver. This starts with hiring the right people, matching roles to interests, and regular coaching and training to improve competency in the required skills. Update skill requirements as technology and the market changes.

  6. Assure team alignment of values with company values. Misalignment of values quickly erodes the trust that your customers, suppliers, and employees have in the business, and culminates with the loss of all of the above. Alignment is improved through day-to-day team and individual reviews of values, behaviors, activities, and results.

  7. Reward people for desired results (compensation alignment). When people see that their hard work is not recognized or appreciated, their motivation decreases, and eventually the best move on, leaving you with a weaker and weaker team. Rewards must go beyond salary, to include personal positive feedback, and recognition in front of peers.

The biggest challenge for most companies is turning even a great vision into reality. If all your people and processes are not totally aligned, energies are wasted and things move too slowly to keep up with the market and competitors. So how can you tell if your perspective is aligned with others in the company?

I recommend that you meet individually with your manager, any direct reports that you may have, and key peers, to compare notes on your top five priorities. If you find a big mismatch, it’s time to dig deeper inside your own perspective to find the root cause, and focus on one of more of the initiatives outlined earlier, to minimize the disparity.

The future of your career, and your company, depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/09/2017 ***

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

7 Key Strategies Will Assure Company Sustainability

Radio_Shack_in_West_Miami,_FloridaAs a new business advisor, I am no longer surprised that every new entrepreneur believes the hard part is creating the first product and the business. Perhaps luckily, they have no idea that scaling the business and maintaining vitality as a mature business is even harder. What most often kills a company is the illusion (or delusion) that all is now stable and everyone can relax.

The challenge is to retain the same sense of urgency, energy, commitment, and readiness in a mature company that you felt during the startup stage. The importance and reality of this need has been detailed well in a new book I just finished, “State of Readiness,” by Joseph F. Paris, Jr. He is a recognized thought leader on the subject of operational excellence and strategy.

He and I are both are strong believers that the keys to sustainable success start with building a solid business platform initially, with a strong support structure for scalability, sustainability, and long-term leadership. The proper support structure can only be built if you commit to and implement his following strategy elements:

  1. Learn from the past, build for the future. New and existing companies today need to press beyond what was, through what is, to what will be. Most importantly, this is not just in the products and services you offer, but in the way your company operates. You must proactively improve your business processes, even if they seem to be working today.

  2. Create and cultivate a leadership culture. Leaders in business these days are leaders because people are willing to follow. You can tell the capability of a leader by the caliber of their followers. The best leaders are mentors to their team, and they are stewards of a company’s assets and vision. They build trust, integrity, and respect from everyone.

  3. Communicate the vision, then execute. People will follow only if they know where they are going. Connect the dots to the vision to gain alignment and commitment. Set a course for the destination, but also establish intermediate checkpoints to assess progress along the way. Adjust as prudent and necessary, communicating all the way.

  4. Set-up for success and don’t set-up for failure. Delegate with accountability and responsibility, and keep your focus on the future. Let those to whom you delegate do their job, without micromanaging. Your task is follow-up in support, mentoring, and setting goals. Establish processes, incent innovation, and monitor progress along the way.

  5. Make innovation the requisite for long-term viability. Maintaining the velocity and flexibility to keep up with the market and competitors is a requirement for survival. Your team culture needs to expect failed attempts, but never a fear of failure, only of not trying. Fail quick, fail small, learn, and move on. Change should be expected as the norm.

  6. Construct a program for rebuilding capability. Continually redefine what success looks like into the future. Then you need to identify the talent, skills, and resources your company will need to succeed, as well as when and where they will be needed. Work hard at finding and filling the gaps. Hire and retain the best, and build the rest.

  7. Prepare for sustainability in the long haul. The journey will be long and difficult, so prepare accordingly. Build rock-solid processes first, then increase the through-put and accuracy by introducing the right technologies where it makes sense. Capture your own best practices and replicate them across your company. Constantly strengthen the team.

We can all name companies that started strong, but didn’t scale well, or let complacency drive them off the map. Examples include Webvan, Research in Motion (Blackberry), and Tandy (Radio Shack). To this list, we can add the countless family-owned businesses that could not survive the transition to the next generation. Beware of any sense of entitlement to continuing success.

For scaling and long-term success, every company today needs these strategies for operational excellence, to follow an innovative new startup effort, driven by a passionate and committed entrepreneur. It’s never too late to get started, but it gets harder the longer you wait. Don’t wait until your company is spinning out of control.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/20/2017 ***

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

8 Keys To Positive Media Attention For Your Startup

Marcela Sapone, CEO & Co-Founder at Hello Alfred talks to DOL employees and outside attendees as they gathered in the Great Hall in the DOL Building fora panel on “Positive Choices in the Digital Sector: Building Good Jobs Principles into Emerging Platforms” "Future of Work."Not so long ago, training to meet the press and television reporters was a realm reserved for top business executives only. Now, even the earliest stage startup can rise to visibility or be forever lost by their first media spotlight, so it behooves us all to know the rules early. Most entrepreneurs I know admit to a poor first media interaction, and many are still waiting for the instant replay.

On the social media side, the stakes are just as great. Ask Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, who raised over $10 million on the Kickstarter crowd-funding platform for his relatively low-tech wristwatch with programmed clock faces. Kickstarter may take a bit of the credit for this, but they admit the majority of projects without media attention don’t even approach their funding goals.

There are lots of expensive public and media relations firms out there who can give you the full treatment, but I recommend starting with a good book on the subject, like the classic by media training expert Brad Phillips, “The Media Training Bible.” He provides 101 two-page lessons divided into eight learning categories that I like as follows:

  1. Learn the ground rules for traditional media. Few of us have the background to know when to turn down an interview request, or never use the “no comment” approach, or when it’s more effective to comment “off the record.” Even practical issues, like understanding reporter deadlines, and your own editing rights, are critical.

  2. Craft messages and message supports. A message is a one-sentence statement that incorporates two things: one of your most important points and one of your audience’s most important needs or values, with a call to action. Message supports are stories, statistics, and sound bites that reinforce your message. Both need to be clear and direct.

  3. Make every interview memorable. The key to any effective interview is to articulate a message or message support in almost every answer you ever give. Speak in complete sentences, aimed at the 12-year-old language level, and skip the acronyms. Avoid tentative phrases like “We’re trying” in favor of the stronger “We are doing.”

  4. Answer the tough questions. You must answer every question, every time, or risk appearing evasive, online or on camera. Yet quickly transition back to the message and supports. In all cases, you must stay cool, avoiding anger, sarcasm, or the urge to walk away. Never offer an answer unless you know it’s true – it’s better to say “I don’t know.”

  5. Use appropriate body language and attire. The main impression you leave with an audience may have little to do with your words. Show energy, eye contact, and gestures to enhance the impact of your words. Wear solid colors, and make your look true to your brand and yourself. People judge you and your company in the first few seconds.

  6. Handling different media formats. These days the media formats range from email, phone, radio, television, to social media. Social media includes blogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites. With social media, you are always “on the record” and once you say it, it’s out there forever. All the lessons from traditional media apply, and more.

  7. How to respond to media in a crisis. A crisis is an event, precipitated by a specific incident, that attracts critical media attention and lasts for a definite period of time. It could be a product quality problem, or a major customer complaint on Twitter. The challenge is to be prepared, and communicate quickly and effectively until it’s over.

  8. Prepare, prepare, prepare for every media event. Even the most experienced executives write down what they need to say, and practice for every event. Steve Jobs was a master at this, even though he had years of experience. The result was that every interview or event, online or live, came off naturally and positive. Why do many entrepreneurs think they can “wing it” and get the same results?

Every entrepreneur in this new era of shrinking attention spans, social media overload, and sensationalized reporting needs to know how to create positive messages, cut through the noise, and motivate audiences with multiple media. Don’t wait for a reputation-destroying disaster to start your learning. You won’t get a second chance for a great first impression.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, May 19, 2017

7 New Business Ideas Whose Time Has Come and Gone

Pitfalls-To-Avoid-In-Mobile-App-DesignAs an angel investor, I sometimes worry that all the viable unique ideas must already be taken. Entrepreneurs keep talking to me about the Internet of Things (IOT), autonomous vehicles, inter-planetary travel, and other exciting opportunities, but the majority of real plans I get seem to be “me too” variations of several common themes that have already been done too many times.

We all want to get out there ahead of the crowd, and invest in that truly innovative idea that seems so obvious in its appeal that you wonder why nobody ever thought of it before. Examples in the past, that were not huge leaps in technology, would include the light bulb, telephone, the zipper, and post-it notes. I haven’t found the next one yet, even on Shark Tank.

On the other hand, I do see often a myriad of concepts that have already been tried and failed many times, where the space is crowded, or it’s not clear that another variation with more features, slightly lower cost, or more usability, is worth the effort. Here are some of my favorites in these categories:

  1. Virtual talking personal assistants. By definition, these are all really thinly disguised Internet search engines, provided by or competing against the 500 or more existing search engines already out there, including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. There may be room here for something really innovative, but just a sweeter voice will probably not do it. If you have more money than the incumbents, try it, but don’t look for investor help.

  2. Password storage and recollection schemes. Everyone is looking for an easy solution to the increasing need for complex security and multifactor sign-ons required by most applications today. So far, yellow stickies on your computer seem to be holding the lead, despite a multitude of password manager apps, biometrics, and encryption schemes.

  3. Yet another social networking site. Just for starters, Wikipedia now lists about 200 sites by name, which they claim is just the more notable existing social networking sites. I still get about one business “idea” per week for a new networking site, which will combine the “best of all the sites” into a new one. If you must do one of these, I suggest that you skip the improvements, and focus on a niche, if you can find an unoccupied one.

  4. The ultimate online dating site. Based on my own initial research, there are over 8,000 existing ones world-wide, supplemented by two or three new ones per day. Most of these will fail, or never turn a profit. I hope you have a better idea than SugarDaddyForMe, or Meet-An-Inmate. But then, this is an emotional need every single professes a demand for (not to mention the 40 percent of applicants who are already married).

  5. Jump into the new sharing economy. How many more personal things are you willing to share or collaborate on to make money? Everyone wants to be the next Uber (ride sharing), Airbnb (room sharing), Chegg (book sharing), or GwynnieBee (clothes sharing). Before you step into this space with a first-time passion, you might want to check the list of over 200 companies already there.

  6. No more shopping for food or cooking. Despite the spectacular failure of Webvan many years ago, this one keeps coming back. Currently Grubhub in the US and Deliveroo in the UK are showing some success, but new ones continue to pop up and fail every day. Fewer and fewer people love to cook, or the time it takes to shop for food, but time costs money, and everyone today expects services on the Internet to come for free.

  7. Mobile apps for everything and anything. Today there are well over 2.2 million mobile apps available to download for iOS devices, and even more for Android devices. Unfortunately, less than one percent of these ever make a profit. Granted, a mobile app business can be started for as little as ten thousand dollars, but it’s hard to make it up in volume if you lose money on every download.

Somewhere below this list is another tier of questionable potential startups, including more Amazon e-commerce knock-offs, photo sharing sites, music sharing sites, and more ultimate video games. Web site generators have made it cheap and easy to launch a site, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to succeed.

In my view, the single biggest reason for startup failures is a lack of real innovation. Changing the user interface, and adding a couple of features doesn’t compensate for not being there first. The second biggest reason is lack of focus. Combining the features of several successful products will not assure success (“something for everyone”).

For other ideas, the wave has simply passed. Rather than trying to extrapolate linearly from solutions already popular, be the first to solve one of the myriad of current and future problems causing real “pain” in our society. Problems like health care and diseases, or alternative energy solutions, offer a wealth of possibilities, with huge potential paybacks for everyone.

These also have the potential of satisfying a higher purpose (socially conscious), as well as making money. The rewards are greater and longer lasting, and it’s a lot more fun. What are you waiting for?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/04/2017 ***

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

5 Ways To Get Beyond Linear Thinking In New Ventures

road-to-innovationIt’s time for more entrepreneurs to reset their focus, and shift their thinking to completely different ways of doing things. Everyone talks about innovation, but the majority of business plans I see still reflect linear thinking – one more social network with improved usability, one more wind-farm energy generator with a few more blades, or one more dating site with a new dimension of compatibility. Serious changes and great successes don’t come from linear thinking.

In searching for ways to get this message out, I came across a no excuse, no apology book classic by Brian Reich, called “Shift and Reset,” which makes some excellent points on ways to increase the range of change in a person’s thinking, or an organization’s results. Here are some of the key principles that he espouses and I support:

  1. Force and expect change. Everyone knows change is hard and messy, and occasionally painful. But unless we force ourselves to change, innovate, and experiment with different ways of addressing serious issues, we won’t find solutions that are needed. Major innovation won’t happen without real commitment, sacrifice, and hard work.

  2. Measure ability and results, not experience. Move to a model where people are measured on their deliverables, not how hard they are working, or how many years of experience they have. For entrepreneurs, this may mean more learning from experiments, and for organizations it may mean dumping a stagnant team to start over.

  3. Don’t settle, demand the best. If you want to perform at the highest possible level, you need to hire the best people, who have produced consistent exceptional results. More energy needs to be spent on how the teams are organized and how the individuals work together. Leading an organization or a movement requires skills not taught in school.

  4. Launch fast, fail quick, and learn more. Indeed, even the most capable, passionate, and well-supported entrepreneur will succeed only if he or she has a clear plan to follow. But don’t believe that any plan will develop and must remain unchanged throughout the execution process. Plan in your plan for constant change, with learning.

  5. The time is now to think bigger. Great new ideas are emerging from the massive and frenetic coordination of people online and through connections. Let’s make sure they aren’t lost or ignored as we head into the future. Now is the time when smaller, yet dedicated groups can communicate and work to bring together disparate ideas.

Reich makes the point that everyone has a role to play in solving major issues, and driving greater innovation. The Internet and social media facilitates cooperation and collaboration, which is what we need to shift our thinking, then reset our goals and ways of attaining them. It’s much easier to challenge everything we know, and turn them on their sides.

Especially for change in serious social issues and infrastructures, it’s now easier to motivate people to care enough and take action. We will never innovate quickly by following the same, old, tired patterns. We need to realize what being connected really means, and makes possible. Now is the time to change.

Innovation begins with knowing your customer, so that’s always the first place to focus. The shift and reset in thinking applies to finding the solution, more than in defining the problem. Linear thinking on the solution can doom a startup or an entrepreneur. A good step in the right direction is to build a team with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

This helps break linear thinking, and greatly reduces the probability that you’ll solve a problem in the same old way, or just like your competitors. Another approach is to bring in team members from outside your domain to challenge your thinking. You as an entrepreneur can either take the lead to make real change happen, watch it happen, or wonder what happened. You decide.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Why You Should Enlist a Business Mentor, Or Be One

mentor-menteeBuilding a business is not rocket science, so there is no magic success formula. Some people think you need to get an MBA to get it right, while others are convinced that those who drop out of school early (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) have the advantage. In my experience working with startups, the best approach these days is to find and use a good mentor (been there, done that).

Of course, mentoring is not new – it’s been the favored way to learn arts and crafts since way back in the middle ages. And I certainly believe that running a new business is more an art than a science. Yet in this age of technology, many seem to favor tools and data to get the edge, or can’t find the time to talk to real people. But I assert that mentoring in business is making a comeback.

In fact, the best mentoring doesn’t have to be a huge time sink, and can be done most often by short but regular discussions and message exchanges. I just finished a new book that highlights this approach, “One Minute Mentoring,” by the legendary business consultant Ken Blanchard, in concert with Claire Diaz-Ortiz. They detail the key action steps required, including the following:

  1. Agree on the objectives and vision up front (Mission). A mentor/mentee relationship must be a win-win and learning experience for both. Each time I mentor an entrepreneur, I learn new things about their technology, customers, and business domain. Just like any partner agreement, it minimizes misunderstands to have objectives written down early.

  2. Set a regular schedule and way to share (Engagement). Determine the type of engagement that works best for your personalities and other commitments. Good mentoring partnerships require both the flexibility to engage in digital communication and the power of in-person meetings when possible. Meetings can be informal or structured.

  3. Expand your network on both sides (Networking). A key value of mentoring is getting access to each other’s networks, who can be new business partners or new mentors. True business leadership is more about relationships and knowing who knows, rather than personally knowing all the answers. Shared social media is the new networking.

  4. Build and maintain a trusting partner relationship (Trust). Building trust takes time, but it can be destroyed in an instant. It starts with always telling the truth, staying connected, and being dependable. A good mentor won’t always tell you what you want to hear, but rather what you need to hear, but always with courtesy and respect.

  5. Create opportunities for your mentee to grow (Opportunity). As a mentoring partner, you will have access to personal and business opportunities that simply aren’t available to non-mentors and non-mentees. These opportunities can be cross-generational, which is an excellent way to exchange and compare time-tested as well as new knowledge.

  6. Regularly review progress and adjust focus (Review and Renewal). You will never get to where you want to go if you don’t have a roadmap, and you’ll never know if you have arrived if you don’t take checkpoints. These days, flexibility and agility to meet new customer requirements is a key to success. Practice how to do this with your mentor.

Most people don’t realize that even the most successful people in business have benefited from mentors, and don’t try to dodge or hide these relationships. Bill Gates often refers to his ongoing relationship with Warren Buffett as a mentor, and Mark Zuckerberg counted Steve Jobs as a key mentor. I wonder who the lucky people are who now count Gates or Zuckerberg as their mentor?

Some people ask me about the difference between a coach and a mentor. In my view, coaches focus on bringing out the best in an individual’s generic skills, while a mentor adds the element of sharing information about the industry, company, or business unit that the mentor believes is relevant to the mentee. Good mentors also must be role models and advocates for the mentee.

If all these points are already clear to you, then it’s probably time for you move from the role of mentee to the role of mentor for someone else. Those who extend a helping hand to others always have much to gain, in business as well as their own personal satisfaction. In the words of an ancient Buddhist proverb, “If you light a lamp for someone, it will also brighten your own path.”

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/02/2017 ***

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

6 Key Elements Of Marketing Content To Fuel A Launch

Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launchingYour marketing launch is the most important element of startup success these days, to get customer attention in this world of information overload. Yet it is the one element that too many entrepreneurs focus on only as an afterthought. Everyone assumes their product or service is so great that “word-of-mouth” will carry the day for them.

Even great products need great marketing “content” to fuel the ascent of their online message. A couple of years ago, I saw a classic primer on the key elements of great online content that I like, in “Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition,” by Michael Stelzner, founder of SocialMediaExaminer.com.

Michael delivers field-tested guidance on how to create the core elements of great content for your announcement, your webinars, blog posts, Facebook contests, newsletters, Internet TV, and other initiatives. It’s all about content that will bring the masses to your business:

  1. Highly relevant. To get to the core of what’s relevant to customers, you need to know them well. Use your content as a way to make a connection between your business and things that matter to them. The more frequently you can deliver content that meets the needs and desires of your customers, the more relevant you will become to them.

  2. Educational. Helping customers discover new ways to solve common problems can quickly build you a loyal following. Your content must continue to deliver new ideas. In simple terms, this is where you share your knowledge, as well as the guidance from other experts, for free.

  3. Easy to digest. A conversational tone should be the basis for all of your content. Highly relevant and educational content if irrelevant if you can’t make it easy for people to understand. Common approaches include the use of metaphors, tell stories, and always stay on topic.

  4. Visually appealing. The eye is just as important as the mind when it comes to customers. The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is still alive and relevant. Make sure your paragraphs are short. Use callouts and bullets to help the reader speed through your content.

  5. Conversation inviting. Great content is conversation. If you want to connect with customers, put aside your writing formalities. Your language doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s pretty simple to do. Simply speak out loud. Then write it down. The message should spark a side conversation between friends, and a follow-up comment to you.

  6. Lacks a sales angle. Great content shouldn’t have any obvious marketing messages or sales pitches embedded inside of it. If your content is about your specific product or service, that’s not great content; it’s marketing collateral. People won’t flock to marketing materials.

Creating these core elements is a lot easier if you can team with outside experts to help you. They have what your readers seek – important, worthwhile knowledge, and some experts already have a large following of their own. They are a shortcut that can put you far ahead of your competition.

Some experts are so instrumental that they are called “fire starters.” These are people who have so much influence that their endorsement can ignite your efforts nearly overnight. The best potential fire starters have the eyes and ears of people who closely match your ideal base. Nurture these relationships, and provide generous value to them in return.

Every marketer throws around the word “content,” but few have mastered the art and science of creating useful, thought-provoking, and viral content. Great content doesn’t happen by accident. Start early in your planning, build your own skills, or find the best expertise you can afford. There is nothing more devastating than a good business that fails to launch.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

5 Technologies Here Today That Will Change Your Life

future-self-driving-carsAs a new business advisor and technologist, I often think about the large array of opportunities for entrepreneurs as technology seems to be evolving faster and faster. Yet I still too often hear the question, “Can you give me a really sure-fire idea for starting my own business?” My standard answer is that ideas are a dime a dozen, and success is all about smart execution, not ideas.

Yet from time to time, I try to step back and look for some of the most promising and exciting technologies that I see coming down the pike. In that context, I just finished a new book, “Driver in the Driverless Car,” by Vivek Wadhwa with Alex Salkever, which categorizes many of the leading ones that everyone, both entrepreneurs and consumers, should be thinking about:

  1. Self-driving cars, trucks, drones, and planes. The opportunities to capitalize on these vehicles are huge, ranging from control software, hardware design, support facilities, to entirely new applications. The challenge, according to a recent survey, is that just one in five people today would entrust their life to a driverless vehicle. Execution won’t be easy.

  2. Artificial intelligence (machine learning). According to experts, computers with more power than the human brain are mere seven to fourteen years away. Artificial intelligence is still young, but already embedded in our everyday lives, through decision support, navigation routing, and much more. Future opportunities for entrepreneurs are endless.

  3. Personalized genomics and healthcare. Advances in the understanding of the genome of an individual is leading to personalized medicine, also termed precision medicine. The next step is manipulation of these genomes to fix and even prevent many disorders, totally change the efficacy of healthcare, and extend and improve your life.

  4. The Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, vehicles, homes, offices, and public places. These sensors talk to each other, and to us, via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or our smartphones, to help us manage our environment and live a richer life.

  5. Merging of man and machine (robotics and biology). Amazing progress is being made in underlying hardware and software, and costs have plummeted. Siri and her compatriots will soon be able to converse with you in more physical and emotional ways. The mental distinction between humans and machines will become almost imperceptible.

There are many more, but these are ones high on my priority list for entrepreneurs looking for a place to start. Yet with these, as with any other opportunity, there are many risks and implications, pointed out by Wadhwa in his book, for every entrepreneur to consider with each idea. He and I suggest that you always ask yourself the following three questions before starting:

  • Does your idea have the potential to benefit everyone equally? Many technology advances have negative implications for certain industries and segments of society. Your market may be limited to the top one percent of income owners, or may imply values that are unacceptable to the mass market. Consider the societal big picture before jumping in.

  • Does it promote autonomy or dependence? Customers don’t want new technologies to be like recreational drugs that they become dependent on. We all want greater autonomy – the freedom to live our lives the way we wish to and to fulfill our potentials. Entrepreneurs need to focus on ideas that lead to customer autonomy, not dependence.

  • What are the higher-level risks and rewards? Beyond the normal risks of starting a new business, many new technologies have the potential for moral and environmental risks. What if you mess up and create monsters or destroy the environment? Look at the potential side effects and long-term consequences of an idea, before making a legacy commitment to that business.

For me, and for most technologists in business, the future is both very exciting and a bit hair-raising. I certainly see no shortage of ideas and opportunities, but I recommend that every entrepreneur, and every consumer, take a hard look at the broader implications of each new technology. There is plenty of room for good, so select wisely and execute well. The quality of all our lives depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/12/2017 ***

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Friday, May 12, 2017

5 Steps To Startup Success Recommended By Many Gurus

Paul_Graham_talking_about_Prototype_Day_at_Y_CombinatorI see more and more entrepreneurs who seem to have everything going for them – vision, motivation, passion, even a good business plan, product, and money, and yet they can’t close customers. Maybe it’s time to look harder at the mantra of a new breed of gurus and successful entrepreneurs, including Steve Blank and Eric Ries, called “nail it then scale it” (NISI).

You can review all the specifics of this approach in the classic book by Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom, appropriately titled “Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation,” but I will net it out here. I found their five phases of the process to be compelling, based on my own years of experience mentoring startups:

  1. Nail the pain. Great businesses begin with a customer problem that has a big and monetizable pain point. Avoid the three big mistakes, of guessing but not testing the pain (on real customers), selecting a low customer pain (solution is only nice to have), or selecting a narrow customer pain (small number of customers willing or able to pay).

  2. Nail the solution. Neither breakthrough technology nor maximum features will assure that “if we build it, they will come.” In fact, NISI recommends starting with the minimum focused set of features and technology that will drive a customer purchase. Success demands testing the solution early and quickly in the market, then iterating to get it right.

  3. Nail the go-to-market strategy. In parallel with nailing the solution, you need an in-depth understanding of your target customer’s buying process, the job they are trying to get done, the market infrastructure, and a stable of serious pilot customers. Do real tests with real pricing to see if customers will pay you, without being pushed.

  4. Nail the business model. Leverage your customer conversations to predict and validate your business model. For example, when you think about distribution channels, revenue streams, or the relationship with the customer, ask customers what they expect. Don’t forget a viable financial model of costs, margins, customer acquisition, and break-even.

  5. Scale it. Don’t attempt to scale it until you have a proven repeatable business model that predictably generates revenue. Only then is it time to focus on the get-big-fast strategy, and the transformation of three key areas from startup to a managed growth company. These areas include market, process, and team transitions.

These pragmatics and points of focus can effectively counter three core myths which trap too many enterprising and capable entrepreneurs today:

  • Hero myth: Why believing in your product leads to failure. All too often, founders fall in love with their products or technology, ignore negative feedback from customers, and spend years building a product based on a vision that no one else shares.
  • Process myth: Why building a product leads to failure. Conventional wisdom is that after a great idea, the next steps are raise some money, build a product, then go sell the product. This doesn’t work when attacking unknown problems with untested solutions.
  • Money myth: Why having too much money leads to failure. The old saying that “it takes money to make money” isn’t so simple. Money allows entrepreneurs to execute a flawed business plan far too long, rather than stay focused on the market and adapt.

At the heart of it, to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be totally customer centric, and learn to change and adapt as fast as the market. The pace of change in the marketplace is escalating, so entrepreneurs have to improve their ability to deal with change.

At the same time, more entrepreneurs are jumping into the fray, and less money is available from investors. It’s time for a new startup model. In my view, savvy “super angel” investors such as Mike Maples, Jr., and leading incubators such as Y Combinator, are already on this one. How far behind is your startup?

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

7 Steps Toward Implementing A Breakthrough In Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

*** Published by Xerox Small Business Solutions on 05/01/2017 ***

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Lessons From The Military On Winning Funding Battles

charge-the-hillDon’t charge the hill until you are “ready.” This probably seems obvious to military types, but I see entrepreneurs violating this rule all the time. They approach key potential investors way too early, trying to talk their way up the hill, with no supporting business plan, and before they have a support team around them. Needless to say, they usually get shot down, and get no second chance.

The first rule is to separate your advisors from your investors. Perhaps a close personal friend can be both (the earliest stage and first tier investors should be “friends and family”). But for angel investors and venture capital investors, just remember that investors are not on your team (yet). You only get once chance to make a great first impression.

Continuing with my military analogy, here are some logistics, suggested ammunition, and an assault strategy (the bold points apply to every aspect of building the business):

  1. Do your reconnaissance first. Before you meet a potential investor, check them out on the Internet and through your advisors. You need to know exactly what the investor has done before, what he is doing now, and what will interest him If you walk into his office cold, and can’t convince him you meet his interests, you will walk out cold.

  2. Coordinate and brief your support team. Make sure all your advisors and team members know exactly what your mission is, and if possible, have at least one of them make prior contact to set the stage. If the investor thinks you are coming to ask for domain advice, and you ask for money, your success probabilities are shot.

  3. Fully prepare for the assault. Don’t try to talk and demo your way up the hill. Talk bounces off and won’t stop any bullets. Lead with your two-page executive summary, be prepared to give a ten-slide investor presentation. Keep your big guns, the business plan and financial model, in your holster but visible for backup.

  4. Put your ear to the ground before charging ahead. Offer to give your executive presentation, but he may want just the elevator pitch. Listen, and follow his lead with confidence and enthusiasm. Don’t insist on a product demo – he is buying the business, not the product. If you have an hour, use no more than 20 minutes for presentation.

  5. Follow-up to assess progress or casualties. Have someone else, if possible, follow up with the investor the next day, to find out what really happened. If you didn’t learn anything from the meeting, you weren’t listening. Most VCs won’t volunteer to the Founder what they think, because that limits their options later.

By now, you are probably saying that this is “old school;” when going to Sand Hill Road offices was like going to the principal’s office. There you were ushered into a gorgeously appointed conference room for a precise amount of time with a serious-looking partner. Now some VCs and Angels actually hold court in a nearby Starbucks or Paradise Bakery.

But believe me, investors are, if anything, tougher now than then. Don’t be fooled by the informality. Preparation, professional image, confidence, and strategy are just as important as they ever were. The strategy of “I’ll talk to him informally and early, find out what he doesn’t like, and then I’ll fix it,” is pure folly. Napkins don’t really work as your business plan.

Some of the most prepared “teams” I have seen are essentially one person, with a few part-time advisors, who seem to overcome all obstacles. One person can look like an army charging the hill, if they use all the networking facilities of the Internet, all the tools available to build business plans, financial models, and product prototype.

Don’t be afraid to use some mercenaries to back you up (outsourcing, consultants). All the shortcuts up the hill are rigged with minefields. Better safe than sorry. This is serious business.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

6 Initiatives To Get Ready For The Changes Ahead

road-sign-change-aheadChange is about the only thing constant in the world of startups. Despite their own focus on changing the world, they often forget that they too have to change rapidly and often as the market evolves. Too many find that out too late, and are left chasing a rabbit that is long gone.

The solution is to establish and maintain a culture and processes that don’t view change as a discrete event to be spotted and managed, but as an ongoing opportunity to improve competitiveness. Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, in a classic HBR article on change readiness for large companies, define it as “the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Since the startup environment is usually more volatile, the challenge there in balancing advantage, risk, and performance, is more critical than in big companies. The following initiatives that Chris and Tammie define for large companies apply just as directly to startups:

  1. Improve change awareness. How good are you and everyone on your team at proactively scanning the environment for opportunities, emerging trends, and customer feedback? This contextual focus is critical to innovation and survival – the right product at the right time.

  2. Increase change agility. Change agility represents a startup’s ability to immediately and effectively engage everyone in pending changes and innovations. It starts at the top with the founder and CEO, but has to extend quickly to the bottom of the organization. This requires leadership, teamwork, and trust at all levels.

  3. Expedite change reaction. This is the ability to appropriately analyze problems, assess risks, and take responsibility for problem-dictated and market-dictated changes, while still sustaining the day-to-day business activities. It’s called the management of unplanned changes, or how well your startup reacts to crises.

  4. Implement change mechanisms. Every organization needs to have specific mechanisms in place to facilitate change, including regular effective communication, reward systems that reinforce desired change behavior, and accountability for results. These won’t work in an autocratic or dysfunctional management environment.

  5. Build a change readiness culture. Change readiness is hard work, and requires creativity sometimes in conflict with task orientation. People have to have the right attitude, and make the choice from the beginning to be ready to change at any time. They need a sense of urgency to handle change, and confidence in their leaders.

  6. Imbue customer change focus. The more everyone in the startup is obsessed with satisfying customer needs and providing better customer service, the more effective the startup will be in adapting to change. Provide direct customer contact to everyone, as well as training.

Experts say that we live in a world where the pace of change is accelerating at the fastest rate in recorded history. On the other hand, change management practices seem to be changing very slowly, resulting in a 70% failure rate of change initiatives. Failure rates this high demand a new mindset and startups are the logical place for this to happen.

For starters, the whole team needs to be constantly trained and encouraged to develop their skills. Relevant skills include continuous improvement of existing methods, processes and devices against a set of quality metrics. The ultimate skills, which lead to innovation and totally new processes, usually come from experimentation and special studies.

In summary, change will happen. If your people and your startup do not change, statistics say you won’t survive. It’s up to you to get out of your comfort zone and make things happen in your startup, rather than let things happen to your business.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

How To Put Fun And Satisfaction Back Into Your Work

team-happy-satisfiedIt’s time to take the drudgery and dread out of work at your business. You don’t like it, millennials won’t put up with it, and current productivity levels at work continue to decline. Only 32 percent of American workers are even engaged at work today. Most workers are still rushing to retirement, where they hope to escape to more stimulating activities with a real sense of accomplishment.

In my view as a long-time business advisor, this problem is driving a new entrepreneur age, with the lure of doing what you love, and loving what you do. Yet most startups soon degrade into the negative work environments of more mature businesses, unless they know how to change their approach right from the beginning, and continually focus on the key pillars of work transformation.

I found these pillars, and the first principles behind them, pulled together well in a new book, “Embracing Progress: Next Steps For The Future Of Work,” by A. Sophie Wade. She has lived and worked in five countries, and consulted with major corporations, as well as startups, in transforming their workplaces to be more productive as well as more satisfying. The pillars of change she details include the following:

  1. Embracing and adapting to technology. Technology is not the solution per se, but it provides the key enablement, drivers, and support for the required flexibility, integration, communication, metrics, and affordability that are required in the workplace today. More people as a substitute for technology is not a solution. No one is happy or satisfied.

  2. Build engagement through culture and mindset. Employee engagement is a measure of emotional commitment, leading to work focus, which translates to productivity, satisfaction and happiness. It starts with a mindset, but requires a like-minded community and culture to survive. Leaders must embrace respect, reciprocity, and recognition.

  3. Show leadership, transparency, and empathy. For leaders today, the success factors include a progressive, open attitude to new ideas and processes, wherever they may come from. The goal must be to eliminate organization silos, flatten hierarchies, and empower employees within projects. Make sure roles match interests and capabilities.

  4. Coach for productivity, performance, and creativity. The traditional once-yearly look-backward performance paradigm has to be replaced by daily or weekly coaching focused on a career roadmap ahead. Leaders at all levels need personal engagement with employees, to understand their interests, skills, and match to roles needed in the future.

  5. Focus on values, cultural impact, and environment. There has to be more to your business today than making money, to get employee engagement and satisfaction. Company values must include respect for the environment and social good. The costs of these elements will be more than repaid by employee engagement and customer loyalty.

  6. Treat freelancers and contractors as employees. Today your talent pool is worldwide, including salary as well as contract arrangements. All must feel that they are committed to the same goals, and part of the same team – not second-class citizens. They all need the same feedback, respect for their input, and coaching to maximize their engagement.

As obvious as many of these principles may seem, the reality I see is that most organizations and most business leaders have not embraced them yet. I believe this is largely because the traditional “command-and-control” management practices are long-established habits, and it’s hard to find the time to really engage with your team, and be sensitive to individual interests.

Recent studies reveal that highly-engaged organizations are experiencing double the success rate of less engaged ones. And there is nothing like success to put fun and satisfaction back into your work, and the work of your employees. When was the last time you saw members of your team happily working well past required hours? Maybe it’s time for you to break some old habits.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/05/2017 ***

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