Wednesday, March 21, 2018

5 New Venture Events Where Agility Pays Big Dividends

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

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

While thinking about the most common surprises that I have seen with startups, and contemplating how to best prepare for them, I found some good guidance in a classic book, “Think Agile,” by successful entrepreneur and startup advisor Taffy Williams. I will key off his list of situations requiring dramatic plan changes, as well as the best ways to plan for these changes:

  1. Indispensable people jump ship at the worst possible time. The surprise departure of a key staff member is inevitable, no matter how strong the financial and passion incentive. Every entrepreneur needs a succession plan early on the top three people, with a reshuffle and replacement strategy. Get to know your headhunter or freelancer.

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

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

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

  5. Another disruptive technology trumps yours. What seemed like a winning technology, like RIM with its Blackberry, can quickly be superseded by a new entrant, such as the iPhone from Apple. Every startup needs to build and monitor their list of top competitive risks, and size the cost of a quick direction shift if the worst case happens.

Each of these initiatives has to be led by an entrepreneur who is willing to manage with an open mind, not only during the formative stages of the business, but also during the growth stages. Most entrepreneurs start losing their agility with that first taste of success. The best ones are often viewed as paranoid, since they proactively look for problems well after the first success.

One of the best ways to increase agility is to focus on specific problems and drive them to resolution, rather than instinctively flailing through several problems at the same time at a high level, hoping that one of your many actions will stick. Scientists have shown that the best creative problem-solving consists of these five-steps:

  1. Learn as much as possible personally about the problem.
  2. Engage a qualified and diverse team, staff, and advisors.
  3. Document the ultimate goal, so people can work backward as well as forward.
  4. Ramp up communication to bring in outliers and spark fresh thinking.
  5. Step back for a while to let the creative juices flow before making a decision.

These are turbulent times, as well as time for great opportunities, for the entrepreneurs that are agile, innovative, and open to change. Don’t get stuck in the past, or let some early success lead you to competitive lethargy or crippling indecisiveness. Those are the diseases of too many big business executives. You didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur to be like them.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, March 19, 2018

9 CEO Myths That Can Limit Your Business Leadership

Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook, at the press conference about the e-G8 forum during the 37th G8 summit in Deauville, France.Based on my many years as an executive in large and small businesses, and time mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners, I find that most people enjoy being CEO critics for a day, but are hesitant to consider themselves as a long-term candidate for that position. They often rationalize their lack of zeal to not having the right background or credentials for the role.

I’ve long felt that CEOs are just regular people, like the rest of us, perhaps with a bit more drive and confidence. I found this view well supported in a new book, “The CEO Next Door,” by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell. Unlike my gut feelings, they base their views on their own study of over 2,600 business leaders, first surfaced last year in The Harvard Business Review.

Their conclusion is that those who reach the top in business share behaviors that anyone can master, including being decisive, reliable, delivering on what they promise, adapting boldly, and engaging with stakeholders without shying away from conflict. These authors go on to debunk the many myths I hear that hold back many aspiring CEOs, including the following:

  1. Prior executive experience trumps all for CEO success. Among the more shocking findings in the research was that first-time CEOs were statistically no less likely to meet or exceed expectations than those with prior CEO experience. If you have the drive and passion, don’t let the experience myth keep you from aspiring to your dream.

  2. CEO is a birthright talent, rather than an acquired skill. I’m sure that some natural- born CEOs do exist, but I agree with Peter Drucker, who said “Leadership is not magic, and has nothing to do with genes. It’s a discipline, and it can be learned.” Over 70 percent of the CEOs in the study claimed no early age aptitude or interest for such a role.

  3. To become a CEO you must have a flawless track record. The reality is that 45 percent of CEOs interviewed had at least one mistake that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. What set successful CEOs apart was not their lack of mistakes, but how they handled setbacks. They talked about what they learned, rather than failure.

  4. Successful CEOs need a larger-than-life personality. Charismatic “masters of the universe” may dominate Hollywood films, but in real boardrooms, results speak louder than charisma. Over a third of the CEOs in the study actually described themselves as introverted, with no measurable differences in results between introverts and extroverts.

  5. Great CEOs work harder than the rest of us. Analysis showed no predictive relationship between how hard a leader worked and how likely he or she was to become a CEO. Furthermore, 97 percent of low-performing CEOs in the study scored high on work ethic. Many people work hard, but fewer consistently produce winning results.

  6. For CEOs, the smarter, the better. Above-average intelligence is an important indicator of CEO potential. However, once at that level, higher intelligence as measured by standardized tests does not increase the odds of performing well in that role. It’s key to speak in clear simple language to convey messages and get the rest of us to follow.

  7. Great CEOs must be able to excel in any situation. A common misperception is that a great CEO is capable of handling any situation. I find that the best are very thoughtful about identifying the roles and context where they can contribute. They have the self-discipline to turn down the wrong job or a challenge they are not yet ready to tackle.

  8. The right academic credentials are critical to be a CEO. Some of the most famous billionaire CEOs, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out of school to build their businesses. In this study, only eight percent of the CEOs did not complete college, but I’m not convinced that the degree is as critical as the discipline and learning.

  9. Great CEOs are likely to be egotistical superheroes. In fact, the authors found that the weakest CEO candidates were more likely to be self-centered, and were superheroes only in their own mind. The best were quick to use the term “we,” and recognized the strengths of their team. Many traced their team focus back to mentoring or athletics.

My message is that you need not let any of these myths derail you from running your own company, or limit your career advancement in your chosen profession. I’ve known many great CEOs, and like Peter Drucker, I don’t believe there is any magic formula. With the pace of change in business today, there has never been a better time to follow your dream, and get to the top.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/06/2018 ***



Sunday, March 18, 2018

6 Reasons Why Office Gossip Is Bad For Your Business

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

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

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

I recently saw some good insights on this challenge in the classic book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership,” by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp. They concur with me that gossiping is a key indicator of an unhealthy organizational culture, and one of the fastest ways to derail creativity. They summarized the following key motivators for gossiping:

  1. Make others appear wrong. Many team members relate to others on the team from a one-up or one-down position: They see each person’s position as either less than or more than their own. Gossip is a way to engage in one-upmanship, relieving them from feeling inferior. It allows people to twist reality to make others wrong so they can be right.

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

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

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

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

  6. Avoid face-to-face negotiation and conflict. A popular reason for gossiping in teams is a concern that direct opinions or preferences are going to upset someone. Thus they vent to people not directly related to the issue, such as friends and other team members, somehow hoping that will get the message across with having to confront anyone.

Gossip doesn’t work without a willing listener, so agreeing to listen is really as contributory as speaking it. Team members who refuse to listen will kill gossiping as effectively as no speakers. The authors agree with me in observing that candor and authentic expression of feelings and facts are more effective in communication and maintaining the health of the organization.

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

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

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, March 17, 2018

5 Keys To Real Business Engagement – Be A Disruptor

be-a-business-disruptorAccording to recent surveys, job satisfaction for employees is at an all-time low. Only 13 percent of workers are fully engaged in their job. The sad part is that is seems to be getting worse, rather than better. One obvious alternative is to become an entrepreneur. As a mentor to many aspiring entrepreneurs, I’m often asked what it takes to switch and get real satisfaction from this lifestyle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling



Friday, March 16, 2018

Grow by Creating Markets, Versus Killing Competitors

AirbnbFor your business to continue to grow, there are really only two ways to get customers. One way is to take customers away from an existing player, and the other is to create a new market with a new product or service that didn’t exist before. Examples of recent “new market” big wins include Apple with iTunes for digital music, Uber for ride sharing, and Airbnb for renting a spare room.

Business growth by creating new markets is now popularly called the “blue ocean strategy,” based on a classic book with the same name. The alternative is a “red ocean strategy,” where everyone is swimming within the same predefined industry boundaries, and cutthroat competition is turning the ocean a bloody red. A blue ocean means new and uncontested territory.

I just finished a recent update by the Blue Ocean authors, called ”Blue Ocean Shift,” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. It compares the successes and failures of blue ocean business efforts in recent years, and offers some specific guidance on shifting to this strategy. I am impressed by the authors’ five-step systematic approach, paraphrased here, for implementation:

  1. Target the area where you have to most to offer and gain. It all starts with broadening your scope of thinking, assessing your own strengths, and focusing on areas where you bring the greatest advantage. For example, Apple already had the digital and file management expertise, and they recognized an unmet need with music sharing.

    Equally important is the effort to put together, isolate, and motivate the best team for the journey ahead. Do you have the mix of skills, with the level of functional and hierarchical authority required? You want to select people who are good listeners, are known to be thoughtful, and are willing to raise questions when others don’t.

  2. Build an objective view of the strategic landscape. When the team sees the strategic reality and agree on the need for change and growth, only then can you create real alignment and a collective will to make the shift. If this is done properly, you won’t have to tell people to move to the new ocean strategy – they will viscerally feel it and do it.

  3. Uncover hidden pain points that limit your industry. This will help everyone identify the unexplored spaces where value is trapped and waiting to be unlocked. Pain points will be seen as blatant opportunities, rather than constraints. Remember that the total customer experience is now much broader than just product features and price.

    Identifying all of your non-customers in the current space allows an assessment of the total demand landscape that lies outside the current industry understanding. Airbnb realized there was an opportunity to extend the hospitality industry beyond the capital-intensive world of hotels and resorts, and hotels were a pain point for young travelers.

  4. Reconstruct market boundaries to allow new solutions. This is where you put random brainstorming aside and apply systematic logic to re-create markets and industry boundaries. The result is firsthand insight into practical ways to reframe existing industry problems and create break-through solutions that will excite a new class of customers.

  5. Finalize your move with market tests and business models. The goal of this step is to take the politics out of the commitment process, and obtain validation and feedback on the strategic options. What you want is a clear decision, validated by key stakeholders, with a wealth of insight on how to prevent gaps in execution.

    Now is the time to tighten and refine your plan to maximize its market potential, and then formally launch it. This ensures that the move you roll out generates not only a leap in value for buyers, but also quickly accelerates growth in your own business. It’s important to move while the team’s energy is high, and they are fully committed to the shift.

These steps are essentially the same, whether your business is mature, or a startup. I see more and more blue ocean efforts these days, but unfortunately not many have the discipline and rigor outlined here. Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at your own business growth strategy. It’s a lot more fun to systematically explore new territory, than to endlessly chum the existing sharks.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/01/2018 ***



Wednesday, March 14, 2018

10 Ways To Jeopardize A New Venture Early And Often

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The good news is that, I continue to see articles with evidence that entrepreneurs are happier and healthier than their employees, or even most other professions, regardless of how much money they make. even with the pitfalls outlined here. I suspect that most of these have failed their way to this top satisfaction.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, March 12, 2018

4 Reasons Why Learning Beats Experience In Startups

Anatomy_kgroupIn today’s fast moving world of business startups, learning trumps knowing every time. What established businesses know through experience keeps them from looking for the new and innovative ways to do what they do better, cheaper, and faster. I’m convinced that’s why most mature companies are slowing down or buying their innovation through acquisition, rather than building it.

In her classic book, “Rookie Smarts,” Liz Wiseman, one of the top thought leaders in business, amplifies this point as it relates to hiring and cultivating the curious, flexible, youthful mindset in keeping a mature company young and competitive, as well as keeping experienced employees more productive.

She outlines four distinct ways that business people doing something for the first time, whether they be entrepreneurs, or people in a new role in a larger company, tend to think differently than experienced veterans. With my focus on startups, I can translate very easily how her points lead to more innovation even in the entrepreneurial environment:

  1. Maintain an unencumbered mind. True entrepreneurs, like backpackers, are ready to explore new terrain, more open to new possibilities, and don’t get stuck in yesterday’s practices. They tend to ask the fundamental questions, see new patterns, and notice the mistakes of others. They are not afraid to act boldly, and tend to recover quickly.

  2. Seek out experts and return with ideas and resources. Startup founders need to be more like hunter-gatherers, seeking out experts and trying new ideas to address their challenges. They are not entrenched in their domain, and don’t look for data that confirms what they already know. They don’t hesitate to disseminate the knowledge to their team.

  3. Take small calculated steps, moving fast and seeking feedback. Experienced business professionals tend to take big steps, move at a comfortable pace, and are not on the lookout for changing conditions. Entrepreneurs have to be like firewalkers, take a risk, move quickly one step at a time, searching for milestones on the way to success.

  4. Improvise and work tirelessly while pushing boundaries. Great entrepreneurs, like pioneers, work hard, keep things simple, and focus on core needs. They don’t have a comfort zone or protocol to fall back on. They assume that new tools and structures will have to be built along the way. Progress on the learning curve is their satisfaction.

But even as an entrepreneur, you can fall back too quickly on prior experience, or settle into habits that are too comfortable. Here are some things we all need to do change perspectives and learn to learn all over again from time to time:

  • Transport yourself in time and place to your first professional role. Remember how you felt then, what you did, and how you approached work. Use this insight to reset your own thinking, and to provide great leadership guidance to other members of your team.
  • Multiply your expertise with additional experts. Avoid the temptation to jump in first, and consult other experts to bring new insights into the challenge at hand. Don’t give up until you have found new patterns to an area you thought you knew.
  • Reverse the learning role with new team members. By asking a junior colleague to mentor you, you will more likely hear new approaches or technologies and get new insights on your customer base or business challenges.
  • Expand your professional network to new groups. Actively look for people with views contrary to your own. As you change the stream of information and consider alternative views, your thinking will expand.
  • Take a step back and remap your terrain. Try to visualize your domain the way a newcomer would see it, without the filters you have already built in your mind. Map out the current players, rules of the game, cultural changes, and constituent alignments.
  • Swap jobs with a colleague for a day. Use the exchange to gain new business and customer insights, and to formulate the naïve questions that a newcomer might ask. The swap will be an exciting learning experience for both of you.

True entrepreneurs thrive on the experience of learning, maybe more than the experience of success. That’s why the best entrepreneurs I know can hardly wait for a chance to exit their current startup as it stabilizes, and start again down a less familiar but new learning path. Once you stop learning, you stop having fun, and you stop succeeding.

Marty Zwilling