Friday, October 20, 2017

7 Drivers of Digital Opportunity or Business Demise

JackWelchApril2012Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, once predicted, “When the rate of change outside the company is greater than the rate of change inside, the end is near.” Yet in my role as business advisor, I often see companies naively ignoring this reality. The smarter ones look outside regularly for evidence of impending change, and treat these as opportunities to jump ahead of competitors.

Today, the move to digital technology is driving marketplace change at a seemingly ever-increasing rate. The pervasive Internet and mobile device access allows instant communication of new options, total sharing of customer experiences, and mass customization, on a world-wide scale. No more hiding behind a cultural stereotype, a well-built brand, or a geographic wall.

The question every entrepreneur and business executive should be asking is what are the drivers of the digital transformation, and how can you make them opportunities rather than costs. I found some real guidance on these questions in a new book, “The Digital Helix,” by Michael Gale and Chris Aarons, who have helped change the strategy of dozens of companies around the world.

I endorse their list of the seven key drivers of digital opportunity, how to recognize them, and examples of how forward-thinking companies have capitalized on them, which I paraphrase and summarize here:

  1. Compression of supply and demand enables near instant fulfillment. Historically, many businesses profited from the time lags between supply and demand by exploiting geography, relationships, and buying habits. Today people can find and switch brands based on delivery, prices, and new features, with one or two clicks and minimal risk.

  2. Shifting demographics changes customer needs and expectations. With simpler and cheaper access to information and alternatives, the cultures and generations are rapidly becoming more homogeneous. Demands and expectations change regularly as people learn from others who share their experiences in this new digital age.

  3. Access to more information is leveling the market playing field. Almost anything and everything is available online, and the amount and depth of information is growing exponentially every year. This means market changes in the world today are instantly available everywhere, and quickly change the way we buy, sell, interact, and live.

  4. Pay-as-you-go provides infinite ability to scale every business. Due to the efficiencies of digital, it is now commonplace to have companies with billions of dollars of revenue and valuation, with few employees, and without years of building infrastructure. Witness the exponential scaling of Uber, Pinterest, Airbnb, and other recent unicorns.

  5. New competitors are built to be digital from day one. Think about the up-and-comers during the past decade that have either created new business models or stolen share from established players. Digital gives startups the same power to understand, engage, and look for new opportunities that traditional brands have spent decades building.

  6. The rate of change is extremely exponential. In the past century, the benchmark for disruptive change was about thirty years or so. Now evolutions and even revolutions are happening within years, or at most a decade. In this digital age, you need a business capable of listening, assessing, and adjusting to the early nature of these changes.

  7. The trade-offs between price, efficiency, and innovation have disappeared. Basic business theory states that businesses have three clear paths to success: cut prices, be more efficient, or invest in sustained technological advantages. Digital enables you to do all three simultaneously, and you must build a plan to do so to compete or die.

The message here is not about recklessly abandoning what you have, or taking huge steps into the unknown. Rather, it is much more about building a strategy to recognize change from early signals, and quickly transform your company to gain significant benefits from the change. The alternative is continual catch-up, and your eventual demise. How tired are you feeling today?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 10/05/2017 ***

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How To Use A Checklist To Build An Innovative Startup

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

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

Although I’m not an aficionado of checklists in general, I really appreciate one he has included for keeping up with the latest technological trends that are reshaping business strategies, which should be the driver for startups to fill in the gaps. I’m sure you can find some gaps, niches, or extensions for each of these technologies:

  1. Internet of Things. The physical world is quickly becoming Internet enabled, allowing it to be fused with the digital world. Everyday devices, like Internet soda vending, have an embedded computer allowing full remote reporting and control. Other examples include smart-home remote control, cell-phone tracking, and remote auto traffic sensors.
  2. Mobile Computing. From tablets to smart phones to the Apple watch, people are increasingly relying on their mobile devices to assist them in managing their lives. The next phase of evolution will demand device independence, enabling an uninterrupted computing experience as we move from device to device throughout our daily lives.

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

    • Software as a Service (SaaS). This is a software distribution and pricing model in which new applications are hosted by a service provider and made available to customers over a network, rather than requiring customer hardware. Upgrades and troubleshooting can normally be provided over the network, as well.
    • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Data storage, hardware, and networking equipment are provided to the customer on a per-use basis by the IaaS vendor, who holds the equipment and is responsible for running, and maintaining it.

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

    • Business Process as a Service (BPaaS). Procurement, payment processing, and payroll are just a few of the business functions that can be supported through BPaaS provider, who delivers the necessary infrastructure so that organizations no longer need to staff and perform the activities in-house.
  4. Social Media. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn manage communities comprised of millions of people worldwide. The challenge for most businesses is determining how to best harness the potential. Every entrepreneur needs to leverage social media for better marketing, requirements, and customer service.

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, October 16, 2017

6 Insights On Social Media Trends You Need To Know

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

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

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

  2. Where are the young social media users going? They are going to Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Snapchat is currently the fastest growing social network, while Instagram is close behind with a bigger share globally of new sign-ups.

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

  4. Where did your friends go? While Pinterest and Tumbler have seen activity increases approaching 100%, EMarketer predicts that Facebook usage will experience a decline of 3.4% in 2017, as young people ages 12 to 17 migrate to Snapchat and Instagram.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Romances Are Common At Work, But The Risks Are Great

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

Yet the 2017 Office Romance Survey by Vault, Inc. found in polling more than 1,000 professionals at companies nationwide, that 57 percent had participated in an office romance, and two-thirds of those who’ve had relationships said they’d be willing to engage in another one. So recently I started looking for some expert guidance on the pros and cons on this issue.

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

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

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

  • Work-related betrayal. According to most experts, romantic betrayals are the most frequent type of friendship betrayals, with work-related issues a close second. Betrayals at work run the gamut from telling lies, coloring the truth, plagiarizing work, to saying negative things to the boss. Of course, all these things can happen in any workship.
  • More vulnerable emotionally. Through friendship you open yourself up to acceptance, being liked, admired, respected, trusted, and appreciated. You also open yourself up, as do others when they befriend you, to the greater possibility of disappointment, rejection, and misunderstandings. Success is the best antidote to emotional vulnerability.
  • Competition over salary, promotions, and position. Sometimes friends share too many details on salary levels, work habits, and promotion expectations. This can cause feelings of unfairness, and initiate emotionally competitive efforts. The result can be a loss of friendship, and even loss of any working relationship.
  • Hard to keep work-related disagreements separate from personal relationship. Work-related disagreements break up many romantic relationships, and broken personal friendships break up many businesses. In this new age of collaboration, unemotional different perspectives and disagreements have been proven to lead to better decisions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

6 Principles For Driving Online Reputation Management

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

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

  1. Actively monitor what people are saying about you. You may assert that monitoring the entire Internet space is an impossible problem. Fortunately, there are already tools out there, like Google Alerts (free) and Brand Yourself, which can do the work for you, and send you a daily email report of every link where your name or brand appears.

  2. Proactively build a positive reputation. Maintaining a good reputation means you have to build one early and maintain it. There is a big difference between no reputation with one negative comment, versus 1000 indications of a positive reputation and one negative. Most people accept that no person or organization is perfect.

  3. Quickly address every negative. Many negative customer experiences can actually be turned into positives, if you quickly acknowledge the problem, resolve it, and spread the positive message before the negative one gets amplified. Don’t repeat the “United Breaks Guitars” experience, which now has been published as a book on what not to do.

  4. Push negative content out of view. In reality, most people will never find negative content, unless a link appears on the first page of search engine results. With the right focus on search engine optimization, or the help of companies like ReputationDefender, you can usually push negative links out of sight into the swamp of the Internet.

  5. Remove unwanted content, where possible. Removing your content from the Web is not as easy as canceling your accounts, nor is it completely impossible. You can easily remove content you own (comments on your site or accounts). Experts, like Reputation Defender, have proprietary techniques to correct or completely remove other unwanted content.

  6. Your reputation is your responsibility. The last step is to recognize that you alone are responsible for managing the reputation of your business and your life. Doing nothing, or counting on more laws, is not an answer. Due to First Amendment rights, offensive content, once entered, is often untouchable, and the sources are immune from liability.

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 13, 2017

7 New Initiatives To Fearlessly Grow Your Business

CTAGrowth has always been fundamental to business success, but it’s never been more critical than it is now, nor more difficult. Every opportunity is global, but so is the competition. Evolving customer expectations and technology are the norm, forcing every company, from startups to large enterprises, to innovate quickly, despite their fear of change, uncertainty, and doubt.

As a long-time business advisor, I believe the mantra that every owner needs to live by today is to disrupt their own business before someone else does it for them. You must capitalize on the uncertainties in your market, rather than letting the unknowns slow you down. You need the commitment of every team member to respond quickly and effectively to emerging opportunities.

I found these points made well in a new book, “Fearless Growth,” by Amanda Setili, who has worked with disruptive technology startups in the United States and Malaysia, as well as some of the biggest companies in the world. She offers seven imperatives, which I espouse, for companies of any size to achieve record growth, and I paraphrase them here:

  1. Embrace uncertainty and risk, rather than repeatability. Traditionally, businesses have yearned for consistency, as a lever tor productivity and cutting costs. Today the market and competitive landscape are changing so fast that the best lever to growth is the ability to anticipate and adapt to change, to beat competitors and excite customers.

  2. Get in sync with customers by frequent customer interaction. Seek direct customer feedback, via social media and personal interactions, rather than old market research. Products and services must be updated continuously; not one major annual upgrade. Enable customers to customize your offerings, and learn from the choices they make.

  3. Continually look outside for talent, data, and technology. In the past, companies avoided sharing knowledge or technology, preferring stealth mode and relying on internal expertise to stay safe. We now see that leveraging the ideas and capabilities outside your organization will grow opportunities and reduce risk faster, rather than increasing risk.

  4. Connect and strengthen your customer ecosystem. Modern growth companies, such as Salesforce.com, have found great leverage value in hosting events to have their customers learn from each other, as well as from channel partners and complementary application providers. Attempts to control communication only slow down progress.

  5. Create cross-functional teams to attack opportunities. These open the floodgates of employee creativity. The best growth companies enable employees to choose their own job, and grant them the leeway to get the work done. They connect employees across organizational silos, and establish fast feedback loops to facilitate learning and change.

  6. Pursue growth opportunities outside your comfort zone. Instead of limiting your scope to current in-house capabilities, set clear objectives of acquiring new talent and skills each period, and make learning new skills a prime objective for every employee. This facilitates change and makes new opportunities attractive rather than frightening.

  7. Recognize the impact of trust on efficiency and speed. Take deliberate action to build trust, and be a personal role model. Encourage and expect healthy conflict, debate, and dissent. The result is better decisions, more consensus, and accelerated business growth. Trust is heightened by showing appreciation regularly for individual contributions.

The objective of these imperatives is to help you stimulate continuous and fearless growth, even in turbulent markets, by staying more competitive, fostering innovation, and dominating your space. The time to start is now, if you didn’t start yesterday. Set and communicate clear priorities for your implementation, and don’t let “the way things have always been done” stand in your way.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/29/2017 ***

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

10 Winning Entrepreneur Insights That May Surprise You

jeff-bezos-entrepreneurEvery aspiring entrepreneur would love to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, but most have no idea what really sets these guys apart from all the rest. Conventional wisdom has them looking for a painful problem, a very large opportunity, and minimal competitive barriers to entry. In reality, most great entrepreneurs find these necessary, but not sufficient for the big win.

They think outside the box, with a sometimes surprising set of strategies, as outlined in a new book, “Think Bigger,” by Michael Sonnenfeldt. He has collected in-the-trenches intelligence and lessons from his TIGER 21 group of over 500 entrepreneurs and executives around the world. Each has amassed $10 million or more in personal assets, and is willing to share their insights with others.

Sonnenfeldt presents a rich array of strategies in his forty lessons from the trenches, including the following paraphrased insights that I find often overlooked or even rejected, based on my years of experience mentoring entrepreneurs:

  1. Experience at a first-rate company is really valuable. Good big companies provide the training, mentoring, and experience managing teams that entrepreneurs need, but can’t afford. In addition, you can learn much about business principles, and your own capabilities, from being surrounded by many intense, ambitious, and super-smart peers.

  2. Entrepreneurship is rarely about just making money. The best entrepreneurs are committed to fixing a problem, or advancing a purpose, and making money is only used as a validation of their insight. Any money made is typically poured back into the cause, rather than relished for a high-class lifestyle or extravagances by the entrepreneur.

  3. Self-control beats passion for long term satisfaction. Passion often leads to a need for instant gratification. Most successful entrepreneurs either learn or are born with the capacity to delay gratification for critical periods in their lives. Even after success, they use self-control to continue to live modestly, and plow their profits back into business.

  4. Think twice before investing with friends and family. Some are so self-centered that they see family and friends as an easy source of capital. Smarter entrepreneurs know that nothing can bring more embarrassment, resentment, and peril to relationships with people you love and respect than losing their money. Don’t jeopardize key relationships.

  5. You are never to smart or too old for a mentor. In case you think mentors are only for “wimps,” you should know that Bill Gates always revered the guidance he received from Warren Buffet on many corporate matters. Most successful business people, whether retired or still active, love to share the wisdom they gained from their own experience.

  6. Entrepreneurial skills can limit investing success. Entrepreneurs and investors are different kinds of people, inside and out. Smart investors diversify their exposure across multiple assets; if any one of these fails, they are still in the game. A true entrepreneur makes one big bet on a new and untested asset, normally against conventional wisdom.

  7. Apply business skills to solve social problems. Social entrepreneurship is on the rise, with the advent of Millennials and a total world view. Companies that pursue socially relevant goals as part of their mission have the potential to generate double-bottom-line results - a financial return as well as a social benefit. One plus one can now equal three.

  8. Skip conservative - be optimistic, even delusional.  The best entrepreneurs just believe they can make it happen – even though conventional logic would peg the risk as being off the charts. Professional investors dismiss founders who give “conservative” financial projections, and usually make less. Shoot for the moon – you may hit it.

  9. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Too many entrepreneurs have a tendency to overrate their personal skills and wisdom, and seek out people who won’t challenge them. The smartest ones acknowledge their weaknesses, and find people who complement their skills, from whom they can learn and delegate authority.

  10. Resilience and determination generally beat IQ. We all know of successful businesses started by entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, while MBAs get no premium with investors. According to most experts, “street smarts” (experience) trump “book smarts” (intelligence) every time, especially if accompanied with a large dose of grit.

Whether you are already a seasoned entrepreneur, or just starting out, I recommend that you regularly strive to think bigger and outside the box, starting with the lessons from others who have been there and done that, and emerged successfully. We need you then to contribute to the next set of winning strategies for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/27/2017 ***

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Monday, October 9, 2017

10 Secrets For Getting More Things Done In Business

Mark-Cuban-productivityEvery business professional I know faces the challenge of getting more things done on time, and getting the right things done. They all dream of working less, and accomplishing more. Yet I see that most are their own worst enemies. They seem to all fall victim to a common set of mistaken priorities and well-meaning distractions that keep them from exceeding their own objectives.

For example, I talk to inventors who think that creating and perfecting the product is the key to a new business. In my experience, I have found that the product is usually the easy part, and the hard part is turning the invention into a business. Or I find people who want to run a business, but don’t claim any technology skills. Both categories need to follow these principles for success:

  1. Organize and plan every business effort. Document a business plan early, rather than trying to keep it all in your head. Most people think a business plan is only for investors, but it’s really for you to make sure you are communicating, and have included all the necessary elements of cost, timeframe, business model, and opportunity assessment.

  2. Work to your strengths, and get help for weaknesses. Stop trying to fix all your weaknesses, and team with others who have the skills you are missing. Don’t try to do everything in business yourself. Recognize when it’s time to call in an expert to get the job done, learn from them, and listen to your own advice.

  3. Do what you love and love what you do. Figure out what’s really important to you as an in life, as well as business. For most, it’s following a passion to make a difference in the world. Identify your top priorities, and choose one of these to focus on. Then you will get things done, and it won’t even seem like work.

  4. Use networking to build valuable relationships. Build a network of business contacts to allow you to harness the power of others’ strengths. Superficial relationships don’t help. Giving is the best and quickest way to strengthen a relationship. Find people of all levels that have been there and done that, meaning people you can learn from.

  5. Just say ‘no’ to all major distractions. You need to set boundaries and say “no”; to stop multitasking, and to find ways to group similar tasks. Don’t forget to delegate to other team members, and remember the 80/20 Pareto principle. This rule states that, in most environments, 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the actions.

  6. Don’t let procrastination slow you down. Procrastination is a killer when it comes to being effective. One of the best ways to stop procrastinating is to break big business projects down into small chunks, using small milestones to move forward. Break time into pieces. When there’s an end in sight, it’s a lot easier to get down to business.

  7. Make technology your friend rather than an enemy. Use technology thoughtfully to automate things that take a lot of time, thus gaining leverage. Reuse things rather than re-inventing them. Yet you need to be careful to separate yourself from technology on a regular schedule to not allow a machine’s interruptions to set your day’s agenda.

  8. Keep focus on urgency versus emergency. Remove or de-prioritize all the relentless urgency-killers, including the crisis of the moment, and people who are skeptics or by their actions create destructive urgency. Show some progress each and every day, and constantly purge low value-added activities. Model urgency in your own personal style.

  9. Focus on completion rather than time worked.  Too many business people focus on how many hours they work, or following a set process, rather than how many tasks they complete. The most productive professionals look for ways to achieve desired results in the quickest possible time frame, thus getting more done.

  10. Learn to read people and organizational hierarchies. Everyone around you has strengths and weaknesses, and you need to capitalize on these. Working effectively with other people is the only way to get more done than any one person can accomplish. The same is true of working with other organizations and companies.

If you follow these principles, you will soon see that you are gaining more control of your business and your life. You will find yourself honing in on the things that actually move the business and your career forward and make you happy, while learning the skills you need to resist the rest. In most cases, the challenge is how to get out of your own way!

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/25/2017 ***

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

8 Weak Change Signals That Can Have Explosive Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

7 Leadership Actions To Win In This New World Of Work

engaged-employeesWe are living in a new generation of business, where customers drive the experience, and highly engaged employees are required to keep up with customer expectations. Traditional business leadership practices, including autocratic, reactive, and narcissistic, aren’t working. Only 13 percent of workers are fully engaged, and half have left a job because they hated their boss.

We have all heard the examples of the great new company cultures, popularized by Google, Zappos, and Facebook, which seem to imply that company perks are the secret to success. Of course, these are great, but they don’t happen without enlightened leadership coming first. I believe that business cultures are a function of people and leadership, more than programs.

As a business advisor, I’m always looking for guidance on leadership practices that work, and I was impressed with a recent book, “The Leadership Mind Switch,” by D. A. Benton and Kylie Wright-Ford. Their experience as executive coaches and entrepreneurs gives real credibility to their assessment of some new leadership approaches that are required in business today.

In my view, every aspiring business leader and entrepreneur needs to understand their seven leadership initiatives, as summarized and paraphrased here:

  1. True blue: stay trustworthy beyond reproach. Trust is still at the top of the required list in a leader. New leaders need to remember that trust works two ways – you need to be trusted so people will choose to follow you, and you need to be able to trust people you work with. “True blue” is a step beyond trust, adding authenticity and transparency.

  2. Kindly confident: project and inspire confidence. Leaders today must always project confidence and help others develop confidence, courage, and curiosity. Everyone needs to take the necessary action, despite their fears, to continuously explore new ideas. Combining courage and curiosity creates a confident unstoppable leader and team.

  3. Enlightened: open your mind and constantly learn. Enlightenment refers to an interest in staying informed and approaching every interaction free of prejudice. An effective leader is intellectually curious, constantly learning, and genuinely in pursuit of wisdom about people, places, technologies, scientific advances, economies and cultures.

  4. Tenacious: be persistent in your pursuits. True leaders are tenacious, determined, and self-starting. They can take a tough situation and fix it. They might retrench, reiterate, reconvene, or pivot more often than others, but they keep at it, instead of stalling when something becomes difficult. They know that nothing significant happens with little effort.

  5. Be uber-communicative: use all channels to connect. Effective communication is critically important for a leader – for two purposes; to deliver the right message, and to establish a common understanding of the message by everyone. Assuring mindshare and connection is the new challenge is this world of distractions and multitasking.

  6. Be dynamic: enable change in yourself and others. Dynamic leadership refers to an energy or force that is spirited and magnetic. Leaders must continuously change and advance, with behaviors that require substance as well as style. More importantly, dynamic leaders always support individuals, and enable others to reach their goals.

  7. Be playful: have fun and try new things. Increasingly, as your work and personal lives blend into each other, it is important to bring levity into the workplace, while making it enjoyable for others to be around you. Learning to be more flexible in your thought processes and actions will get you one step closer to a full leadership mind switch.

Compared to what I most often see today, these approaches represent a “leadership mind switch” in the way entrepreneurs need to think about their behaviors to generate the level of employee engagement required to keep up with rapid market changes and customer demands.

Just as importantly, every leader deserves to feel success and satisfaction from their efforts, rather than continual stress and negative feedback from employees and customers alike. The bottom line is that by directing your actions toward helping others pursue their dreams and customer dreams, you will make amazing progress in achieving your own.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 10/06/2017 ***

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Friday, October 6, 2017

9 Ways A True Entrepreneur Survives And Flourishes

survives-and-flourishesCould you survive and flourish as an entrepreneur, or should you be satisfied working for someone else? That’s a question I get every day in my role as an advisor to business professionals, and it’s a good one to ask. In my view, the number of traditional long-term employee roles is declining rapidly, due to advances in technology and automation.

By some projections, the level of unemployment could reach 50 percent by 2050, unless more people adopt the entrepreneurial, freelance, or gig approach, rather than long-term employment. It really doesn’t matter where you are in the racial, social, or economic spectrum. It’s time to take a hard look at your alternatives for maintaining financial independence in the years ahead.

I saw some good alternatives detailed in a new book, “The Memo,” by John Hope Bryant, who has served as an advisor to the last three U.S. presidents. He has spent years working with people who have “too much month left at the end of their money.” Part of his message is that a great alternative is to be entrepreneurial, if you can relate or adapt to the following principles:

  1. Success is learning from failure without loss of enthusiasm. Real entrepreneurs are so busy chasing the dream and building out ideas to change the world, that they see failure only as a learning experience in more tightly focusing their effort. Success in business, as in life, is about turning pain into satisfaction and happiness.

  2. Rainbows and success only come after a storm has passed. True entrepreneurs wake up every day assuming that there are going to be problems and disappointments, and relishing the challenge of turning them into rainbows. An entrepreneur’s mind-set sees a silver lining in each and every situation, rather than a series of storms.

  3. Real entrepreneurs accept “no” as a healthy vitamin. For an entrepreneur, there is nothing like an impossible challenge to get you charged up to achieve your dream. Their passion makes them immune to failure. Following your passion is the secret to overcoming the setbacks all entrepreneurs face, and it builds resistance to naysayers.

  4. Competitors will find it hard to hit a moving target. Entrepreneurs find the courage to overcome their fears. Fear takes over many people who become like deer caught between headlights. They cannot move. In business, success required dodging competitors and keeping up with and leading the market, It’s all about execution.

  5. Persistence and resilience are more powerful than intelligence. Do you throw up your hands and quit at the first sign of market shift, a well-funded competitor, or economic slowdown? Entrepreneurs with street smarts out-maneuver and out-hustle the ones with high IQs and advanced academic degrees. Hard work and persistence pay big dividends.

  6. Life is 10% about what happens to you and 90% about your response. Business founders decide that while they cannot control what others do, they can absolutely control their response. They know that any emotional reaction and any snap decision will likely be the wrong one. They take back the personal power over their own life and business.

  7. Always look at the glass as half full rather than half empty. How you see the world absolutely determines your place in it and your ability to either move through problems, get out of them, or remain trapped. If you see the world as a glass half full, you are an optimist, you see ways through problems, and you will be able to change the world.

  8. Work eighteen hours a day to keep from getting a real job. The best entrepreneurs love what they do, so they would do the job for free, or don’t even see it as work. They seek a purpose in and for their lives, and not just a gig or a job to show up to. They think more intently, are more focused, behave more creatively, and re-imagine everything.

  9. If you cannot get a job, then create your own opportunity. Entrepreneurs take an idea, turn it into a small business, and seek to grow that business into a big one, just like the immigrants of the early twentieth century. They don’t seek offices, power structures, or organizational hierarchies. They do seek a purpose that can change the world.

In fact, these principles will work for you, no matter what you choose to do in life. You can benefit from thinking the way entrepreneurs think, from the way they approach life, solve problems, and even how they see challenges. I’m convinced that an entrepreneurial mindset is precisely what you need in order to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century. Are you on-board today?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/21/2017 ***

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

10 Clues That It May Be Time To Seek Outside Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, October 2, 2017

How To Win Business Without Sacrificing Your Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

5 Entrepreneur Habits That Imply Visionary Execution

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

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

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

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

  1. Commitment to core values. Visionary leaders radiate a sense of energy, strong will, and personal integrity. This usually results in a focus on multiple related ideas, leading to real innovation, rather than bouncing from one idea to the next, looking for the Holy Grail.

  2. Positive inspirational communication. People with vision usually start by communicating an inspirational picture of the future, and then integrating individual innovative ideas into this fabric, and show how to get there. The best ones can make the impossible look easy, so everyone, including investors, line up to commit.

  3. Build strong relationships with strong people. Great relationships are key to every leader. They see people as their greatest asset, and listen as well as talk. Theirs is not the autocratic style of leadership, which tells people what to do and dominates them, but a style which treats partners, investors, and customers as family.

  4. Willing to take bold actions. These actions somehow always seem to embody a balance of rational (right brain) and intuitive (left brain) functions. Visionaries are often “outside the box” of conventional approaches and move toward long-term change and innovation. They are proactive and anticipate business change, rather than reactive to events.

  5. Radiate charisma. People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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