Monday, January 30, 2017

8 Disciplines for Transforming Ideas Into Businesses

idea-to-businessEntrepreneurs are people who dream up new ideas, and then commercialize them into new businesses. Most people believe that the hard part is coming up with the idea, and the easy part is turning it into a business. Yet, in my experience as a mentor to entrepreneurs, the majority of failures I see are related to starting and growing the business, not developing the solution.

This has been particularly surprising to me, since building a business is not rocket science. Every country has scores of good business schools, there are thousands of books on the subject, and at the basic level, the disciplines to build all business are essentially the same, no matter what the domain. In fact, I can condense the sum of my business experiences into eight key disciplines:

  1. Start with a total and ongoing customer focus. One of the quickest ways to fail in business is to allow your passion for a solution to convince you that everyone will want one. Don’t assume anything until you have done market research and listened to real customers. Then assume the customers will change over time, so never stop listening.

  2. Formulate and adopt a specific and detailed business plan. A successful business requires focus – define the customer need with a specific solution for a specific price and cost. Normally the goal is to make enough money to be sustainable and provide a return on the investment of constituents. A written plan is helpful for communication to others

  3. Assemble a team with the right skills and experience. Most experts agree that a great team is more important than a great product. The ideal team includes at least one expert on the solution, and at least one experienced business person. Together they set the standard for collaboration and culture that will make or break the company.

  4. Treat every business dollar as a personal one. New business owners are often quick to spend outside investment funding, and quick to delegate money management to accountants in the business. Successful entrepreneurs are more likely to bootstrap their own business, and use the discipline of personally validating and approving every check.

  5. Learn to communicate effectively to insiders and outsiders. People can’t work for you if they don’t know what you expect, and the message has to be updated daily. Customers and partners won’t find you or buy from you if you can’t tell them why, how, and what they need, and what you offer. Communication must be proactive, not reactive.

  6. Demonstrate an ongoing sense of urgency. In today’s world, the market evolves even faster than the technology. Time is of the essence in everything you do. The business race is not a sprint – there is no finish line, beyond which your team can relax and enjoy. Learn and incent your team to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

  7. Manage the business with metrics and goals. Working hard is necessary, but not sufficient for success. Business objectives need to be quantified and measured to assess progress and positioning against competition. Metrics drive a results-oriented culture that leads to continuous quality improvements, required pivots, and recognition of success.

  8. Cultivate mental toughness and resilience. Every business encounters unanticipated obstacles due to economic conditions, natural disasters, and competitor challenges, so start practicing resilience early. One of the most common reasons I see for startup failure is that the entrepreneur gives up too early, rather than fight through these challenges.

I have no doubt that starting and growing a business is hard, at least as difficult as developing an innovative solution. The difference is that developing a new solution typically requires specialized skills, creative thinking, and strong passion, while starting a business is more about planning, disciplined actions, and problem solving. Don’t lose the race halfway to the finish line.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/17/2017 ***

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

7 Keys To Utilizing A Blog To Drive Your Business

blog-to-drive-businessBlogging has come a long way in the past few years, from a social release for narcissists, to today’s required vehicle for promoting your consulting business and gaining valuable online exposure. Even with product businesses, it’s the ultimate way to build your brand credibility, bring in customer leads, and get feedback from your target market.

Let me be clear – a product or consulting startup today without a blog, even with a static website, risks not being competitive in cost and time to reach and hold that critical mass of online customers. If you can’t justify both a web site and a blog, skip the old-fashioned web site, and make your blog do double duty as described below.

The challenge, as with all new technologies, is to make it work effectively, and avoid wasted effort and expensive mistakes. Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from experience:

  1. Lead with your blog. You should start blogging about your business before you have a product, to test interest and establish your credibility. Several free blog platforms, like WordPress, are so flexible that you can configure them as a website, as well as your blog, without separate hosting.

  2. Add content regularly. Every business wants their web site to appear on the first page of search engine results from a relevant search (Search Engine Optimization). Blogs help because sites that update data frequently get higher SEO rankings. When you post to a blog multiple times each week, you content is constantly changing and growing.

  3. Anchor the blog in your domain name. If you do have a separate web domain name, like ‘www.domainname.com’, then your blog name should be the domain name suffix ‘/blog’ or ‘blog.domainname.com’. Otherwise, your blog content will be indexed separately from your web site content, resulting in a lower overall Google rank.

  4. Conversational style. Search the Internet for blogs in your industry and do a little research before you start. Studying other people’s blogs will help you identify what you like and don’t like, and how you want yours to look and feel. An informal writing style is generally recommended.

  5. Add outgoing links. For example, if you mention an article you read in XYZ magazine, make sure to include a hyperlink to the article. Your readers will appreciate the option to view the sites you reference, and having links pointing to other sites will further improve your search engine rankings.

  6. Create incoming links. Promote your blog by including your blog link in your e-mail signature, on your website, in social networking profiles, and by providing signed comments to other blogs on a daily basis. You should also submit your blog name to directories such as BlogCatalog and Best of the Web Blogs.

  7. Leverage blog content. It doesn’t take long to build up a sizable amount of blog content. You can repurpose your posts into articles, books and reports. Many bloggers have found publishing success and Google ads revenue from the blog to be a substantial source of revenue to bolster their mainline business.

Finally, if you don’t have the time, energy, or skills to write a blog, it may be a good investment to hire a ghost writer, or hand the job over to your marketing executive. Don’t be shy, I don’t know many CEOs today that write their own speeches and marketing materials. Focus on what you do best, and let professionals do the rest for you.

To be successful, you have to get your message out there, and make your company stand out above all the clutter. Use the social networks, like Twitter, to ‘pull’ in the business. Be a blogger today, and trump your competitors tomorrow.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

7 Ways To Be Your Best In Business When Pressure Hits

business-pressureWe all face pressure in our lives, but there’s nothing like that of an entrepreneur facing customer crises and the competitive challenges of a new business. Don’t believe the myth that all you have to do to get rich is bring up an ecommerce website, and the money rolls in while you sleep. Most successful business leaders have learned how to reframe pressure situations into opportunities.

Reframing enables you to see any difficult situation in a different light so you can deal with it effectively. The science and human factors behind this approach are explained in a new book, Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most,” by Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra. Peterson comes from professional sports, while Hoekstra is a business leadership consultant.

Based on my years as a business executive and mentoring entrepreneurs, I’m convinced that the principles of reframing can be learned, and apply equally well to any domain, certainly including business. Thus, here is my own reframing of the authors generalized rules into some specifics for an entrepreneur or business leader:

  1. Reframe competitive threats to opportunities. When a competitor appears, you can react with fear and anger, or you can learn from what they offer, and set a goal that converts that threat into an opportunity for you. Don’t focus too narrowly. For example, Steve Jobs and Apple moved computer technology to phones to counter falling revenue.

  2. Reframe from fighting harder to changing the game. When you find yourself saying, “I need to keep lowering my prices,” you just put more pressure on yourself. It’s more satisfying and fun to say “It’s time to add my new innovation for real value.” Your best performance will always come by playing from your strengths, not your weaknesses.

  3. Reframe from tension to humor in your approach. Humor has been proven to provide numerous business benefits, including customer loyalty, productivity, and reduced absenteeism. If your team is feeling intimidated by impossible deadlines, it may be time for an event with a fun skit to break the tension and get everyone working productively.

  4. Reframe from anxiety to taking control. When the job ahead looks overwhelming, you feel threatened. An effective strategy is to break the task into bite-sized chunks, and conquer them one at a time. This puts you back in control, with success feedback at every step. That’s the value of a complete business plan, with milestones along the way.

  5. Reframe from doubt to confidence and skill. Many entrepreneurs find themselves in a downward spiral of doubt, when their first customers come slowly. It pays to have passion and confidence to fall back on, as well as in-depth skills, to turn the tide to growth and success. It also pays to have the confidence to ask for help from your advisors.

  6. Reframe from failures to learning moments. Using different words with your team enables them to think differently. When things go wrong, refrain from harping on mistakes – rather talk about the lessons learned that make everyone stronger. Thomas Edison had many learning moments before he found great success with the incandescent light bulb.

  7. Reframe from barely-prepared to over-prepared. In business, there is no substitute for doing great homework. Many entrepreneurs don’t really study competitors, skip financial projections, or don’t have a backup plan, so feel stress with every new setback. Great business leaders never stop preparing, and always have alternative plans when pressed.

When times are tough, the first battle always fought is in your mind. If you can’t win that battle, and lose faith in yourself, you are unlikely to triumph in any business challenge. The reframing strategy is really about overcoming that primal human fear reflex when you are being threatened, to see the threat as an opportunity, or see it in a context where you have the advantage.

In fact, the best business leaders I know thrive on the challenges and the pressures of their business, rather than fear them. They actually avoid the alternatives of boredom and “business as usual” as more threatening to their sense of self and well-being. There is nothing more satisfying in business than being your best when it matters most.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 01/27/2017 ***

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Friday, January 27, 2017

7 Rules for Providing Exceptional Customer Service

great-customer-serviceCustomer service has traditionally been a support function to respond to customer initiated requests, meaning someone waits for the phone to ring or for a website support request form. Today’s customers definition of service is the sum total of their “experience,” covering all aspects of their relationship, including the shopping and buying process, as well as ongoing assistance.

In my role as an advisor to you as an entrepreneur, I always recommend that you move to a more proactive customer service strategy, to include interactive social media campaigns, self-service options on your website, and personalized handling of unique requests. Here is my list of seven key principles to follow in setting up up your customer service policies and organizations today:

  1. Provide customers with choices in every interaction. The old days of routing a customer to a single phone queue for any request will quickly kill any brand loyalty or advocate referral. The best businesses provide a direct chat box on their website, Twitter and Facebook requests addresses, as well as email, phone and website alternatives.

  2. Think “pull” marketing rather than “push” for all services. This means providing such delightful and personalized service that the customer is pulled in for upsells and becomes an advocate. Pushing customers with special sales, repeated marketing jargon, and promotions will quickly weaken brand loyalty and increase churn.

  3. Staff all customer interactions with experienced people. The people you select to interact with customers defines your brand credibility. Customers quickly detect intern usage or outsourcing to unfamiliar cultures, and will share their reactions through social media, rating sites, and personally. Lost growth can quickly exceed current savings.

  4. Never say “no” or “dead-end” a customer request. Always provide a positive next step or a request for feedback, with active follow-up included. We have all received the “do-not-reply” email or been refused access to the real decision maker. If your company can’t satisfy their special request, be prepared to connect them to a competitor who can.

  5. Use technology to personalize and expedite requests. How many times have you been asked to repeat information when you interact with multiple people at a company? With today’s technology, every business should know your name, phone number, and transaction history when they answer the phone and pass you to the right contact.

  6. The customer’s view of usability is the one that counts. Usability means adapting to the user’s background, rather than the user adapting to your changes for efficiency. Changing the sequence of your online ordering process will frustrate and confuse current customers, so test on all constituents, with feedback, before making “improvements.”

  7. Set up online forums for customers to help each other. Most people feel good if they can help someone else, and customers who are advocates usually give better answers than your technical people. The forum staff should always be watching, to initiate or supplement answers, implement solutions internally, and reward contributors.

Today bad customer experiences, whether unnoticed or resolved poorly, will jeopardizing your entire brand image. Consider the experiences of United Airlines a few years back in handling a broken guitar, or more recently Comcast’s handling of a service cancellation request. The solution is to set the norm with positive reviews and too many delighted customer stories to challenge.

Although the technology is getting better and better, there is no substitute for well-trained people with the passion, conviction, and authority to anticipate and resolve any situation. It’s time to take a hard look at what more you can do to build a positive emotional relationship with every customer, and entice them to pull everyone they know away from competitors.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/13/2017 ***

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Every New Business Needs A Unique Selling Proposition

unique-selling-propositionEvery startup and every new business needs a unique selling proposition (USP) to get people’s attention these days, and make it stand out in the information overload we all see. Your concept has to be understood by customers and investors in 30 seconds or less, and everyone needs to immediately see how awesome it would be, or that they would be nuts not to have it.

That may sound easy, but I rarely see it happening. As a startup advisor and investor, I’ve heard and seen hundreds of pitches from entrepreneurs, and the majority of founders are convinced that if you will just give them an hour or more time, you will love their business. I’m looking for the “hook” right up front, or I lose interest quickly, just like every customer and investor these days.

The more potentially disruptive your technology, the more important it is that this message be quick, simple, and quantified. This point was illustrated well in a new book, “The Power of Positive Destruction: How to Turn a Business Idea Into a Revolution,” by Seth Merrin. He has had his share of failures, as well as successes, with some good evidence to explain the difference.

Merrin is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Liquidnet, who faced the challenge of major change to some of the most complex stock trading systems in the world. I like his approach to first making sure the idea has the potential for a unique selling proposition, by asking yourself a few key questions:

  1. Does the idea solve a painful problem? Great ideas solve big problems, preferably painful needs that people will readily be willing to pay money for a solution. Will the solution give you an “unfair competitive advantage,” meaning no competitor already has it, or can replicate your solution without your skills or intellectual property.

  2. Is there an educated marketplace waiting? An educated marketplace is one where your target customers already understand the problem and the impact of your technology. Truly disruptive technologies are tough, since it always takes extra time and money to educate and motivate the customers to move away from current approaches.

  3. Is the opportunity large and growing? Professional investors normally like to invest only in billion dollar opportunities, with double-digit growth rates. A smaller market sizing may make a good family business, if you have the funding. Highly saturated domains (more than 10 existing players), such as niche social media sites, are highly risky.

  4. Are you uniquely qualified to deliver the solution? Don’t try to build solutions in areas you don’t know, even if you see a big problem there. The ideal startup founder is one who is an expert in the subject area, has prior experience running a startup business, and is surrounded by a project team and investors that he was worked with in the past.

If your idea passes muster on the above tests, it’s time to craft a unique selling proposition. Expect it to take some time and many iterations, but the results are well worth it. Here are some specific guidance points for a great USP:

  • Start with a “hook” to get customer and investor attention. This is an assertion or question that will pique their interest. Good hooks succinctly imply a real problem, and suggest the solution. Examples include Domino’s “We’ll deliver in 30 minutes or less, or it’s free!” or Geico’s "15 Minutes Could Save You 15 Percent or More on Car Insurance."

  • Keep it simple and short. Skip the fill words and fuzzy phrases, like better, cheaper, easier to use, or more productive. A unique selling proposition is no place for industry jargon and acronyms. Don’t try to explain your technical implementation, your patent algorithm, or your unfair competitive advantage here. Do include some quantification.

  • Make it ready to play in all media. A great selling proposition is one that you can use as a kickoff in all your investor and customer presentations, including your elevator pitch, executive summary, website, and customer collateral. A good one becomes your brand definition, and sets you apart from competitors and existing modes of operation.

Too many new businesses try to be everything to everyone. Creating your unique selling proposition forces you to focus on one thing, or the one element that sets your business apart from others. Startups that try to do many things end up confusing customers, and doing all things poorly, since they have highly constrained resources.

A great unique selling proposition is what your business stands for. It’s what sets your business apart from others because of what your business takes a stand on. Instead of attempting to be known for everything, businesses with a unique selling proposition stand for something specific, and it becomes what you are remembered for.

Pick your focus, make it sound simple, memorable, and valuable, and all the right people will wait in line to get a piece of the action.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 01/24/2017 ***

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Monday, January 23, 2017

8 Ways to Cure the Procrastination Habit in Business

procrastination-habit-businessIf you are a chronic procrastinator, or your work partner is one, there is never enough advance notice to get things done without a crisis. You can’t get things done on time unless you get started on time. Otherwise, your business and your career suffers, and you may never even see it coming. Luckily, this is a malady that can be cured if you are willing to make a few adjustments.

As a long-time business advisor and entrepreneur mentor, I see this problem all too often. The reality of running any business or startup is that there are always things you don’t enjoy doing, and it’s always tempting to focus more on items you have a passion for. Other things, like hiring and firing people, raising money, and building a strategic plan get pushed off until it’s too late.

The solution is to recognize that we all have bad habits, and ask for an honest assessment and recommendations from a business advisor you trust, before the pain is severe. It’s easier for an outsider to recognize the symptoms and guide you through a series of techniques, including the following, to get you back on track:

  1. Plan your reward for completing a challenging task. It’s more fun to look forward to the reward rather than the work. For example, instead of dreading the necessary business plan creation, plan an afternoon trip to a ball game after finishing to look forward to. It’s important to reward every small success, rather than delay for a big reward later.

  2. Maintain a bulletin board work list and prioritize it daily. The worst form of procrastination occurs when you pretend the work items don’t even exist, or you don’t remember the important items. Documenting your work list will help force you to prioritize and schedule it. Many people find great satisfaction in just checking off completed items.

  3. Schedule a tough task as the first of the next day. Tackle your biggest challenges when you have the most energy, rather than starting with the easy things. If you get one priority thing done early, you will be more motivated all day to stay ahead of the game. You will find that you are never too tired to do the things which take no thinking.

  4. Block out time in your schedule for priority work. Things happen in businesses that you can’t predict by name, but need to be resolved quickly. If your assistant books ahead every hour of your time for meetings and scheduled functions, you will tend to procrastinate and fail on late-arriving priority items. Be proactive rather than reactive.

  5. Periodically do an audit on how your time was spent. If your procrastination is driven by being “too busy,” it often helps to look hard at how your time for a given day was actually spent. You may quickly recognize your tendency to work on the wrong things, or identify work that should be delegated to others, on contracted out to an expert.

  6. Find a location where you can work without distractions. These days, it’s popular to schedule a work-from-home day per week to better focus your efforts on key strategic tasks, versus the chaos at the office. On the other hand, some people find that the home distractions of children, pets, and chores are worse than the office. Know yourself.

  7. Enlist a confidant to keep you accountable. Most procrastinators keep their failures and slippages close to the vest, to minimize their embarrassment. If you share progress and commitments with a trusted partner, it can be motivating and helpful for both parties. For group projects, expectations need to be clearly delineated and communicated.

  8. Be diligent on rest, health, and family balance time. Trying to cure procrastination by putting in more hours and skipping time off is counter-productive. It’s common for procrastination to spiral in the wrong direction when you are in a bad mood, overly tired, or sick. Maintain a positive attitude and maximum productivity to get things done on time.

Overall, many procrastinators are their own worst enemy, by insisting on perfectionism, putting obstacles in their own path, or fearing their own adequacy to get the job done. In all of these cases, it helps to work closely with trusted team members, and celebrate small successes to build momentum and confidence.

Remember that only you can change yourself, and you will always be the biggest beneficiary of all improvements. Secondarily but equally valuable, your business will improve, as will your relationship with all the others who are counting on you. Don’t procrastinate.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/09/2017 ***

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

8 Keys To Developing A High-Trust Business Culture

Tony_Hsieh_ZapposEstablishing and maintaining the right company culture is a major key to success in any business these days, especially with the growth of the millennial generation of workers. It has a huge impact on productivity, as well as morale and loyalty to the company. In this age of interactive social media, your culture image quickly spreads to customers, and determines their loyalty.

Everyone knows and admires the leaders, including Google and Zappos, but most entrepreneurs have only a fuzzy idea of what to do to get there. If you are looking for specifics, as well as the science behind it, you should take a look at a new book, “Trust Factor – The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies,” by Paul J. Zak. He says trust is the key to a good culture.

Zak is the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and he has studied the connection between trust and performance all over the world. Trust causes the brain to release oxytocin, which stimulates productivity and raises motivation.

So, how do you build trust? He cites eight leadership actions, which I also recommend, from a non-scientific perspective, as a mentor to entrepreneurs. Start with these to build the great business culture you need to succeed today:

  1. Show appreciation for individual contributions. Your team, and every individual, needs regular recognition for their accomplishments. The most effective recognition is a daily “thank you” from leaders, and positive feedback in front of peers. Monetary rewards are nice, but don’t generate the long-term trust and loyalty you need to set the culture.

  2. Make sure everyone knows what you expect. No team member feels good or performs well when they don’t know what needs to be done. Regular communication, both written and oral, is the place to start. It’s actually important to set high expectations – people like to be stretched, but not broken, for the highest morale and productivity.

  3. Let team members take control of their work. Employees don’t like to be micro-managed. Make sure the challenge is clear, but let team members do the job in their own way. Always be prepared to mentor and assist, but empowering people to share their expertise and choose how to do projects engenders the culture you need to win.

  4. Flatten management levels. A recent Gallup survey reported that 81 percent of employees would prefer to manage themselves, if their company created the right culture for it. Multiple levels of management work against this, and are not really needed when team members take more responsibility for their actions, and select their own teammates.

  5. Share more information about the business. Only 40 percent of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. All the evidence says that openness promotes trust and loyalty, rather than burdening the team. Being open is a two-way street, requiring active listening, inclusion, and responsiveness.

  6. Practice employee caring and empathy. Actions speak louder than words in building real rather than artificial relationships with the people around you at work. Caring and empathy don’t require tolerating a lack of respect or inability to perform. In fact, just the opposite is true – recognizing problems and doing the right thing are the ultimate caring.

  7. Invest in employees’ career and personal growth. Leaders who show real interest and commitment to their employees as “whole persons” quickly generate trust and loyalty. Everyone wants feedback on their performance, new career options, and work-life balance guidance. This requires leader effort daily – annual reviews are not the answer.

  8. Demonstrate honesty and vulnerability. The best entrepreneur leaders today build trusting cultures by being warm, competent, approachable, and relaxed. Everyone knows who is in charge, but the leaders don’t hide an occasional shortcoming, and are openly honest without negative emotions. They favor a “leadership by all” culture.

It’s important to get it right the first time, because repairing and replacing a negative workplace culture is far more time consuming – change is always difficult. Equally important, you need all the productivity and loyalty you can get right up front with a startup. In addition, very few people get a second chance to be trusted.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 01/21/2017 ***

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

8 Success Drivers Define A Lifestyle Entrepreneur

money-entrepreneurUntil the recession a few years ago, market research indicated that as many as 90 percent of the roughly 20 million American small business owners were motivated more by lifestyle than growth and money. More recently, the desire for extra income has become the key driver in new startups, according to a 2015 study. It seems that more people are focused on money today.

Being called a lifestyle entrepreneur should be a point of pride, not an insult. The term applies to anyone who places passion before profit, and intends to combine personal interests and talent with the ability to earn a living. This usually means not taking money from equity investors, since investors want fast growth, high profits, and an exit event, to allow investments to be recouped.

Of course, even lifestyle entrepreneurs want to be happy, and want their business to be “successful.” According to William R. Cobb and M. L. Johnson in their classic book, “Business Alchemy: Turning Ideas Into Gold,” these different success expectations are what separates a lifestyle entrepreneur from a growth entrepreneur:

  1. Owner is the only one “in charge.” Every lifestyle entrepreneur starts their business to be their own boss and follow their passion, so they don’t even think about having investors, a board of directors, or going public. If you think corporate bosses are tough, wait till you start spending investor money, or try satisfying Wall Street and stockholders.

  2. Insist on being engaged at the transaction level. If you are living your passion, you want to interact with customers, and “touch and feel” the product every day. Growth entrepreneurs find that this fun world quickly changes to managing personnel problems, tuning organizational structures, and dealing with testy investors.

  3. Income generated is part of the owner’s personal income. The legal structure of these startups is usually a sole proprietorship, a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), or a sub-chapter “S” Corporation. Under all of these, net income flows easily into your personal income. Corporate versus personal growth really becomes a lifestyle decision.

  4. Startup funding comes from personal savings and family. There is no free lunch for money. Non-equity funding has to come from personal sources, or government grants, or bank loans. Of course, that doesn’t dilute the owner’s equity, but it may well limit you to organic growth, versus international rollouts and acquisition options.

  5. Business model to maintain lifestyle is the primary driver. The lifestyle entrepreneur chooses a business model to make a long-term, sustainable and viable living, working in a field where they have a particular interest, passion, and talent. They operate the business to sustain a minimal level of cash flow necessary to support the lifestyle.

  6. Maximizes owner personal tax privileges. This means that owners can look for every opportunity to get a personal tax advantage from the business, like charging vehicle operating costs to the business, renting facilities from themselves, or managing business and personal travel.

  7. Enjoy being visible and active in the local community. Lifestyle business owners usually benefit and enjoy being a part of the local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and other civic organizations. These can become part of balancing your lifestyle, rather than part of the stress of business-driven networking.

  8. No exit planned until retirement. A lifestyle business becomes an integral part of an entrepreneur’s identity and their life. If, and when, the time should come to “exit” from the business, they will often seek to transfer it to a family member, or simply close it down.

In my view, lifestyle entrepreneurship should be growing in popularity, rather than shrinking, as technology provides startups with the cheap digital platforms needed to reach a large global market. Also, more women have been jumping into entrepreneurship, and they have long wanted to make their business and personal lives and aspirations work more in harmony.

Younger Gen-Y entrepreneurs also tend to be more passionate, idealistic and not driven by money, so I would expect to see them trend up in lifestyle entrepreneurship. I’m told that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook started out as a lifestyle entrepreneur. I wonder if his billions today have changed his mind?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, January 20, 2017

7 Work Ethic Elements Will Get You Investor Funding

Business-People-Team-Business-Meeting-WorkplaceStarting and running a business is hard. Don’t believe the old myth that with a few hours of work a day and a great web site, you can get rich while you sleep. I have found that the most successful entrepreneurs and business executives have an impressive work ethic, and they surround themselves with a team of comparable commitment. Business is more about people than product.

As an angel investor in startups, I often find myself looking harder at the quality of the team and the leadership, than at the details of the product and business model. I’m a strong believer that a great team can achieve success with a less impressive product offering, while potentially disruptive technology often goes nowhere due to a team with an uninspired work ethic.

The challenge for you as a business professional and leader is to develop the work ethic you need to compete, and to recognize the essential elements in every partner or team member you associate with. In my experience, and from the thoughts of others who have “been there and done that,” here is my list of the top elements you should be looking for:

  1. Focused on customers and team, rather than “me, myself, and I.” The best work ethic for business is all about serving others, or win-win relationships rather than win-lose deals. These will provide the competitive edge you need with customers and less-focused team members. You need team members who genuinely enjoy delighting others.

  2. Demonstrates an ability to listen and learn. Investors don’t fund people with large egos, and your business won’t thrive with similar people on the team. No single person knows enough to solve every problem in a business, so the best business executives are always anxious to listen and learn from others, especially mentors and customers.

  3. Dependably and reliably delivers on commitments. Never makes excuses. People who always take responsibility for their actions are a joy to work around, and are appreciated by other team members and customers alike. As an investor, you can rely on these business people to do everything possible to deliver, despite unusual challenges.

  4. Consistently professional in business communication. This starts with responding to phone calls and emails in a timely and professional manner, and extends to thoughtful and unemotional exchanges in all discussions, business or personal. For your own business, the right time to address expected norms is during coaching and before hiring.

  5. Treats everyone with respect, and expects it in return. This also includes showing an understanding of the value of customers, and honoring the line between work and play. Investors read this as being trustworthy of their investment, and an appropriate role model for all business constituents. Solid relationships are critical to every business.

  6. Shows initiative and enjoys giving more than receiving. Initiative is all about giving now and assuming a payback later, rather than the other way around. Of course, leaders need to encourage this action by making their objectives clear and rewarding results rather than effort. People with this work ethic are seen as ambitious and dedicated.

  7. Always display confidence and a positive attitude. No business thrives with people who can only see the negatives and risks, or don’t have the confidence to believe in themselves. The attitude that people display is most importantly the outward expression of internal views. You need positives to radiate to the team, partners, and customers.

While there are encouraging signs that the work ethic in many businesses is improving, the latest Gallup poll still reports that almost 50 percent of employees are "not engaged" and 16.5 percent are "actively disengaged." Your challenge is to rise above these statistics by smart hiring, effective training, and building a culture of customer, society, and team focus.

Google, for example, has been recognized for years as fostering a culture and work ethic that gives them record levels of productivity, high customer satisfaction, and employees who are known to be driven, talented and among the best of the best.

Through this approach they achieved the early investor funding they needed, but more importantly they continue to achieve a level of business success and satisfaction that every business envies. Match their focus on work ethic, and you too can join them.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/05/2017 ***

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

10 Ways Aspiring Entrepreneurs Are Often Victimized

road-sign-scam-alertSome aspiring entrepreneurs are so desperate for funding, or naïve, that they ignore the obvious signs of scams and rip-offs on the Internet, praying for a windfall. One would think that with all the sad stories and tools published over the past twenty years, this problem would be behind us. But people are still begging for more technology or laws, often to protect them from themselves.

As examples, I present my list of ten of the most common ways entrepreneurs can be victimized by ignorance or greed, based on questions and stories I get from entrepreneurs and associates. Most of these are easy to avoid if you do your homework up front, but can cost you dearly if you get sucked in. Use the common sense suggestions to avoid the pain:

  1. Decoy investor scam. Here someone who is not a registered financial broker contacts you on the Internet, tells you about all the people they know with money, then turns around to ask for a “retainer” or fee to cover their time and efforts. No real investor or venture capital firm asks for money from the company they are intending to invest in.

  2. Off-shore unsolicited investor offers. Unsolicited foreign investors that contact you on the Internet need extra scrutiny. If you feel confused by conflicting time zones, differing currencies, and up-front costs, it’s time to run the other way. The SEC and local law enforcement agencies can’t help you much with foreign scams.

  3. Deposit required to hold your terms. In this scam, you are offered a very attractive term sheet due to close in 90 days or so, with a deposit required to hold your position while due diligence is being conducted. Don’t count on ever passing due diligence, or even getting that deposit back. Professional investors don’t work this way.

  4. Loan offer in lieu of investment. Watch out for unsolicited loan offers via the phone or Internet that seem to offer quick approval, but require mandatory “premium fees” or “processing fees” up front, payable by money order or electronic transfer. Even if you pay the fees, you probably won’t see the money and won’t find the lender.

  5. Phantom fund investors. These solicitations, usually via the Internet, claim to represent a large fund that they can’t disclose, until you have been “qualified” for the investment. They promise to provide all the info at the time of close, after you sign a non-disclosure agreement. The close will never happen, but you will be stuck with large services fees.

  6. Pump and dump stock schemes. Don’t fall for claims from “insiders” who offer stock that you can turn around quickly. It’s usually stock that has been artificially pumped up by their big buy, who take their gain when you buy, and leave you with a big loss on their dump. A variation is “short and distort”, where their profit comes from short selling.

  7. Work at home to fund your startup. Beware of any offer that asks you to spend money before you can make money, to buy a starter kit, education, or tools. For more details, see this recent article from the Better Business Bureau outlining the most common pitches to avoid.

  8. Cash transfer assistance funding. I continue to be amazed that some government agency reportedly still gets 100 calls per day from victims of the Nigerian unclaimed cash scam alone. People who fall for this one must be really greedy. The best answer is the age-old wisdom that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s not true. Delete the message.

  9. Chain emails leading to a windfall. This is the classic pyramid scheme where you get an email with a list of names, asked to send a few dollars to the person at the top of the list, add your own name, and forward the updated list to a number of other people, resulting in a huge return to you. You risk being charged with fraud if you participate.

  10. Won the lottery. How can you win a lottery you never entered, usually in another country? A simple inquiry or response to one of these emails will get you permanently tagged as a prime scam candidate, meaning a flood of new deals. Delete these quickly.

Beyond the cases mentioned here, if the message or approach sounds suspicious, I recommend you visit Snopes.com, a website detailing thousands of known scams and hoaxes. With this website, and about 75 others like it, I find it hard to believe that user naïveté is the problem.

If people could get past their greed, hubris, sense of entitlement, and use common sense on the Internet, these problems would fade away due to lack of return. I’d much rather see your entrepreneur resources and energy focused on real opportunities to improve the world we live in.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, January 16, 2017

8 Reasons To Promote Corporate Social Responsibility

Social-Sustainable-businessBusinesses are finding that being socially responsible can be great for the bottom line, as well as good for employee morale. Of course, a company still needs to make a profit to survive, but supporting a worthy cause can be the most profitable brand building you can do. Witness the growth and popularity of Patagonia in outdoor clothing, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Both of these are incorporated under the new structure of a Benefit Corporation (B-Corp), now offered by 30 states in the U.S. For example, Patagonia donates one percent of their sales to environmental charities, and Ben & Jerry’s awards five social change grants annually.

In fact, most of the advantages can accrue to any business type practicing corporate social responsibility (CSR). Zappos, owned by Amazon and selling shoes online, has dramatically enlarged their business by donating shoes to charitable organizations, and by fostering an exciting internal culture through a focus on the well-being of their employees.

As an advisor to many new businesses, I see a host of advantages for every new business by being socially responsible today:

  1. Expands the potential customer target market size. Social contribution and sustainability are features that appeal to a whole new class of customers for any solution. These features are extremely important in penetrating customer sets in different cultures around the world, and more discerning customers in every geography.

  2. Incents customers to pay a premium price. Sustainability and social responsibility are ways to extend your exclusivity and added value, thus lowering risk, improving profitability, and justifying a premium price. All stakeholders see this as an advantage, encouraging new investors and raising the valuation of your business.

  3. Increases customer advocacy and loyalty in all markets. These days, existing customer advocacy is a key attractor of new customers. In addition, according to recent statistics, the cost of bringing a new customer to the same level of profitability as old ones is up to 16x more. Loyal customers post great reviews and bring in many new friends.

  4. Is seen by customers as a competitive edge. Most millennials and customers of all ages these days strongly believe that all businesses must be socially responsible, and make that a top criteria for selecting a solution source. It’s a message that you can use both indirectly and directly in your brand positioning and marketing.

  5. Improves your team motivation and productivity. Sponsoring social initiatives and providing time for employees to support their own initiatives builds loyalty, pride, and motivation among team members and disparate organizations within the company. This makes everyone in the company more engaged, more responsive, and more productive.

  6. Improves employee retention and attracts better candidates. Company success is driven by the quality of the team members they can attract and retain. If your business is recognized as providing a socially responsible culture for employees, as well as comparable initiatives outside the business, the best and the brightest will join you.

  7. Provides governance flexibility and financial grant opportunities. B-corps are given relief from the sole directive of maximizing shareholder profits, to reduce investor suits. With targeted social initiatives, they may also qualify for government grants, alternative energy rebates, and philanthropic initiatives in support of their efforts.

  8. Makes your business more attractive to investors. Investors look for teams with real passion, integrity, and an attractive message. They see a commitment to social change as great positioning for the long-term, with sustainable value to customers and owners alike. They look for that balance between maximizing profit and expanding the market.

A potential offset to all these advantages is that balancing act that is required between social initiatives and the focus on making more money for survival. It takes a strong and adept business leader and entrepreneur to make the right tradeoffs. It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror to see if you are ready to take your business to the next level. The opportunities are endless.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/02/2017 ***

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

6 Elements Of Every Message Stand Out Above The Text

non-verbal-communicationEffective communication is an absolute requirement for successfully starting a business, but it doesn’t come naturally to many entrepreneurs. Communication is considered a social skill, and inventors and engineers, for example, are not known to be social butterflies.

Founders have to communicate their ideas and products to investors, business partners, and the rest of the team. Then, hopefully, come customers, distribution channels, and going public or merging with an attractive buy-out candidate. Communication is not just talking, but also writing, body language, and “actions speak louder than words.”

John Spence, in his classic book “Awesomely Simple” says that the single biggest problem he has to deal with in client companies worldwide is the lack of open, honest, robust, and courageous communication. He narrows down the problem to the following six aspects of communication, and I agree:

  1. Honesty. This element is without question the most important in building strong communication in a startup. The implementation is simple – just tell the truth all the time, every time. It’s a lot easier than trying to remember what you said the last time, and people notice quickly. Build a culture of truth, and others will follow your lead.

  2. Empathy. It is one thing to be honest; it is another thing to be brutally honest. Tell the truth in a frank and direct, yet respectful and empathetic, way. Shoot straight with people, but don’t shoot them between the eyes. Body language and sincerity are important here.

  3. Courage. You need the courage to put even the most difficult and challenging subjects on the table and lead the discussion. Don’t wait until tomorrow, hoping the problem will go away. Courageous means that team members have the nerve and confidence to question authority, rather than dutifully fall in line behind a bad direction.

  4. Safety. If you want people to tell the truth, you have to make it safe for them. Here is where your actions speak louder than your words, and louder than any written policies. If you obliterate someone for telling you the truth, you will never hear the truth again. If you are caught in a lie once, you will never be believed again.

  5. Intellectual rigor. Although people should be safe, ideas should not be. In an intellectually rigorous culture, theories are tested, and people welcome, even encourage, critical examination of ideas and information, regardless of the source. The goal is for only the strongest ideas to survive.

  6. Transparency. The hallmark of great leaders and organizations is that they share as much information with all of their stakeholders as often as they possibly can, in multiple contexts. Yet many leaders will tell me that they are continually amazed to hear the common complaint “why didn’t anybody tell me this was happening”.

Spence says that the best way to improve your organizational communication levels is to improve your own interpersonal communication skills. Luckily, these are skills that can be taught and learned. It takes practice and hard work, but with time, it is possible to greatly improve.

The key skills for superior interpersonal communications are effective use of body language, focused listening, expert questioning, using multiple sensory modes, providing both logical and emotional arguments, and listening for ambiguous or emotionally loaded words. But these are subjects for another day.

If you are one of those entrepreneurs who struggles with every email you write, take heed of the importance of the basic principles above, and take inspiration from the fact that you can and will improve your skills, if you are willing to work at it. But make no mistake about it, being an entrepreneur who does not communicate is not an option. Start today, and do it every day.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

10 Habits That Will Get You Promoted In Any Business

career-advancementEveryone knows that that startups are risky, but they also expect that the job will be exciting and potentially very lucrative (think early employees at Facebook and Google). Yet we have all heard stories about the high turnover, unstructured work environment, lower base pay, and unpredictable expectations from the top.

Assuming you are lucky enough to get hired, what can you do to survive, and even stand out above the rest in this environment? Here are some tips from a classic book by Harvey Mackay, “Use Your Head to Get Your Foot in the Door,” which work even better in a startup than they do in a bigger company:

  1. Make yourself indispensable. The truly indispensable person in a startup is a problem solver, because every startup has plenty of problems. Very few people are willing and able to take on any challenge, and make it work. You can’t outsource that one.

  2. Volunteer. This is related to the first item, but more specifically means the willingness to take on tasks that others could and should do, but hate to do. There will always be a place in this world for the person who says, “I’ll take care of it.” And then does it.

  3. Stick out and shine. Many employees like to keep a low profile, thinking that will minimize their workload, but it also maximizes their risk. It pays to be visible in any way that’s positive for the company. It could be managing the company picnic, or being the office “go-to” person for computer questions.

  4. Don’t hang out with gloom and doom. Some people love to gripe about management, the pay scale, and career opportunities. Even if you never utter a negative word, don’t tag along with this bunch, or you will be written off as a silent sympathizer.

  5. Be a builder … and a rebuilder. When the organization changes, be the first to help the new organization work, even when it costs extra hours and sweat. If you see a customer service problem hurting the company, step up proactively with a proposal to fix it.

  6. Always position yourself as number two to your next career opportunity. Initiate activities that improve your chances of being the chief’s backup. Then focus on ideas that will likely get your boss promoted. You will likely be the dark horse that fills the slot.

  7. Persevere. In a struggling economy, it’s so easy to throw in the towel. Executives always have their eye out for people who do the opposite and engage in tough challenges. These are the ones who stick with finding a solution even after many reversals.

  8. Educate yourself one notch up. Study the resumes of managers on the next level and do your best to match or even surpass their career credentials. Not just degrees, but loading up on books, business journals, and blogs that your top executive favors.

  9. Pay attention to your image. You attitude and the clothes you wear assert your authority to subordinates, peers, the media, and customers. Your company is spending real money on its image, so make your own personal “brand” an asset to the company.

  10. Think big picture. Some issues aren’t worth winning. You can win the battle and lose the war. If your boss takes credit for one of your ideas, use it as an opportunity to point out how you think alike, rather than berating him in public for the lack of attribution.

In the real big picture, if your prime focus is keeping your current job, you are already in trouble. You should be thinking about your promotion to the next level in this company, the next level in the next company, and then on to starting your own company. The satisfaction of creating jobs is a lot greater than keeping this one.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, January 13, 2017

7 Steps To Kicking Your Selling Skills Up To The Top

top-sales-awardA good entrepreneur is not necessarily born a good salesman. In fact, they are often the opposite, more focused on building things rather than selling them. Yet, in today’s world of information overload, marketing and selling skills are critical to the success of every startup.

The alternative “If we build it, they will come” approach has long been relegated to the field of dreams, after Kevin Costner’s movie by the same name. In my own effort to keep up with the times, I explored Julie Steelman’s classic book on selling, “The Effortless Yes: Demystifying the Selling Process.” Julie is known as the entrepreneur’s selling mentor, for both men and women.

Steelman does a good job of outlining the key selling steps that separate great sales people from the rest of us. In my view, every entrepreneur has to be a great salesman to succeed (among the many other required skills), so you should take a hard look at these points:

  1. Dust off your moxie. Don’t hope that a miracle will happen and your products and services will sell themselves. Be passionate about what you are selling, and get the latest tools you need to work more productively and manage your workflow from anywhere. Set aside fear and doubt, and stand tall with your message.

  2. Claim your sweet spot. The sweet spot is the essence of your brand. The way to claim it is to name your expertise or specialty, describe for whom it’s meant and clearly state how it delivers on its promise (or what is called your unique payoff proposition). Make it real for your customers with professionally finished collateral and proposals.

  3. Craft your irresistible pitch. An irresistible pitch is a clear and concise explanation of what you do best, benefits to your customers, an honest statement of why you do what you do, a question that pulls the listener in, and words and language that engage the hearts and mind of your ideal customer. Content marketing is vitally important to today’s businesses, Find out how to establish a content marketing strategy that will elevate your business.

  4. Socialize your message. Generate leads using social media, but don’t rely on it alone to make sales. Use the media to initiate contact, highlight your human element, and communicate your specialty or expertise in a way that anticipates what your customers might be thinking about. Real time social media relationships are a great way to generate sales, but be sure to facilitate a transition to a private environment to close a sale.

  5. Engage graciously. Always treat customers with respect, honesty, and warmth to make the selling process more enjoyable, fun and delightful. The goal is to deepen the relationship, and discover if their needs match your offer. Listen closely for what they are saying and expressing. Don’t forget to follow-up. Be willing to go the extra mile to engage your customers. Skip the cold calling – it’s just too cold.

  6. Discover your signature selling style. Learn to sell in a way that matches your personality and your strengths, and differentiate your business with marketing materials and collateral that are unique to your style and voice. Check the definitions in Steelman’s book or other sources to see if you are the humanitarian, visionary, maverick, romantic, nurturer, mentor, or one of a dozen others. Tune your approach and you will find yourself enjoying the selling process.

  7. Perfect your natural ask. As you go through the sales cycle with your customer, there comes a point when it’s natural for the transaction to conclude. Customers have a powerful positive response to honest, direct 1:1 interactions. Asking the customer for their decision demonstrates leadership on your part, shows you have confidence in your offering, and prompts them to make a final decision. You can’t win if you don’t ask.

I’m not suggesting that a startup founder has to do all the selling, and doesn’t need to find or hire people whose focus is marketing and sales. In a startup, everyone has to sell – you can’t afford to rely on specialists for everything.

Just recognize that if you are in business for yourself, you are in the business of selling. Selling well is about creating relevancy with customers and aligning your product suite with their needs.  That has to lead to a win-win close where the customer satisfies a need and you make money, or you don’t have a long-term business.  Are you comfortable with your selling skills?

Marty Zwilling

*** Published by Xerox Small Business Solutions on 01/12/2017 ***

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

7 Proven Tactics In Managing Annoying Team Members

annoyed-employeeWe have all had to work with annoying team members in business. If you are not their manager, it’s tempting to just walk away, tune them out, or react sharply, but these reactions are not appropriate for managers, and are equally ineffective for peers and team mates. Remember that annoying doesn’t mean non-productive – these may be top performers, with critical business skills.

Just as importantly, remember that annoying doesn’t usually work both ways. You may be annoying other people without even recognizing it. In either case, you need to understand the dynamics to maximize team performance, and for your own sanity and satisfaction. For any relationship to be maximally productive, both parties must actively manage the relationship.

The good news is that you can learn to deal with well-meaning peers and people you manage, by employing a set of proven tactics, as outlined in a new book, “Managing Annoying People,” from veteran business leader and workplace consultant Ilene Marcus. As a long-time business advisor, I fully support her key pragmatic relationship strategies, which I paraphrase here as follows:

  1. Prevent others from sapping your energy. Limit your meetings with annoyers to small doses, optimally timed to allow a natural exit, perhaps just before a required meeting or event. Be proactive in this approach, rather than practicing avoidance or trying to tune out. Practice smiling and keep your vibes positive to prevent frustration.

  2. Tune your relationship dynamic to be more effective. Some people are “high-maintenance,” and annoyingly take excessive time to provide details and ask questions. For these, you need keep your message direct, unemotional, and to the point. Use calming and neutral settings, and forcefully turn the focus back to the issue at hand.

  3. Set clear relationship boundaries and honor them. Manager versus employee relationships can be annoying when boundaries are not respected. Team members may forget you are now the boss, or anyone can make inappropriate comments or demands. Draw the lines of intent and expectations clearly, and never allow yourself to be the prey.

  4. Overtly manage your time, and declare constraints. Share the timetable at the start of a discussion and stick to it. For example, declare you have another meeting in fifteen minutes, or must leave in ten minutes. Use all the known methods for orchestrating a meeting effectively, or sandwich interactions between known limiting events.

  5. Monitor your own nonverbal body language. Don’t assume that others won’t see your frustration and stress. You can’t change others directly to eliminate their annoying behavior, but you can change your own to improve the effectiveness of each interaction. Send a message of being open and engaged, and smile like you have a secret.

  6. Show consistency in all interactions. The art of productive relationships and leadership are tied to your ability to size up a situation and apply the right tactic consistently. That builds trust, reliability, and responsiveness all around. Be brutally honest with yourself about what is triggering your actions which increase annoyance.

  7. Separate keeping busy from producing results. We all know annoying people who are always too busy, but generate minimal output. Give clear direction and challenge people to product results, rather than tolerate or listen to how busy they are. Incent your peers and team members with meaningful requests, and reward productive efforts.

How you handle annoying team members and keep their behavior from sabotaging you and the rest of the team is the test of your productivity and career potential. If you are annoyed, remember not to respond with one of the three wrong reactions – fight, flight, or freeze. The right reaction is to focus – gather the basket of tactics outlined here, and manage full speed ahead.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 01/10/2017 ***

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Monday, January 9, 2017

8 Ways to Market to Customer Emotion as Well as Logic

apple-steve-jobsThe average business person fights a customer culture shift, rather than looking for it. For them, change means new risk and extra costs, but it also means new opportunity for growth. In fact, some of the best, including Steve Jobs, actually drove culture change rather than waiting for it to happen. What are the lessons that the rest of us need to learn to see and survive these shifts?

First of all, it is my experience that culture shifts these days are more often driven by emotion, rather than logic. For example, as a logical guy, I never would have envisioned the shift to texting versus voice, or the emergence of selfies as a whole new wave of photography. As a result, I might easily have been among the last to capitalize on these trends as a business.

Thus I recommend that the rest of us need to step outside our comfort zone, and start practicing some specific strategies to recognize cultural shifts, and maybe even start a few trends of our own:

  1. Embrace online social interaction with customers. Believe it or not, nearly half of U.S. small businesses still don't even have a website. Many of the remainder don’t review or respond to customer feedback online, and don’t connect with the popular social networking channels, including Facebook and Twitter. You can’t see change if you don’t look.

  2. Build a community of evangelists and listen. Social and cultural change is driven by people who are willing to speak out, pulling other people into a trend. Every business needs their own evangelists, as a powerful marketing force, and as an early warning for new opportunities. Court potential evangelists with special events and personal feedback.

  3. Become a visible and chief evangelist yourself. The days are gone when people accept a cartoon character or brand logo as a chief spokesman. As an entrepreneur, you are the brand, and with the pervasive Internet, you can’t hide behind a logo. People judge your company by the culture you portray, per Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Marc Benioff.

  4. Be willing to stretch the imagination of your customers. Successful business people are always running experiments, and they failures as well as successes. Consider Uber’s recent foray into self-driving cars, and Amazon’s proposal of packages delivered via drones. Some initiatives cause change, and all give great feedback on the culture now.

  5. Market to customer emotions as well as absolute logic. Many traditional companies still focus their message wholly on the logic of cost savings, higher productivity, and return on investment. These are still important, but many of today’s customers are beyond Maslow’s survival needs. Don’t miss emerging needs to feel good and be entertained.

  6. Capitalize on consumer emotion from outside forces. Continually monitor and be prepared to capitalize on the emotion caused by changes in the economy, competitor missteps, and world events. Timing is very important. Businesses that have an internal culture of flexibility and rapid change are well positioned to match culture changes.

  7. Integrate data analytics to look for culture shifts. Culture changes may be based on emotion, but often can be detected by an analytics mindset and modern digital data tools. Marketing with an analytics mindset is an internal culture needed to adjust in real time via small changes and the customer culture changes, rather than rely on the big-bang theory.

  8. Build a highly engaged and accountable team. Teams with low accountability and low engagement don’t want change, and will ignore it if they see it. The best team members love to work with each other, and are deeply engaged with their customers. This requires hiring people with good business skills who are willing and eager to work collaboratively.

If all of these approaches seem intuitive, and are part of your internal company culture, they you are probably already driving change, rather than wondering what happened, and always trying to catch up. Otherwise, it’s time to stop fighting and start loving your customers. Your business and your legacy depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/26/2016 ***

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

6 Key Leadership Habits Required For Entrepreneurs

business-leadership-habitsStarting and building a company is all about leadership – formulating an idea, building a unique plan based on vision and experience, and forging a path over and through all obstacles. Yet the image of leadership in business is at an all-time low, according to national leadership experts, considering the political debacles, record business bankruptcies, and executive fraud cases.

If the country is to recover financially and politically, new leaders will have to emerge to fill the leadership deficit – new leaders who understand that leadership is a privilege, not an entitlement, according to executive coach Michael Schutzler in his classic book “Inspiring Excellence – A Path to Exceptional Leadership.

Entrepreneurs are well positioned to become the new leaders, because they perceive problems as opportunities, and have the mental mindset to innovate and execute. They have the required passion, perseverance, and work ethic. What they don’t have by default are the skills required, or the relationships. These don’t come automatically with the CEO title.

Schutzler’s view of leadership is different than many academics and executive coaches, who feel that leadership is an innate character trait. He urges people to focus on developing a few key relationship skills, and I agree. Here are some key conclusions:

  1. See leadership is a learned behavior, not a character trait. Good judgment, for example, is certainly a hallmark of exceptional leadership, but it isn’t something you are born with. “More than anything, good judgment comes from listening,” he says. It also comes from paying very close attention to every situation, and learning from it.

  2. Listening is the most important skill for a leader. We need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? Because as leaders, if we speak too soon, we shut off creation. We shut off contribution. We force the adoption of our ideas.

  3. Communicating and storytelling. This is not a skill everyone is born with, but it’s a skill we can all develop. People on your team want to believe! They want to believe you know where we are going, or you will get us there even if you aren’t sure of the exact path at this moment. They want stories that compare what they are doing with others.

  4. Acknowledging contribution. This is necessary to sustain motivation during the hard times. It’s not hard to do and doesn’t require a lot of effort or expensive gifts. A thank-you note or peer recognition is enough most of the time.

  5. Negotiation is a practical skill for every leader. Negotiation is often misunderstood to be the domain of clever deal makers. It’s actually really simple. Make very clear requests for a promise. Understand exactly what the promise is - what is being done, when, and what the standard of excellence is, and then check up on the status to make it happen.

  6. Inspire others rather than focus on personal ambition. He believes that we need leaders who use power as a tool for inspiring others to create a better future, not as a tool for retaining their position or perks.

The middle four points are the essential skills for great leadership, inspiring excellence, and building a successful business. They are easily practiced, and serve as the foundation for successfully attracting talent, reaching consensus, making tough choices, and harnessing ambition.

In this fashion the general leadership deficit is really an “opportunity” for new aspiring entrepreneurs in business. So practice the leadership skills needed, and step in when you are ready. Now is your golden opportunity – let’s see how many of you are up to the challenge. We need you all.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

5 Hidden Biases Will Negatively Impact Your Startup

Belief_Venn_diagram.svgI’m sure we have all seen entrepreneurs with high levels of passion and confidence touting an idea that seems to make very little sense to us. Of course, we never see ourselves in this mode, yet we need to recognize that all humans see reality differently through a built-in set of “cognitive biases,” based on their own unique background of experiences, training, and mental state.

These biases are good, in that they allow us to quickly filter and make decisions in the constant barrage of information we face each day, but bad because they often lead to errors in reasoning and emotional choices. The worst case is called the “passion trap,” where a pattern of beliefs, choices, and behaviors feels good and becomes self-reinforcing, but leads to disaster.

John Bradberry, in his classic book “6 Secrets to Startup Success,” identifies five key biases that sabotage many passionate entrepreneurs in their startup decision making. I challenge any entrepreneur to honestly tell me they have never fallen victim to any of these in making startup decisions:

  1. Confirmation bias. This refers to the human tendency to select and interpret available information in a way that confirms pre-existing hopes and beliefs. The antidote is to look for dissenting views that seem to form a pattern of concern. Then what you perceive as isolated exceptions, might indeed appear as a clear majority.

  2. Representativeness (belief in the law of small numbers). Many entrepreneurs tend to settle on conclusions they like, based on only a small number of observations or a few pieces of data. The new founder who hears positive reviews from three out of four friends may assume that 75 percent of the general population will react similarly.

  3. Overconfidence or illusion of control. Overconfidence leads founders to treat their assumptions as facts and see less uncertainty and risk than actually exists. The illusion of control causes startup founders to overrate their abilities and skills in controlling future events and outcomes. Both result is “rose-colored” plans, rather than realistic ones.

  4. Anchoring. This refers to our mind’s tendency to give excessive weight to the first information we receive about a topic or the first idea we think of. It encourages founders to cling to an original idea or, if pressed, to consider only slight deviations from the idea instead of more radical alternatives. The ability to pivot sharply and timely is at risk here.

  5. Escalation of commitment (“sunk cost” fallacy). Startup founders often refuse to abandon a losing strategy in an attempt to preserve whatever value has been created up to that point. They feel that they have put so much money, time, and energy into an idea or plan, that it must be the idea. Investing more into a bad idea doesn’t make it good.

Optimism, for example, is a typical entrepreneurial trait that improves performance, but only up to a point. In fact, moderately optimistic people have been shown to outperform extreme optimists on a wide range of task and assignments. There are a number of similar entrepreneurial characteristics that are recognized as good, but can be amplified to unhealthy levels, resulting in passion traps, or so-called “Icarus qualities.”

Every entrepreneur needs to be on the lookout for early warning signs of biases and passion traps that signal that you are in danger of undercutting your odds of startup success. Obvious ones are founders who are thinking or saying, “This is a sure thing,” or executives losing patience with advisors who point out risks or shortcomings in your plan.

In my experience, a great startup is more about great execution, rather than a great idea. It’s about converting your passion into economic value. To counter-balance the biases in your passion, the best approach is to look beyond your own mind and actively listen to your customers, your advisors and your team. When was the last time you really listened?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, January 6, 2017

7 Personal Work Principles Drive Your Business Luck

luck-in-businessDon’t you wish you could be as lucky as Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, who always seem to be in the right place at the right time for their business ideas to thrive? After many years of working in large companies as well as small, and watching the people that succeed, I’m convinced that luck has very little to do with it. I see instead a common set of principles that all these people live by.

Others argue that the harder they work, the luckier they get. In fact, there is no substitute for working hard, but I believe a bigger edge is working smart. We all know people who work twenty hours a day, and are always “too busy,” but never seem to get the results they dream about. My conviction is that working smart is the embodiment of the following business principles:

  1. Plan to deliver more than you commit. Make your habit one of under-promising and over-delivering. Always give more than you get. The most successful business people avoid any feelings of entitlement, never keep score with peers, and never try to extract favors. They get more personal satisfaction from giving than from receiving.

  2. Never seek excuses when things don’t work. To the best of the best, good luck is actually an excuse for something they didn’t anticipate, and makes success random. They accept responsibility for all actions and inactions, and never point the finger of blame at anyone or anything else. This forces them to prepare better for the next time.

  3. Always treat failures as learning opportunities. There are no mistakes; only experiments that didn’t work. Every good entrepreneur learns to pivot, and learn from that experience, but never see failure. Mark Zuckerberg started Facemash as a dating site for Harvard elite, but found success only after morphing it to Facebook social media for all.

  4. Never give up until you achieve your dream. Many experts believe that the single biggest cause of startup failure is entrepreneurs simply giving up just prior to success. Thomas Edison made his own luck by enduring over 1,000 failures before finding a light bulb filament that worked. He kept his energy focused and avoided naysayers.

  5. Maintain self-confidence as well as respect for others. Confidence in yourself is key, but not to the extent of arrogance or distrust of others. The best entrepreneurs admit their own weaknesses, and build relationships and trust with people who can help them. The right relationships with the right people can be your greatest source of luck.

  6. Be willing and able to work collaboratively. Products may be invented by a single person, but successful businesses require a team of people working together. That means everyone is willing to share what they know and share in successes. The results are greater than the sum of the parts. Luck is never seen as a required team member.

  7. Show up for more opportunities. When you are dealing with all the unknowns of new and untested business ventures, success follows the laws of probabilities. Many people set their scope of interest too narrowly, or look for “sure things” before they start a new venture. Elon Musk found initial success with PayPal, but has since pursued dozens of initiatives, including SpaceX, Tesla Motors, Solar City, and Hyperloop; not all thriving yet.

With these principles, I’m convinced that you will find working smart in business a lot more productive than working hard, and your luck will improve as well. Of course, an even better way to improve your luck is to work harder and smarter. It also helps to come to the table with a can-do mindset, and the lucky-attitude traits of humility, perpetual curiosity, and optimism.

If you are still feeling particularly unlucky in your business, maybe it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror. You may be your own worst enemy. Are you doing the right smart work today to get lucky in your business tomorrow?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/20/2016 ***

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