Monday, February 27, 2017

10 Sales Truths Every Entrepreneur Needs To Practice

Shari-Levitin-photoToday’s customers are overloaded and overwhelmed by too much information, so making a decision is a challenge. You may think this is only important to your marketing and sales people, but in reality it doesn’t matter how great your product or technology might be, you won’t succeed if you don’t understand your target customer decision process. Every aspect of your business must be about sales.

In my role as an advisor to startups, I often have to remind entrepreneurs to think more like sales people from day one, in finding a real problem to solve and designing the solution. Even the best technology won’t sell itself. Everyone on your team needs a regular update on the latest insights for sales people, like the new book, “Heart and Sell,” by sales training expert Shari Levitin.

Levitin outlines ten universal truths about selling, and the customer decision process, which every business needs to address in their product, business model, and their whole customer experience. Just think of your whole business as the sales engine, rather than just the sales reps:

  1. Success requires continuous learning and improvement. No matter how certain you are that your solution perfectly matches customer needs, you will be wrong. Success requires a willingness to take responsibility for shortcomings, better understand customer needs, and the ability to quickly learn and adapt. This is the growth equation for a startup.

  2. Emotions drive customer decision-making. Your ability as a business to uncover and capitalize on customers emotional motivators will dictate your success. That’s why Steve Jobs spent as much time on “insanely great design” as technology, and marketed to customer emotions. The lowest price is not always the real customer motivator.

  3. Every growth business must have a repeatable process. Just like good sales people have a repeatable process they follow, every startup has to overcome the chaos of a new business, put structure in place, document their processes, and focus on scaling up the engine. Everyone on the team must adopt the same culture and recipe for success.

  4. Resilience is the life skill of a business. Setbacks are inevitable, but good businesses and good sales people always bounce back. Both should assume that “no” never means “never.” A good entrepreneur actually gets stronger as he or she learns from each growth failure, and responds ever more effectively to customer needs and expectations.

  5. Business brand trust begins with customer empathy. Empathy is about being fully engaged with your customers, through interactive social media, and taking the time to listen to real customers face-to-face. You have to demonstrate common ground and shared values with your customers over the entire customer experience.

  6. Integrity matters in all aspects of a business. A business has to demonstrate integrity, reliability, and competency, just like a good sales team member. Integrity means doing what you say you’re going to do as a business, being responsive to changing needs, and making the right kind of promises to your target customer segment.

  7. Grow by helping customers rather than pushing a message. If you ask customers how you can help, you will uncover what matters most. This is more effective in directing their thinking and actions than selling technology. Well-crafted questions pull in customers. Good questions create change. Great questions can change the world.

  8. Emotional commitment precedes economic commitment. Don’t try to create a sense of urgency by appealing to greed. Your business and your team need to understand and demonstrate how your product connects precisely to what motivates your customer. These days, that includes a memorable total experience and testimonials from friends.

  9. Removing customer resistance takes persistence. All customers are prone to raising objections, because change is hard, there are many competitors, and decisions take time to make. As a new business trying to grow, you need to be able to isolate the toughest customer objections, and adapt your solution or business model to eliminate them.

  10. Looking for wrongs never makes you right. Every entrepreneur struggling with business growth has the urge to blame it on a lack of funding, an economic downturn, or unfair competitor. Instead, look for what has worked, and what you haven’t yet tried with your customers, to get it right. Focus on the real purpose that customers seek.

Businesses that think and act as a whole like their best sales people will build what their customers want and need, making everyone’s job a lot easier, and the customers a lot happier. That’s a recipe for business success that I recommend to every entrepreneur and professional.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 02/26/2017 ***

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

6 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Win More With Social Media

twitter-headAn all-too-common question I get from startups and small businesses is “Which is the right social media platform for my business?” Is it Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or one of the other 200 active platforms vying for attention these days? The right answer is that not all of these are worth your attention, but it’s probably more than one.

The “Tyranny of the OR” is a concept from the classic business best-seller “Built to Last,” by James C. Collins (Stanford Business School). Too many executives believe that things must be either A or B, and can’t be both. The reality is that most businesses need to embrace the “Genius of the AND,” meaning they should use and monitor more than one of the available platforms, based on objectives.

If you are in the half of all small businesses who still ignore social media, you need to read the book by Dave Carroll, “United Breaks Guitars.” It highlights the story of how United Airlines paid no attention to social media while Dave’s story of his crushed guitar and poor customer service went viral around the world. United Airlines spend a long time recovering from that debacle.

Thus your objectives for social media should at least include monitoring your online reputation on the three top platforms, and hopefully taking the minimum actions to turn any negatives into positives for the rest of us. Of course, the right approach is to be proactive along all the following fronts:

  1. Reputation management. You can’t ignore the fact that Facebook now has over 1.86 billion monthly active users who may be talking about you, and there are 22 others, per Wikipedia, that have over 100 million users. You need to protect and grow your brand, so the first step is to know what’s going on, and the best defense is a good offense.

  2. Build your brand and expert visibility. Engaging in social media and blogging on a regular basis is a low-cost way to achieve visibility, and become the “go-to” person for that topic and the voice that people trust in your industry. That’s how you brand yourself as an expert in your niche and make your company the one that others seek out and turn to. Customers today trust those they know and those they see others trusting.

  3. Increase customer leads and conversion. With over 78% of the U.S. population now using social media, at least 30% look at profiles on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn before buying any product or service. Of those, approximate 70% said they wouldn’t deal with a new company if it didn’t have a social media presence. You need to be there.

  4. Maximize customer retention. It’s a well-known axiom of business that efforts to retain existing customers have tremendous payback, compared to the costs of attracting new customers. Courting them with ongoing updates and special offers through their social networks is a natural way to keep their loyalty.

  5. Proactive customer service. Without social media, companies must rely on incoming calls and letters to address customer problems and concerns with products and services. Why not ask them for feedback before there is a problem, and watch what they are telling their friends, both good and bad?

  6. Keep up with the competition. Last year, Facebook’s revenue from advertising was over $26 billion, which was a 50% year-over-year increase. Almost 40% of small businesses that sell on Facebook say it is their sole sales channel. Ignoring what your competition does is sure to limit your business longevity.

So what are the best social media platforms for small business, according to these industry leaders? It never hurts to look at where the big boys are. According to data from Inc. 500 companies, major hitters are LinkedIn (93%), Twitter (78%), and Facebook (74%). I recommend that these be the point of entry for every business.

For the new platforms and all the rest, that’s where tracking and testing comes in. Set some objectives, pick a likely platform, set some measurements, and do a 30-day trial. If you don’t get results, it might be a mismatch for your target market. If you see progress, double down and add even more content or focus to continue the positive momentum.

So there is no one magic social media platform for any business, just like there has never been just one marketing channel for any business. The best marketing programs today for small businesses are the “genius of the AND,” including traditional print and video advertising, complemented by proactive efforts in a selection of the new social media domains. Don’t put all your marketing eggs in one basket.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Why Good Marketing Campaign Costs Continue To Rise

marketing-campaign-costsEvery time I challenge a business plan with little or no budget for marketing, I get the answer that they will be using “viral” marketing, which costs nothing. The founder explains that the product is so “buzz-worthy” that usage will spread rapidly through word-of-mouth only, meaning people loving it and recommending it to their friends.

First of all, Seth Godin pointed out a long time ago that viral marketing does not equal word-of-mouth. His view is that word-of-mouth is an unsolicited consumer action, positive or negative, which usually fades quickly, like a good or bad restaurant review.

Viral marketing is a deliberate marketing action, designed to grow attention at a compound rate, without further stimulus, by word-of-mouth. It usually implies an opportunity to win big, like a lottery, or experience something sensational, like an incredible video or free product.

At any rate, “buzz-worthy” and “viral” are marketing illusions that cost big money to create, and these are only the beginning. In a business plan these are only one of the many marketing campaigns which continue to rise in cost. Here are three key cost elements of just the viral marketing campaigns:

  1. Hire brand evangelists. Think of a brand evangelist team online as people blogging about your product, or posting links to it in every forum. Brand evangelists offline talk up your product lines at cocktail parties or recommend your services to friends while watching their kids' soccer game.

  2. Develop viral content. Someone has to design and create those entertaining or informative messages that are designed to be passed along in an exponential fashion, often electronically or by e-mail. It’s harder than it looks to exploit people’s propensity to share humorous, enjoyable or useful information - jokes, special offers, and games.

  3. Seed viral activity. People are more demanding and have more choices than ever before. This means spending more money on search marketing (SEM) to make it look like the buzz is working. It also means making the content appear omnipresent on the Web and in the marketplace, including dedicated video sites and blogs. In addition, special offers and competition prizes may be required.

As a result of the rising popularity of viral campaigns, the cost of developing one has increased significantly, and the increased ‘viral clutter’ has made it more difficult to stand out from the crowd. However, despite this, viral marketing can indeed be more cost effective than traditional marketing when done well.

Seeding is the most expensive aspect of a viral marketing campaign, with some video sites charging in excess of $10,000 to be featured on their home page for one week. Only a few years ago a humorous video or unique toy could be seeded into a couple of relevant online communities, and it would be hugely popular. However, the cost of entry has gone up as the concept of viral marketing has become pervasive.

In general a well-executed viral marketing campaign can cost anywhere from $100K to many millions. There is a reason that sites like Priceline.com Europe and Facebook, which everyone believes were made popular by viral marketing, have spent at least $50 million each becoming a household name.

Some startups not only ignore this and don’t budget for it, but they actually plan on the free viral marketing to generate enough revenue from click-through advertising to fund operations and future growth. That’s a double death wish.

We have all heard of a few cases where viral marketing resulted in a message “spread through the Internet like a cold in a kindergarten,” but counting on this can just as quickly lead to the death of your startup. Unless you have very deep pockets, plan for some very significant marketing costs to kick-start your dream.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, February 24, 2017

8 Key Ingredients to a Profitable Consulting Business

consulting-businessMost of the guidance you see for entrepreneurs is aimed at those who are selling a product (Apple, Tesla, Xiaomi), or selling a service (Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat). Yet, according to statistics from the Small Business Association (SBA), over half of new businesses offer something else - personal professional services, including consulting, business coaching, and advisory services.

The challenges for making money and survival in these professional services worlds are different, maybe even tougher. The “product” value is difficult to quantify, the costs are nebulous, and entrepreneurs have to clone themselves to scale the business. Many are reluctant to really “market” themselves, and have trouble differentiating their offerings to clients, except by price.

If you are already running a business in this category, or thinking about one, I recommend a new book, “The Profitable Professional,” by Kelly Clifford. From his own successes and failures in this domain, he explains how the rules and customer expectations have changed in today’s world, and he offers some practical guidance on how to survive in this new world.

Based on my own years of experience in this space, I would like to highlight a critical subset of his key ingredients for success, to save you from the frustrations and setbacks we both have felt:

  1. Implement real competitive differentiation. If your business card and website come across as just another advisor, consultant, or accountant, then don’t be surprised if price is the only focus. Internally, you also need to do things differently to rise above your peers. This includes how you find leads, close clients, and minimize free work or rework.

  2. Shape your business by design, not by default. Announcing that you are a consultant, and hoping demand will set your focus, is not a good strategy. Focus on your passion and your vision of what you want to accomplish, and make that come alive in the design and delivery of everything you do. Picking a niche is another good way to focus.

  3. Proactively build relationships with target clients. Passively waiting for transactions only makes you a commodity. Clients need to see you as a trusted value add, rather than just a service provider. Use your knowledge of evolving needs and technology to add more value than competitors, and introduce clients to each other to build partnerships.

  4. Use visibility and social media to pull clients in. The days of a hardworking introvert hiding in the back room are gone. In addition to relationships, today’s clients want to see you and your expertise on videos online, industry conferences, and social media to feel the trust for differentiation. They expect reviews and testimonials from other clients.

  5. Set pricing to assure both revenue and profit. Unless you have deep pockets, you won’t survive without an adequate margin, including all the costs of running a business and staying current with technologies and market changes. Flexible business models, including value-based pricing, bundling, and custom proposals are the places to begin.

  6. Be targeted in marketing and lead generation. Just like product marketing, professional services requires a clear profile and demographics of your ideal client. To check your return on marketing investment, you need to define metrics and a formal process to evaluate progress and cost tradeoffs. Don’t forget seminars and events.

  7. Raise the conversion rate with effective follow-up. Successful professionals today know they can’t work only from memory. They use customer relationship management systems (CRM) for more effective tracking and data. They match individual customer preferences, whether it be voice, email, texting, or social media, to close deals.

  8. Maximize repeat business with existing clients. Just as with product marketing, it can cost five times as much to attract a new customer, compared to getting more business from current ones. It pays big dividends to make realistic promises and over-deliver the first time, and then follow-up to check for follow-on opportunities every three months.

Even with all these done right, don’t expect your professional services business to match the triple-digit growth targets of billion-dollar product startups. Your service is not a product that can be replicated by a machine, and sold at night while you sleep. As a result, you won’t attract the investors who could fuel that kind of growth, or scale as quickly as they may demand.

Yet, I find the delivery of professional services to be one of the most satisfying and fulfilling types of entrepreneurship, where you can actually build relationships with customers, see directly your impact on the world, and have some fun at the same time. For me, that’s the definition of success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/09/2017 ***

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

8 Ways Ownership Thinking Will Make You An A-Player

Rick-CrosslandOne of the biggest challenges in changing your lifestyle from an employee to starting your own business, is focusing on the right ownership elements, versus having a boss who sets the business goals, and provides performance feedback. Most entrepreneurs relish being their own boss, but find the transition to “ownership thinking” to be more difficult than anticipated.

Even if you were an “A-Player” in your previous organization (top 10-percent performer, high integrity, exceeds on commitments), you had peers and executives around you to provide coaching and keep you centered. Incidentally, if you never thought of yourself as being an A-Player employee, you probably will struggle even more in the competitive entrepreneur world.

I’ve spent many years in each of these business worlds, but I never made the A-Player entrepreneur connection until I read a new book, “The A Player,” by Rick Crossland, who comes from almost 30 years of experience developing, recruiting, and leading high performance cultures in bigger companies. I now believe that every entrepreneur needs to think like an A-Player.

Crossland outlines the elements and perspectives every A-Player needs for ownership-thinking. These look exactly like the strategies I have been recommending to every entrepreneur for growing their business, versus developing a solution. Here are eight of the key ones that I often prioritize for startups:

  1. Align all actions to the purpose of the business. Every entrepreneur needs to start with a purpose for the business which goes beyond making money, or working on your own schedule, just like employees seeking to be A-Players need to look above their immediate tasks. Every business purpose must be customer-centric and even altruistic.

  2. Spend time working on the business as well as in the business. Most entrepreneurs, whether they be technologists or restaurant owners, spend too much time working in the business, rather than planning their next best move on the business. Employees can be much more productive if they fully understand strategic issues and focus correspondingly.

  3. Understand the need for an investment well before results. Unfortunately we all live in an age of instant gratification, where we expect immediate payment for every effort. Entrepreneurs need to evaluate investment size and cycles for future payoffs, while employees need to realize that promotions require investment in learning and skills.

  4. Quantify the return on investment before taking action. In startups, I see technical entrepreneurs who build things just because they can. Comparably, in larger businesses, I see employees who work hard on things that have little return, for them or the business. Both need to first evaluate the value equation for the business, to become A-Players.

  5. Accept personal growth as directly related to business growth. In any business, it’s hard to be an A-Player in a business that is not healthy. In this highly competitive world, no growth means falling behind, as a business or in your career. Great entrepreneurs are always focused on the growth dimensions of more revenue, change impact, and profit.

  6. Recognize business growth means attracting more customers. Employees and startups need to focus on the two dimensions of customer pipeline – how many people need what you are selling, and what percent will actually buy, based on your actions. Everyone needs to see their actions as part of solving customer problems and selling.

  7. Increase ownership thinking on business efficiency. As an A-Player or an entrepreneur, the focus of work must not be on hours spent, but time and cost savings without micro-management. Everyone wins when more efficient work on the right items results in higher customer satisfaction, lower prices, and more profit per employee.

  8. Enhance team engagement and business culture. In every business, large or small, there must be no “us versus them.” Team success requires all members be engaged and working together. Business success requires employees, executives, partners, and customers not fighting for advantage through a business culture of win-win relationships.

Thus if you are contemplating a future as an entrepreneur, now is the time to hone your focus and skills that relate to ownership thinking. It you do it well, you will win be being an A-Player in your current role, and your odds of success in the startup world are much greater. That’s the definition of a win-win opportunity.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 02/13/2017 ***

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Monday, February 20, 2017

7 Lessons On How To Avoid A Quick Business Failure

quick-business-failure-avoidanceMost budding entrepreneurs don’t realize that nine out of ten startups fail within 24 months. They only see and remember the recent new entrants in the billion dollar valuation club, including Uber, Airbnb, and Snapchat. While last year was not a banner year for new businesses, the startup rate is still about one per minute, so you need more than luck to improve your odds of success.

I’m sure you understand that every new business starts with passion, and maybe even some deep domain experience, to fully appreciate a painful market need, with a large and growing set of customers with money for your solution. A lot fewer have experience with the challenges and complexities of launching a startup. Fortunately, there are a wealth of resources out there to help.

One resource that’s worth your time is a new book, “The Ultimate Start-Up Guide,” by a couple of entrepreneurs and marketing experts who have been there, Tom Hogan and Carol Broadbent. They offer a wealth of lessons and war stories, including strategies to avoid seven of the most common ways that startups fail, which I will paraphrase here from my own experience:

  1. Resist the urge to build it just because you can. This is a common challenge for technical entrepreneurs, who are fascinated by what they can do with a new technology, and are revered by peers for their expertise. The irony is that the average customer is afraid of any new technology, needs time, and may have a different view of the problem.

  2. Add a buffer to your funding calculations. Money for new ventures is always harder to come by than you expect, so you tend to underestimate real requirements, or assume everything will go right the first time. I recommend that you double your time estimates to raise money, and buffer the amount needed by at least fifty percent. You will still be short.

  3. Keep your solution and your mission focused. After listening to customers, experts, friends, and your own dreams, it’s critical and difficult to narrow your focus to a solution and customer set that you can satisfy with limited startup resources. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’s important to do one thing well, rather than many things poorly.

  4. Don’t assume your great solution will sell itself. “If we build it, they will come” only works in the “Field of Dreams” movie. In this age of information overload and the Internet, even the best solution needs marketing to get noticed. Plan and budget for all the channels of marketing, including social media, digital content, video, and traditional.

  5. Find co-founders to complement your expertise. Successes via a single dictatorial founder are even more rare than billion dollar valuations. We all have strengths and weaknesses, so you need to find partners and team members who can fill in your gaps. If your strength is technical, find someone who has strengths in business and finance.

  6. Assign high priority to team chemistry and culture. It’s one challenge to round up the talent you need, but quite another to mold them into a team that works well together, trusts each other, and is aligned with your values and priorities. Without these key elements, you will find that a dysfunctional team won’t last even the minimum 24 months.

  7. Never under-estimate or ignore the competition. If you really believe that you have no competition, then you haven’t looked, or there is no market for your solution. You need to know and use the competition as your benchmark, not to degrade them, but to highlight your competitive advantages to customers and investors. Position your barriers to entry.

Even with all these strategies, don’t be devastated if you fail on your first startup. In today’s culture, most investors are forgiving of failure, or actually see failure as an advantage the second time around, if you are humble and willing to share a few lessons learned. Even Travis Kalanick, founder and CEO of Uber, filed for bankruptcy in his first startup, but obviously never gave up.

So if you want to improve your odds of joining the billion dollar club of new startups, don’t count wholly on your unique perspectives, or your personal amazing skills. I recommend that you scan the world around you for as much guidance as you can get, and then quit dreaming and start executing. You don’t have to make the billion dollar club to be a success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/06/2017 ***

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Social Entrepreneurs Seek Social Change vs Profits

Panel_on_social_entrepreneursAn entrepreneur lifestyle that continues to gain in popularity these days is being a “social entrepreneur.” In the simplest of terms, these are people who seek to generate “social value”, rather than profits, and use traditional business principles to provide solutions to social issues

On the surface, this sounds like entrepreneurs who want to build a non-profit organization. Yet the term seems to be more often associated with people who intend to make a profit, but whose work is targeted toward long-term socio-economic change. Think Bill Gates, with his current investments, or Blake Mycoskie with Toms Shoes, as opposed to the leaders of the American Cancer Society or Goodwill Industries.

Whether the objective is to generate profits or social capital, the common element for all entrepreneurs is the recognition that there is a problem which needs solving, or there is an opportunity to improve the status quo.

The vision is always to be a change agent, to invent and popularize new approaches, and to persuade people to take a leap forward. In every case this requires a committed ultimate realist with the determination to persist in the face of daunting odds.

Another way to distinguish between the two types of entrepreneurship is by identifying what social entrepreneurship is not:

  • Not a fundraising strategy for nonprofits. A social enterprise may actually be profitable, or it may be non-profitable, but the generation of funds is deemed secondary to success on the environmental or social issues in the vision. Generating funds should not be the highest priority.
  • Not about profit before social impact. A social enterprise must be financially sustainable only as a means to the end, which is its social or environmental impact and rate of change. The business entrepreneur mission is profit always, social impact maybe.
  • Not a new definition for the nonprofit sector. The evident and real purpose of the social enterprise must be to make the world a better place, through the operation of the business. This certainly also has potential for enhancing the vitality of the nonprofit sector, but it doesn’t move it to a higher moral plane.
  • Not an investment opportunity for business investors. I still get inquiries about how to find angel investors and venture capitalist to kick-start a social enterprise. Funding such an enterprise is more likely philanthropists, government grants, or bootstrapping. Business investors are looking for a high financial return, not social capital.
  • Not about entrepreneurship in the government sector. So far, the largest source of services and funding for social enterprises and social entrepreneurs has been federal, state, and local governments. Yet the enterprises are not government enterprises, and the process for success makes them good business enterprises.
  • Social entrepreneurship is not socialism. The socialist doctrine dictates compulsory taxpayer contributions to finance social initiatives, while the social entrepreneur uses the standard business model and innovative approaches to attract customers, fund activities, and accomplish social change.

In all types of entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur rather than an administrator is required. This is someone who is willing and able to create a new enterprise, based on an innovative idea, and is willing to assume total accountability for the inherent risks and outcome.

So, if you are an entrepreneur at heart, but you are driven by a higher cause than making a profit, social entrepreneurship may be for you. It is an emerging field with diverse and shifting interpretations, but most agree it’s really about making the world a better place. There is certainly plenty of opportunity in that space.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

10 Keys To A Killer-First-Impression Website Rollout

Web Design Design Logo Symbol Web InternetSmart people only visit and buy from credible and memorable websites. In the past, if your startup had a website presence, the company was credible by definition. In today’s world, a website is necessary but not sufficient for credibility. Dreamers and gamblers have found out that if the website isn’t validated as credible, it’s probably a scam, and everyone loses.

Yet most startups I know experience the same shock of disappointment when they first open up their website to offer their “million dollar idea” product, and nobody comes. What validates credibility and makes your site memorable in the minds of consumers, and how much does it cost?

  1. Put yourself on the site. People buy from people. Until the company name is a famous brand, you are the brand. No name, picture, address, or business history only convinces customers that you are hiding, located in an un-trustable country, or don’t have a clue. They will exit quickly.

  2. Show evidence of your expertise. Publish a regular blog, contribute to relevant social networks, and highlight several videos, podcasts, or eBooks of you and your technology. People respect people with relevant experience, so highlight your accomplishments, and the credentials you have.

  3. Highlight personal presence and testimonials. Third parties are always more credible sources than you are. Highlight interviews and reviews from recognized industry sources, and news sources. Include links to your profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

  4. Create a positive online image. Show your visitors some evidence of community involvement and charity efforts. Offer something that is really free – with no strings attached to cause them to lose their trust. Set up an award, and show winners.

  5. Link to recognized brands. If you can have an affiliate relationship with any recognized brand names, or any connection to publicly recognized experts, highlight these and provide links to their websites.

  6. Add a modest advertising presence. The presence of a few related advertisements can actually improve your site credibility, since most credible sites have them. Of course, too many or obnoxious advertisements are especially harmful to a site’s credibility.

  7. Join relevant business associations. Most will give you a membership graphic for your website, and an association link to give your business extra credibility. Don’t forget the local Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau.

  8. Provide a privacy and security statement. Display a logo like McAfee Secure or Privacy Label, in addition to specific policy statements on these subjects, to persuade your visitors and prospects to trust you.

  9. Offer support assistance and guarantee. Publish the terms of your support, return, and replacement policies. Be consistent is their application, and provide contact information for both phone and email access. Follow-up for customer satisfaction.

  10. Professional user-friendly site design. Studies have shown that consumers gauge credibility in large part based on the appeal of the overall visual design, including layout, typography, font size, color schemes, no broken links, and correct language usage. Don’t forget basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so search engines improve your ranking.

These are all minimal-cost survival marketing efforts. Beyond these, you will likely need to budget time and dollars (up to $50,000 is not unusual) for real marketing efforts to enhance your visibility and credibility, which include branding, promotions, give-aways, and free services.

In summary, a startup with no website, or a website with no credibility will kill your business. Use the tips outlined above during the first three months to get in the game, and count on much more time and money if you intend to stand above the rest. Make your website not only credible, but incredible!

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, February 17, 2017

7 Rules For Maintaining A Creative Business Culture

netflix-creativity-cultureWithin the startup realm, there is a big difference between having an innovative product versus an innovative business. Some startups have a new technology, but stick to a tried-and-true business model. Others take an existing product, and give it new life with a creative business model. The most competitive startups do both, all the time and every time.

In today’s competitive world, with its accelerating rate of change, no competitive advantage lasts long. According to Josh Linkner, in his classic book “Disciplined Dreaming,” we have entered the Age of Creativity, in which each incremental gain is zeroed out as global competitors quickly copy and adapt. The only sustainable competitive advantage is creativity.

He makes the case, and I agree, that creativity in a company, large or small, doesn’t just happen – it requires a culture. If you want to build and maintain a creative culture in your organization, you need to make sure your operation is guided by these seven critical rules:

  1. Fuel passion. Every great invention, every medical breakthrough, every advance of humankind began with passion: a passion for change and for making a difference. With a team full of passion, you can accomplish just about anything. To promote passion, you need to develop a sense of purpose, promote collaboration, and have fun.

  2. Celebrate ideas. Many businesses give lip service to their celebration of innovation, but punish, rather than reward, risk-taking and creativity. In a creative culture, rewards come in many forms: money, yes, but great businesses also celebrate creativity through praise (both public and private), career opportunities, and perks.

  3. Foster autonomy. People and teams that can call their own shots are better able to produce valuable creative output, since requiring approval at every step kills the creative process. Granting of autonomy first requires extending trust. The key is to provide a clear message of what you are looking for, and then get out of the way.

  4. Encourage courage. Netflix, which is known for its creative culture, tells employees to “Say what you think, even if it is controversial. Make tough decisions without excessive agonizing. Take smart risks. Question actions inconsistent with our values.” Encourage team members to take creative risks without fear.

  5. Fail forward. Rather than characterizing something that doesn’t work immediately as a “failure,” position it as an experiment. These experiments can be called “failing forward,” because each one leads you one step closer to the perfect solution. The key is to fail quickly. Flush out ideas and let go of the ones that fail.

  6. Think small. When you want to foster big ideas, it’s important to have a strong sense of urgency, be nimble, and not afraid to embrace change. It’s easier to accomplish this in a small team, in a small local environment, before you try to extend it a much larger infrastructure. You will see results sooner, and be more able to overcome opposition.

  7. Maximize diversity. A diversity of thought and perspective fuels creativity and builds creative cultures. To connect with customers, for example, you need to understand the world from their perspective, not yours – this is one area where a diverse culture can make a huge difference.

Fostering creativity doesn’t mean that you don’t need a business plan, or must forgo all discipline in running your business. A successful business is still all about execution, so you still need clear milestones, checkpoints, and metrics to keep you on track.

Creativity is the ultimate competitive advantage. Not just one innovation, but a culture that assures that you are never standing still on the technology or the business model. Make it the priority we are all looking for. No investor wants to bet on a “one-trick pony.”

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

6 Strategies to Keep Your Business Self-Sustaining

long-term-growth-curveEvery new business owner looks forward to the day when their business becomes self-sustaining, and settles into a long-term growth curve that will assure financial success, as well as a lasting legacy. Unfortunately, in this age of vacillating customer trends and a wealth of new competitors scratching and clawing for a piece of the action, long-term growth requires constant focus.

In fact, many pundits argue that the long-term downfall of your business is inevitable, pointing to the fact that less than 15 percent of Fortune 100 companies have been able to sustain real revenue growth for more than a decade, and we are surprised regularly by catastrophic setbacks in bellwether companies, including General Motors, Kodak, Lehman Brothers, and Pan Am.

Others insist you can survive only if you take frequent and aggressive measures to keep a step ahead of the pack. For example, in a new book, “If You’re in a Dogfight, Become a Cat!,” Leonard Sherman, executive in residence at the Columbia Business School, suggests that you should stay out of the competitive dogfight and continually redefine the game on your own terms.

Sherman and others suggest six specific strategies for breaking away and staying ahead of the pack, and I believe every business owner should implement at least one of these on a quarterly basis:

  1. Target customers poorly served by current offerings. The new strategy here is to focus on unmet new customer needs, rather than enhancing the offering you have – product, price, promotion, and place (4Ps). Competitors generally attack you on the 4Ps, so you need to find new territory like a cat, rather than rely only on dogfight survival.

  2. Focus on different performance attributes. Another strategy is to find new performance attributes that relate to unmet consumer needs, and lead your message with these. This is called breakout positioning, rather than mimicking competitors. One approach is reverse positioning, or “dumbing down” your product for a new audience.

  3. Substantially change the what, where, and how. This strategy is called breakaway positioning, since it is intended to redefine how consumers see the product, by borrowing features drawn from an entirely different product category. For example, Swatch defined their new category of watches as fashion accessories, rather than timepieces.

  4. Use disruptive technologies to alter the value chain. Another powerful strategy is often called the Blue Ocean strategy, meant to conjure up the image of uncharted open waters rather than bloody red oceans with sharks fighting. Disruptive technologies, such as the smartphone, totally changed the value chain for cameras, video, and software.

  5. Expand the market to new domains. New domains would include attracting business customers as well as individuals, taking your online business into retail, and diving into verticals. This strategy opens up new growth opportunities without the dogfight of taking territory away from existing competitors. It also forces you into new innovative thinking.

  6. Plan to disrupt your own business regularly. Before the inevitable dogfights have diminished your growth and profitability, and sapped your resources, rally the business with a new “big bang” disruptive initiative, like Apple’s highly successful iPad disrupted their own personal computer offerings. This will make your current competitors irrelevant.

These strategies embody the three imperatives that Sherman and other experts advocate for effective growth strategy formulation: continuous innovation, meaningful differentiation, and total business alignment. These may sound straightforward, but they can be deceptively hard to implement, perhaps why so few companies consistently outperform the market.

The reality is that you can never relax in business, or rest on your laurels, but it’s a lot more fun when you are driving the boat, rather than being constantly pummeled by the waves of your competitors. The holy grail of long-term profitable growth requires constant attention and effort, but I believe it is within the reach of every business.

Marty Zwilling

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

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Monday, February 13, 2017

5 Success Practices of Ultra-Effective Business Teams

successful-business-teamIt takes an effective team to attract and serve a community in business these days. With real-time online reviews and feedback via the Internet, and instant relationships via social media, a voice from the top that is inconsistent with what is heard from the firing line defines a dysfunctional and noncompetitive company for today’s customer. Thus team makeup is the critical success factor.

A few companies seem to be leading the way in building and maintaining ultra-effective teams, sometimes called extreme teams. These include companies across multiple industry spectrums, notably NetFlix in entertainment, AirBnB in hospitality, and Whole Foods for groceries. I see the commonalities detailed well in the new book, “Extreme Teams,” by Robert Bruce Shaw.

Shaw is a consultant specializing in team performance, and he brings real experience building and working with extreme teams in companies like the ones mentioned above. In my many years of experience in business, and recent work as a mentor to entrepreneurs, I have seen the business world change, and can relate well to his five success practices paraphrased here:

  1. Build the team from people with a shared obsession. The most effective teams are built from people with a strong sense of values and commitment, starting at the top of the company. Team members need to view their work as a calling, much more than a job, and embrace a higher purpose that shapes their collective thinking and behavior.

  2. When selecting members, value fit over experience. Companies with the best teams seek out candidates with the right mix of personal motives, values, and temperament to be a true team player. Cultural fit matters more than job history or functional skills. Those that have these traits are incented to join, and those who don’t are often paid to leave.

  3. Incent them to focus and always look to the future. Extreme teams are tightly aligned around the company’s top few priorities, while remaining open to new ideas. For team members, the ongoing challenge is figuring out what not to do. These teams are motivated to develop approaches to creatively explore new opportunities for growth.

  4. Let them deal with people performance, as well as results. Teams today need a culture of being simultaneously tough in driving for measurable results, and direct in support of individuals who best create an environment of collaboration, trust, and loyalty. Teams must openly deal with their own weaknesses and take action on underperformers.

  5. Embrace healthy conflict to avoid the comfort of stagnation. Members push themselves and each other to speak up, question the status quo, take bold risks, and confront hard truths. They recognize the value of being uncomfortable as a way to push thinking outside the box, and as a wakeup call when something is not working.

I recognize this is a revolution in the way most companies and employees work today, viewing work as a set of tasks with no passion, new members selected primarily on past experience and functional skills, and viewing conflict as something to be avoided or a sign of failure. They value harmony among members, and measure success as a function of the number of priorities concurrently managed.

Building and managing teams along the new lines outlined is not easy, and that’s why it’s a real competitive advantage when you do it. It takes a new kind of management team with a strong belief that a company can thrive with a larger purpose, total customer experience is critical to success, and the new generation of workers needs a new culture of passion and relationships.

As hard as it is to build extreme teams from the beginning, it’s much more difficult to turn around a failing or stagnant team. In fact, many would say that it’s impossible, without first replacing the top leaders and key team members in an existing organization. Thus, if you are a business leader who intends to survive and thrive in the long-term, it’s time to start today by checking the culture of your teams.

Your career and your company’s future depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 02/12/2017 ***

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

10 Personality Types That Shouldn’t Be Entrepreneurs

bad-personality-businessPeople who get stressed managing their own lives don’t make good entrepreneurs. Small businesses require multi-tasking, work prioritization, and decision-making, with no assistants or help from specialists. That’s why Fortune 500 executives usually don’t survive as startup CEOs.

First you have to learn to accept total responsibility for things that happen to your business, just like you are responsible for everything in your personal life. Maybe you are comfortable with having a spouse in control of your personal life, but couples running a business are high risk.

If you recognize yourself in these clues below, you probably won’t have as much fun running a startup as Sir Richard Branson always seems to be having. You don’t even have to try the entrepreneur lifestyle to know if these points are likely to be a problem for you:

  1. You often feel overwhelmed and out of control. There is always more to do than time to do it. Usually the stress people feel does not really come from having too much to do, but from having to make decisions on what to do first, and not setting reasonable targets.

  2. Starting many things, but completing few. Productivity is all about the ability to complete tasks. It requires tradeoffs and decisions, to declare that something is finished. Get in the habit of finishing what you start. Perfectionists need not apply.

  3. You like to defer big things until later. If you catch yourself deferring important tasks, in favor of smaller easy things, that’s a management problem. Adopt a “do it now” motto, and tackle your to-do list in priority order, rather than crisis order.

  4. Over-thinking and second-guessing yourself. If you spend more time thinking and worrying about a task, than doing the task, then you are not managing yourself. Don’t waste your precious creative energy. Finish items, and get them off your mind.

  5. You get defensive at the slightest criticism. Some people feel pain and high stress with any negative feedback or suggestions for improvement. They react quickly and emotionally with rationalizations and justifications for their actions, and find active listening very difficult. You need a thick skin to be an entrepreneur.

  6. Avoiding new opportunities due to fear of failure. Real entrepreneurs look at every new opportunity as an exciting and new-life experience. They are energized by the risk, and learn from every failure.

  7. Always counting your weaknesses. Good business leaders never criticize themselves for their weaknesses. Smart ones recognize their undeveloped skills and higher potential, but they are confident that they can change, and constantly work at it.

  8. Lack of confidence and enthusiasm. If you have a “downer” day at least once a week, and can’t remember the last time you were truly enthusiastic about something in your life or work, you are not ready to manage a business. Self-confidence is key to success.

  9. You like to work alone. Every business and every relationship is a team effort. Loners hide from others because they don’t want anyone to see that they are not in control. Make an effort to network with others to stay informed and contribute, but not dominate.

  10. Admit to being a control freak. Believe it or not, many people who don’t manage themselves very well are control freaks, when it comes to their business and other people. Practice the art of delegating and the joy of being spontaneous.

Managing yourself effectively is the best preparation for managing a new business. It means you understand yourself, and are likely able to read other people and understand them, leading to a trusting relationship with your team and your customers.

More importantly, managing yourself gives you a deeper understanding of what you value and how you define success. It means that you can make the hard choices about your real goals in business, and help you reach those goals. Above all, you will be able to truly enjoy your successes.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

6 Reasons Your Business Needs A Website At Rollout

e-commerce-websiteThese days, if your startup does not have an Internet home base up and running, you are not ready for business or potential investors. Customers go there to check on the details of your offerings and verify that you are not a scam, investors look there to check out your management and sales approach, and suppliers expect to find contact information.

There should be no doubt that an Internet presence is as basic to success in business today, as brick and mortar was a hundred years ago. Yet I am amazed to see from a recent survey that nearly half of small businesses today still have no web presence at all. These are soon to be the walking dead, and the competitors you can beat today.

In fact, you need to have at least a prototype web site published several weeks before you expect anyone to find yours, since it takes that amount of time for the web search engine “spiders” to find you and index your content. I still remember my disappointment the first time I published my website, did an immediate Google search on the name, and it said my company didn’t exist.

There are many practical reasons for going to work early on your web site. Here are a few:

  1. Register domain name and set up hosting. I’ve said many times that the Internet domain name should be reserved at the same time you incorporate your company name – they need to be the same, or highly related. Yet I still hear stories of companies being well down the road on products and collateral with a given name, only to find out that everything has to be changed because of a domain name conflict or availability problem.

  2. Websites do take time to get done right. I’ve also known startups who have worked for months on the infrastructure of their business – front office, manufacturing, product design, marketing, personnel, and sales – then started work on a web site in parallel with their “grand opening.” Two months later they still didn’t have a web site, and didn’t have a customer. You should allow three months for the design, building, and rollout of your first site, and you can actually build it yourself these days.

  3. Finalizing the web site validates your product plan and sales strategy. Many founders find that building the web site forced them to commit on the product design, set final pricing, define ordering and delivery procedures, and actually schedule and staff the marketing events that they had in mind.

  4. Viral marketing needs a website. Everyone knows that word-of-mouth advertising is an effective and important part of any small business. But word-of-mouth and viral marketing doesn’t work without a web site. On the other hand, don’t assume that viral marketing is the only marketing you will need.

  5. The website can be a source of revenue. If your business and product are as attractive as you believe, the traffic to your web site will build quickly. Now you should monetize that aspect of your business through the use of Google AdSense to display ads for related products and businesses, and get paid for the “click-throughs.”

  6. Your web site will promote your business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Like you probably do, many people search for products and services on the weekends and in the evening. They are busy business people and very often this is the best time for them to concentrate on researching a new product or service. As a business owner, there is nothing more satisfying than having several orders and email inquiries waiting for you when you get up in the morning!

In fact, you can set up a web presence these days on social media alone, by creating a company page on Facebook, company profile on LinkedIn, or a free blog with static pages on WordPress. These may not have the globally recognized www.companyname.com domain name, but will certainly put you in touch with the new Internet generation.

I’ve heard all the excuses for not stepping up to this requirement - like I don’t have the time, skills, or money. But believe me, the costs these days are trivial, compared to the benefits. For the first time you have at your disposal the whole world market for whatever product or service you happen to provide. It’s time to turn the light on, and let the world know you exist.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, February 10, 2017

How To Survive A Deadly Drag On Startup Productivity

feeling-blueA “downer” is defined here as someone who seems to dwell on the negatives of every business challenge, and loves to highlight bad news or potential problems. No matter how smart or experienced this person may otherwise be, things must change or they will kill your startup.

I’m not talking about someone who has an occasional bad day, but rather people who when asked, “How are things?” will proceed to give you a 20-minute dissertation on their latest health symptoms, the latest company problem, and the sad state of the world in general.

This brings down the mood of everyone around them, and often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all know this kind of person, but they never seem to recognize themselves. So here are a few clues that you can look for in yourself, to see if you slipping into this abyss:

  • “It’s just another long day at work.” You can’t remember the last time you were positively excited by something you did at work, or even in your personal life. Your brain has leveled all events and activities into a desert of sand dunes, where just getting from one to another is a struggle, and there is nothing new to see over the next hill.

  • “I’m always tired or stressed out.” You may know this, but you assume that it’s not obvious to anyone else. Yet, think of your own office, you noticed on the first day those people that speak slowly in a low monotone, walk or sit with their head down most of the time, and rarely contribute anything without being asked.

  • “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” This can happen to business executives, once able leaders, who have spent too many years doing the same job. They know their processes and team aren’t perfect, but they no longer notice these imperfections. They are bored, or no longer interested in improvement opportunities.

If you recognize yourself in these points, or you feel yourself slipping in that direction, what can you do to turn yourself around before the company pushes you out, or a competitor pushes your company out? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get a medical checkup. You may be fighting a health problem that can be easily solved by proper treatment or medication. Even more severe medical problems, like chronic depression, can be mitigated once they are recognized and understood.
  • Change your environment. Ask for a new assignment at work, or look for a new job before you are fired from this one. Make a concerted effort to wake yourself up to the positives, and re-engage in processes that once excited you. Start a log on your efforts and progress. Measurable progress is itself exciting.
  • Ask a mentor for support. Choose a friend or mentor (not your spouse) whom you trust to tell you the truth, and ask for help. Then listen to the recommendations. These people can’t change you, but you can change yourself. Focus on identifying strengths, and capitalizing on them.

Let me assure you, every startup faces more challenges than any other business – unproven product, new processes, new management, and unpredictable customers. This is not the place for downers. If you are a downer, find a new place to work. If you run the startup, and you don’t deal with this issue quickly, your fledgling business is in jeopardy.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that these points are so obvious that they don’t need to be reiterated here. Yet I still find this to be one of the most common drags on startup productivity, as well as employee satisfaction. Remember that being a downer is not something that someone did to you; it’s something that you did to yourself. Therefore, it’s up to you to fix it.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

How To Get Step-By-Step Assistance For Your Startup

David S. Rose SpeakingIt seems like every day I hear from an aspiring entrepreneur who doesn’t know where to start, or doesn’t have the time or expertise for all the mechanics of starting a business based on their great idea. While I can route them to hundreds of resources on the Internet for individual pieces of this task, I never found an online platform that integrates all the required activities, until now.

David S. Rose, who literally wrote the book on Angel Investing, and is the long-time CEO of the Gust platform for bringing together investors and startups, just announced Gust Launch as a “Company as a Service” solution. His intent is to automate and simplify the process of creating and funding a startup, to minimize the mistakes that often jeopardize a high-growth startup.

In the interest of full disclosure, David has been a friend of mine for many years, but I have no financial interest or affiliate relationship with any of his companies. I did touch base with him recently to catch up on his activities and expectations:

Marty: What was the key driver that motivated you to create Gust Launch?

David: Gust Launch was born out of the realization that founding and running a high-growth startup is much, much more complicated (and expensive) than any first time entrepreneur ever realizes. I found this out the hard way with my first venture-funded startup over twenty years ago, and it's something that every other serial entrepreneur will immediately confirm.

Marty: How does Gust Launch relate to your existing Gust online platform to connect investors to growing startups?

David: Gust Launch leverages the power of Gust (the world’s largest startup platform, already used by some 500,000 companies and thousands of investment groups and accelerators) taking many of the things in my recent New York Times best seller, The Startup Checklist: 25 Steps to a Scalable, High-Growth Business and turning it into an automatic, software as a service solution.

For the entrepreneur who wants to found a high-growth venture, it makes the startup process a single click. We incorporate the venture as a Delaware C corporation, serve as its Registered Agent, file for its tax number with the IRS, register with its home state, set up its bank account, credit card, accounting software, cap table....everything!

And then on an ongoing basis, our partners provide basic bookkeeping, legal, accounting and equity management services. With everything included for as little as $199 a month, it’s not surprising that it was the most up-voted find on Product Hunt the day it launched.

Marty: How are you splitting your time these days between the many roles and activities that I know you are involved in?

David: I’m fundamentally an entrepreneur, which means that I have voluntarily forgone any semblance of work/life balance. I spend about 150% of my working hours as the full-time CEO of Gust, and with the other 100% I serve as Chairman Emeritus of New York Angels, Managing Director of the AREA Accelerator, Managing Partner of Rose Tech Ventures, and keep up a pretty full speaking, teaching and writing schedule.

Marty: How do you see the climate and opportunity for startups in New York for 2017?

David: The New York City tech scene has exploded from absolutely zero in the 1980s to the point that last year Accenture named New York the world’s #1 city for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Today, there are over 20,000 New York City-based startups who have created profiles on Gust or on Digital.NYC, New York City’s official online hub for tech and startups, and that number continues to explode. No one disputes that NYC is the second-largest startup center after Silicon Valley, but what’s interesting is that in many months last year it grew even faster than the West Coast.

Marty: What is the best advice you could give to someone contemplating a startup?

David: Being an entrepreneur is tough. Really, really tough. The entrepreneurial life is one of challenge, work, dedication, perseverance, exhilaration, agony, accomplishment, failure, sacrifice, control, powerlessness…but ultimately, extraordinary satisfaction.

It will be without question the hardest thing you will do in your life, and it is absolutely critical that you find personal joy and fulfillment in the process of entrepreneurship, in which case the economic success of your venture will be simply the icing on the cake.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, February 6, 2017

7 Key Actions to Align Business Elements For Change

Compass_alignNew business owners are rightfully proud of the changes they bring to the market, so they readily admit that change is good. Yet these same entrepreneurs often quickly get set in their ways, and find themselves resisting changes to their own business, and begin to fear further customer change in their domain. Change is no longer seen as an opportunity, but as a big risk and cost.

I know we all hate risk, but I’m a big believer in the old adage – “No risk, no reward!” The challenge in business is manage risk, or take calculated risks, rather than blindly step into every risky unknown. One of the key ways I have found to calculate the business risk of a change, is to look for an alignment of interests across the range of constituents required for success.

The constituents of every business success go far beyond customers – they include employees, partners, investors, vendors, and may even include competitors. Every change requires an alignment check, and probable realignment, of some of these forces. For you as a business person leading the charge, I recommend the following principles for managing alignment:

  1. Proactively make change happen, rather than react. You can’t win by always being in recovery mode. With the speed of change today, you need to develop a culture that loves change, build the ability to quickly realign into your organization, and reward members of the team who come up with ideas, and are instrumental in making them happen.

  2. Regularly update and re-publish your vision and direction. On a quarterly basis, you need to re-assess your original vision, to make sure it is consistent with new realities. If the world is changing direction, you need to realign your thinking. Just as importantly, you have to bring all constituents along, or the business will be fragmented and left behind.

  3. Review all business components for every re-alignment. Too many businesses handle change on a piecemeal basis – maybe they update the product, but don’t look at the revenue model, or the selling process. Nearly half of small businesses today still don’t have a website, despite a majority of people looking there for search, sale, and support.

  4. Every change requires extra communication to constituents. It’s twice as hard to change an image in someone’s mind than it was to get the image there is the first place. That means all realignments require over-communication, in multiple medias – video, voice, documents, and actions. Don’t assume a simple press release will be enough.

  5. The fastest way to change a business is to bring in new blood. Most successful business owners have learned that you usually need to seed change and realignment with new people. Even with good people, there is an existing team member confirmation bias that works against change. You always need to look for new skills and experience.

  6. Plan to replace some tools and processes. It’s a bad strategy to assume that all existing processes and systems must be updated, rather than replaced to accommodate a market change. In reality, the costs in maintenance and usability are very high to do things the old way as well as the new. Always evaluate new tools and new systems.

  7. Pick metrics to measure change implementation and results. Plan ahead to measure the results you expect from the realignment, as well as the extent of the change process. You will always hear the negatives and problems during a change, which can easily hide any positive results, or how near you are to success in the process.

Even with all the right planning and flexible systems, it takes the right people to make change happen – starting at the top. Consider what Steve Jobs had to do to change Apple from a computer company to consumer electronics, or how Howard Schultz changed all the rules of selling coffee with Starbucks. Every aspect of these business had to be realigned.

As much as change is good for new businesses, it is absolutely required for the long-term survival of existing businesses. Witness what resistance to change did for Blockbuster Video and Kodak. Also, real change takes more than the one person at the top – it takes the engagement of all team members internally, as well as external constituents. Are all your stars aligned for change?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/24/2017 ***

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

7 Steps To Driving A Culture Of Business Innovation

Innovation-Money-BusinessEvery business founder knows the need for a culture that promotes continuous innovation, an entrepreneurial spirit, and one that creates sustainable value across all functions in the business. Yet most don’t really know how to create that environment, or assess when they have achieved it. They only know in retrospect too late when they don’t have it, and the business is in crisis mode.

I just finished a new book, “The Invisible Advantage: How to Create a Culture of Innovation,” by Soren Kaplan, who lays out the key steps to assess, disrupt, and reshape the existing culture of a company to get more innovation. Kaplan is a leading expert in building innovation cultures, and speaks from his real-world experience with many companies, as well as academic study.

In my own work as an advisor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I see many who are focused on that single big disruptive innovation that will change the world. It’s a good start, but that’s not the continuous flow of smaller innovations required to survive, thrive, and win in today’s rapidly changing world. Thus I recommend Kaplan’s steps, which I will paraphrase here:

  1. Make your innovation marching orders clear. Frame the way you want to change the world, and make it about the customer. Start with defining and publishing innovation goals at the company level, and then ask for specific objectives from every organization. Ask teams for a breakdown into incremental, sustaining, and disruptive innovations.

  2. Take time to create a structure for innovation. If you don’t take time early to set the culture, you will get a crisis when you need innovation. It can start by setting aside twenty minutes in a weekly meeting to explore new ideas for making things better, and then following through. Carve out unstructured time for team members to focus on ideas.

  3. Decide what to measure and create metrics. You only get what you measure. Ideas are the beginning. Make sure your measurements are customer-oriented, as well as focused on internal processes. What you measure must reinforce your goals, values, and best practices around innovation. Promote very specific actions and behaviors.

  4. Reward with recognition over financial incentives. An annual bonus or award is just not enough to catalyze a culture of innovation. Frequent and informal recognition with peers is the most powerful incentive to innovate and change the culture. Symbols that reinforce your desired intent can make innovation a reality that becomes everyone’s job.

  5. Practice leadership actions that shape the culture. Little things can have a big impact when it comes to creating a culture of innovation. Avoid comments like “We can’t do anything until we have more data,” or “We tried that before and it failed.” Watch the unintended facial expressions, practices that get rewarded, and how failures are handled.

  6. Assess your innovation culture regularly. In a large organization, online surveys and questionnaires are helpful. It’s always valuable and symbolic to take the time to speak with real live people, both informally and in executive interviews. Count the innovation success stories published internally, or visibly rewarded in each organization.

  7. Design your invisible competitive advantage. Your culture of innovation should be largely invisible to competitors, but it better be clear to all your teams. Every company has different strengths and goals, yet each can publish internally their innovation canvas of technology, leadership, people, structure, rewards, and metrics that sets them apart.

The most important step is simply to get started. You can use the toolkit provided by Kaplan, or assemble your leadership team and make sure they understand that a culture of innovation is a strategic imperative. Then create an action plan to implement the required steps, follow-up on assessment, and iterate on a regular basis to sustain that invisible advantage.

Remember that every specific competitive advantage is temporary – every product or service becomes a commodity over time. The only sustainable advantage is a culture that results in continuous reinvention, providing ongoing memorable customer experiences. What has your business done lately to excite your existing customers and keep them loyal?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 02/04/2017 ***

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

10 Top Rules For Marketing In Today’s Digital World

digital-marketing-rulesViral marketing and word-of-mouth are not enough these days to make your product and brand visible in the relentless onslaught of new promotional media out there today. Innovation in marketing is perhaps more important than product innovation. Yet in the business plans I see, the marketing content and budget are smaller than ever.

More than just spending, you need to create an “experience” in this digital age which sets you apart from the banner ads, email blasts, and old-school websites out there today. According to a classic book by Rick Mathieson, these have morphed into a digital universe of augmented reality, ‘advergames’, and virtual worlds – that are highly personalizable and uniquely shareable.

His title “The On-Demand Brand: 10 Rules for Digital Marketing Success in an Anytime, Everywhere World” characterizes the challenge of demanding attention from a new generation of consumers who want what they want, when they want it, and where they want it. Here are the new marketing rules I support:

  1. Insight comes before inspiration. Innovative marketing starts with customer insights culled from painstaking research into who your customers are, and how they use digital media. Then it’s time to innovate through the channels or platforms that are relevant.

  2. Don’t repurpose, re-imagine. Digital quite simply is not for repurposing content that exists in other channels. It’s about re-imagining content to create blockbuster experiences that cannot be attained through any other medium.

  3. Don’t just join the conversation, spark it. Create new online communities and customer forums, rather than joining existing ones. Ask why it should be, and why customers should care. Then give them a reason to keep coming back. Keep it real, social, and events-based.

  4. There’s no business without show business. Remember Hollywood secrets. Your brand is a story; tell it. Accentuate the personalizable, own-able, and sharable. Viral is an outcome, not a strategy. Make people passionate or emotional and they will buy. Look to the movie screen to see what you won’t soon forget.

  5. Want control? Give something away. Several companies, including Mastercard, Coca-Cola, and Doritos have let customers build commercials and design contests, with big rewards for the customer and for the company. That’s giving up control, with some risk, to get control.

    Another approach you may remember was American Family Publishers setting revenue records with their sweepstakes and Ed McMahon showing up at the doorstep of multi-million dollar winners with an oversized check and a bottle of champagne. This strategy made AFP a household name and engaged countless people to participate.

  6. It’s good to play games with your customers. Games are immersive, but shouldn’t be just a diversion. They need to drive home the value proposition. Don’t forget to include a call to action leading people to the next step of the buying process.

  7. Products are the new services. Startups need to realize that products are the jumping-off point for building relationships with customers. Digital channels enable you to turn products into on-demand services that help customers reach their goals, and add value.

    For example, if you sell printers, you can start with cost-saving device optimization. Then offer document analytics capabilities, innovation and automation for better document security, productivity and sustainability.

  8. Mobile is where it’s at. In addition to thinking of mobile as a new advertising distribution platform, remember it’s far more powerful as a response, or “activation mechanism,” to commercial messages we experience in other media – print, broadcast, and more.

  9. Always keep surprises in-store. Social retailing is the new approach, where real-world shopping allows customers to connect with friends outside the store, and try on virtual versions of fashions friends might recommend. Be sure your in-store services add value.

  10. Use smart ads wisely. The new generation of “smart advertising” enables the creation of an Internet banner ad to fit each viewer’s age, gender, location, personal interests, past purchase behavior, and much more. The trick is to do this without being invasive.

Remember everything you do, or don’t do, in the digital world is visible to your customers, and everything they say about you is visible on demand, all over the world. That means marketing can no longer be an afterthought, or something you can postpone until later, when you have more resources. Without effective and innovative marketing, you won’t have a successful business.

Marty Zwilling

*** Published by Xerox Small Business Solutions on 01/30/2017 ***

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Friday, February 3, 2017

10 Keys To A Business Culture That Can Adapt Quickly

improv-comedy-and-businessAs an entrepreneur, you have to improvise and adapt quickly to survive and thrive in the face of the unpredictable challenges of the market. But this improvisation a not a comedy, although there are some distinct correlations, in relation to reacting, adapting, and communicating. In business and in comedy, you win most often with “Yes, and …” instead of “Yes, but ….”

I definitely learned a few things about how to improvise effectively in business from a new book, “Getting to ‘Yes And’: The Art of Business Improv,” by Bob Kulhan, who is a master of the art in both comedy and business. Kulhan is a professor at the Duke University School of Business, but was trained in improvisation by some comedy greats, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

He draws on cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics to show the rest of us in business how to think on our feet, and approach business challenges with fresh eyes and mental agility. From my own perspective of many years as an executive and startup advisor, I recommend his improvisational keys to improving the culture of your business:

  1. Don’t be afraid to try, and fail, before you succeed. You can’t learn and adapt quickly to the changing needs of your customers and the marketplace if you are afraid of failure. As in comedy, you have to take risks, think outside the box, and be willing to face some brutal feedback, to find the path that works, all with a smile on your face.

  2. Tell you team what you want, plus why and how. Be explicit on your intent. Team members can’t help you change if they don’t clearly understand where they need to go and how to get there. There is no set formula for change in business, so you need to improvise with a positive message. Everyone is turned off by a “Yes, but …” response.

  3. Always acknowledge ideas and add to them. This “Yes, and …” phrase is an improvisational technique long used to move people forward. Make sure everyone understands the power of this phrase when sharing opinions and suggestions, and in holding people accountable. Teach them how to actively observe and listen to input.

  4. Get buy-in through participation and feedback. By openly requesting and rewarding feedback, you are demonstrating that you value employee input and you want to include everyone in the decision process. Team involvement encourages everyone to buy-in, in spite of the work it entails, because they feel personal ownership in the business.

  5. Build team trust through shared experiences. Teams need to bond, and that can start with an off-site structured event. The key is not only to have everyone in the same place, but to have them share a memorable experience in a place that will connect them further in the future. Bonding is always enhanced through team recognition and awards.

  6. Routinely schedule team exercises and challenges. The message here is that practice makes perfect. We see this in the Olympics and professional sports. You and your team need to be well-oiled, and able to work together automatically, before you can hope to react quickly to changes in the marketplace. Improvisation does require training.

  7. Leaders must be the example. Entrepreneurs need to walk the talk, be consistent, passionate, and accountable for their actions. No matter what happens, you must be the model of the “Yes, and …” approach – always communicating the need for change, and leading the charge to listen, learn, and adapt. Business culture is set by leader actions.

  8. Empower your team to initiate the change process. Ownership is essential in creating an inclusive environment. Empower your team to help you create and protect this culture. Don’t let blame rear its ugly head. Make sure they have the resources and the education to get change done with you, or without you. They need a level of comfort to improvise.

  9. Remove those who refuse, or undermine the team. A smaller team working well together is much more effective than a larger dysfunctional team, just as it would be in a comedy troupe. Often, it’s in the best interest of the team, the company, and certainly the employee to part ways or move to a new team before permanent damage is done.

  10. Be tenacious to make required change happen. The leader who is a tenacious implementer of change will always follow-up on the initiatives started. You can cause “change fatigue” by jumping randomly from one idea to another, with no follow-through. All change needs to tie back to basic principles, values, and objectives of the business.

Who would have guessed that the techniques practiced by comedy troupes would have such applicability to businesses? It’s just another example of the value of thinking outside the box, and reframing of disciplines from one domain to another. Are you using that level of thinking in your business? The future of your business may depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 02/02/2017 ***

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