Sunday, June 20, 2021

5 Ways To Turn Business Connections Into New Ventures

business-men-connectionsI often hear the popular notion that successful entrepreneurs are built from a single heroic insight or a single innovation. This is just plain wrong. The business world is a symphony of players and elements that only works when everything interconnects harmoniously. Continuous innovation and continuous learning are required for any sustained connection and success.

I’ve long believed these principles, but I’ve never been able to explain them as well as my friend Faisal Hoque, with Drake Baer, in their classic book “Everything Connects.” Hoque’s great insights on how to transform businesses in this age of creativity, innovation, and sustainability are based on his serial entrepreneur experiences, as well as his study of Eastern philosophies.

Here is my extrapolation of his many lessons and messages into five essential strategies for making the connections in business that can lead to success as a business executive or an entrepreneur:

  1. Learn to work with people and build strong relationships. Nobody succeeds as a “Lone Ranger” in business. Finding people and building the relationships you need requires effort, and is a key component in moving every business forward. Equally important is avoiding people who bring you down, waste your time, or have no interest.
  1. Root out ideas by cultivating curiosity. Curiosity is the best catalyst for business creativity, learning, problem solving, and ideas. Ideas are the beginning of a strategy. The continuous discovering, planning, and implementing of ideas is the only path to sustainable innovation. Nurture the people in your relationships who have curiosity.
  1. Connect with your target audience. Today’s innovative “social economy” requires emotional attachment that links customers to your products, as opposed to competitors, and translates into sustainable growth. A simple, inspirational product and brand message is far more influential than one which highlights product features and functions.
  1. Accelerate sustainable growth. Creating a unique product and a unique brand isn’t enough. It takes repeatable sales processes to create a scalable business. Accelerating this growth requires continuous innovation, improved collaboration, visionary leadership, and an inspired and positive relationships with all your constituents.
  1. Create tangible long-term value. Every business transaction has consequences. The positive ones are called value. Short-term consequences are usually quantitative, and long-term ones are more qualitative. The most sustainable way to create long-term value is to continually invest in your capabilities both as individuals and as an organization.

In business, as in life, success won’t happen without good people relationships. To better build and nurture your people connections, here are some top line principles from the book which I espouse:

  • Be honest. It’s the only way to create and maintain trust and respect.
  • Be direct. Direct communication leads to direction, the path you set as a leader.
  • Think ahead. You need to surround yourself with forward thinkers, and listen.
  • Inspire and influence. The best and brightest will be toppled if they can’t inspire others.
  • Create a community. You need cross-pollination and collaboration from the ecosystem.
  • Think long term. Leaders must be aware of the present moment while setting their sights on long-term goals. Purpose must be a part of the present and the future.

For entrepreneurs, the road to success is always a longer one than you anticipate. An old Chinese saying comes to mind that when you’ve made it 90 percent down the path, you’re halfway to your destination. That last 10 percent of making the right connections is the other half of your journey. Are you thoroughly prepared to facilitate your own success, and the success of your company?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

5 Keys To Ethical Solutions To Tough Business Issues

Covid19_vaccine_pfizer_2Many people seem to have the sense that ethics are spiraling downward in business, and unfortunately most startup professionals and entrepreneurs I know don’t believe they can make a difference. They don’t realize that if they don’t take an active role in the solution, they really become part of the problem.

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

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

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

  1. Identify the ground rules of the all parties. When a situation presents an ethical issue, look beyond the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations to uncover the ground rules of each that help explain their actions. Only then can you understand what you have to change to be a successful ethical change agent.
  1. Reason backward to find the interests. Summarize the possible outcomes, and reason backward from each to find what interests each outcome will serve and for whom. Unstated or hidden interests are often the key to resolving ethical issues. Support outcomes that advance many interests without violating any ground rules.

  1. Face the relevant facts. Look for facts that all parties, irrespective of their ground rules and interests, will agree upon. Then look for non-debated facts, and finally contested facts. The acid test for each fact is that if it were true, would it change your judgment as to what is right in the situation. Now you have the potential to make an ethical difference.
  1. Stand in the shoes of affected parties. Once you understand who is affected, reduce the distance between you and them. Pick ones that differ from you the most and meet with individuals or group members. Verify or reject each interest and ground rule. You remove obstacles to the functioning of the ethics eye by bringing its objects closer.
  1. Use the global benefit approach to rate possible outcomes. Ask which course of action produces the greatest balance of benefit over harm for all concerned. You first ask who counts, then what counts, as a benefit or harm in considering the possible outcomes. Any action with great benefits without violating ground rules could be the right one.

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

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

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

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, June 18, 2021

7 Essential Steps From A Lone Entrepreneur To Success

lone-entrepreneurYou can’t win as an entrepreneur working alone. You need to have business relationships with team members, investors, customers, and a myriad of other support people. That doesn’t mean you have to be a social butterfly to succeed, or introverts need not apply.

It does mean that you need to look, listen, and participate in the business world around you, and network through all available channels, like business-oriented social networks online (LinkedIn), local business organizations (Chamber of Commerce), and events or conferences in your school or industry.

I hope all this seems obvious to you, but I still get a good number of notes from “entrepreneurs” who have been busy inventing things all their life, but can’t find a partner to start their first business, and others trying to find an executive, an investor, or a lawyer.

What these people need is more relationships, not more experts, more blogs, or more books. So I thought I would drop back to some essentials in building and nurturing business relationships (most of these apply to personal relationships as well):

  1. Build your network. These are people of all levels that have been there and done that, meaning people who know something that you need to know. See my article from way back “Entrepreneurs Learn Best From Business Networking” on how and where to get started. You don’t need a thousand friends, but a few real ones can make all the difference.

  1. Give and you will receive. Relationships need to be two-way, and can’t be just all about you. If you are active in helping others with what you know, they will be much more open to help you when you need it. The more you give, the more you get in return, both literally and figuratively.
  1. Work on your elevator pitch. This is a concise, well-practiced description of your idea or your startup, delivered with conviction to start a relationship in the time it takes to ride up an elevator. It should end by asking for something, to start the relationship.
  1. Don’t skip all business social settings. Face time is critical, even with the current rage on social networks, phone texting, and email. Studies show that as much as 50-90% of communication is body language. That’s usually the important relationship part.
  1. Nominate someone as your mentor. Build a two-way relationship with several people who can help you, and then kick it up a notch with one or more, by asking them to be your mentor. Most entrepreneurs love to help others, and will be honored to help you.
  1. Cultivate existing allies. These are people who already know and believe in you, but may not be able to help you directly in your new endeavors. But don’t forget that each of these allies also has their own network, which can be an extension of yours, if you treat them well.
  1. Nurture existing relationships. We all know someone who claims to be a “close friend,” but never initiates anything. They never call, they never write, and wait for you to make the first move. If you don’t follow-up on a regular basis with someone, there is no relationship, only a former acquaintance.

On the positive side, many attributes of an introvert lead to better business decisions, such as thinking before speaking, building deep relationships, and researching problems more thoroughly. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, is currently the most famous introvert entrepreneur, so don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.

One of Mark’s secrets seems to have been to surround himself by extroverts like COO Sheryl Sandberg, and people who have a complementary energy. But working alone doesn’t get you very far. It takes a team to win the game of business, so take a look around you to see how you are doing so far.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

6 Indications Of A Dysfunctional Leader In A Startup

dysfunctional-leaderFounders almost always cite lack of money as the reason for failure, but if you look deeper, I believe the reason is more often about dysfunctional people and leadership. Sometimes it comes right back to the founder, in terms of a malaise often called “founder’s syndrome.” A few years ago I was intimately involved with a promising startup that taught me about this issue.

I’ll be short on specifics here, to protect the guilty, but I hope you get the idea. It’s not a disease, but it can kill your startup. You can find a more complete discussion of founder’s syndrome on Wikipedia, but here are a few of the “symptoms” I observed in the founder and CEO in this case:

  1. Advisors and staff hand-picked from friends and connections. Personality and loyalty are apparently the key criteria, rather than skills, organizational fit, or experience. The executive is looking more for cheerleaders, rather than people with real insights and ideas.
  1. Reacts defensively and talks constantly. Sometimes it's time for quiet listening rather than talking. A strong and confident leader will always realize that a defensive response before the input message is complete does not impress investors, nor anyone else on the team.
  1. Staff meetings are for one-way communication. This founder holds staff meetings only to report crises, rally the troops, and get status reports on assignments. There is no concept here of team strategy development, and shared executive agreement on objectives.
  1. With no input and no “buy in” from the team, sets extremely ambitious objectives. These objectives are set based on the desires and dreams of the founder, with no recognition of technical realities, costs, or time required.
  1. Over time, becomes more and more isolated and paranoid. The first clue is some veiled comments about the motives of staff members, advisors, and investors. These become more specific as the situation gets more dire, to the point where key members begin to desert the ship in disgust.
  1. Highly skeptical about planning, policies, and advisors. Claims "they're overhead and just bog me down." The founder perception is that his experience is more applicable than the input of others, and formal planning and policies are just a way of introducing unnecessary bureaucracy.

In the beginning, we all found our startup founder to be dynamic, driven, and decisive. He had a clear vision of what his organization could be. He seemed to know his customer's needs, and was passionate about meeting those needs. Just the traits one would expect for getting a new organization off the ground. However, he had other traits, including the ones listed above, which became major liabilities.

The undoing of the company began when a potential investor, after months of search, was ready to put up $1 million, but made it clear that his firm would likely need to replace the founder with someone with more credentials and experience in this industry. With that revelation, the founder killed the investment deal, and every other potential deal which raised the same issue.

Of course, no situation is this simple. There were product development problems, pricing problems, and early customers who demanded more features and delayed contractual payments. The ultimate result was a startup founder who exhausted his personal funds, drained the investments capability of friends, and drove away the team one by one.

For me, this is a most frustrating and difficult problem for any advisor or team member to deal with, since communication and learning can only occur when someone is open and listening. If any of you out there have seen this, or have some experience or ideas on how to deal with this situation effectively, let me know. You can be a hero if you have the cure.

For all you founders out there, if you find this article anonymously taped to your computer, it might be time to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. We can’t change you, but you can change yourself. It could save your startup!

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, June 14, 2021

7 Ways Your Message May Be Lost On People That Matter

people-did-not-hearOne of the most important things I was slow to learn in business was that real communication only happens when your audience finally hears and understands what you think is a perfectly clear message. As a business executive and leader, I found that meant I had to repeat most communication several times, in different contexts, before all members of my team really heard it.

I’m sure that you, as a manager or team leader, have felt the frustration of hearing feedback comments like “I wish someone had told me” or “I didn’t know you wanted that.” Unfortunately the comments you don’t hear from customers, business partners, and peer leaders are the ones that do you the most damage. Here is my list of the most common ways that key messages get lost:

  1. Lack of trust and confidence in you by receivers. People do not really listen to someone who does not have their trust, and will routinely discount any message value. Thus you must work on relationships first, before attempting to provide leadership, guidance, and direction to receivers. Confidence and trust lead to agreement and action.

    Evidence continues to mount that companies with trusted leaders, such as Zappos, tend to outperform others in financial results, as well as team satisfaction, by as much as three to one. That alone is enough reason for every leader to keep building good relationships.

  2. Neglect to set the context for the message. The responsibility is on you as the communicator to make sure your intended receivers are ready to receive your message, meaning that they are listening, and understand your priorities and values. We are all overloaded with data from all directions, so first you have to get their attention focused.

  3. Too much dependence on lingo and jargon. Don’t assume that team members and customers have the same familiarity with technical abbreviations that you do. Use clear and concise language, aimed at a medium grade level, or people will ignore the message as incomprehensible or insulting. Test your message on a spouse or family member first.

    Follow the examples of two top technical leaders today, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who have established reputations not only of being innovative thinkers, but also effective communicators who believe in clear, concise messages with no technical jargon.

  4. Not using transparency, honesty, and full disclosure. People sense quickly when you are withholding partial information, perhaps in an effort to protect them or mislead them. This negates the message, erodes trust in you the deliverer, and causes people not to listen in the future. Assume that all your messages with be cross-checked and validated.

  5. Failure to address assumptions and culture. Effective communication always requires consideration of language barriers, gender and age norms, and media protocols. For example, you would never use the same words and tone in an email, text message, or on social media. Be aware of the demographics and role of all recipients, and play to it.

  6. Not controlling background noise or distractions. Carefully pick the right time and place for key messages. Don’t bury them in so much information that attention spans are exceeded. Carefully manage the environment so that people are not distracted by other activities or noise that may override the recognition and retention of your key points.

  7. People do not agree, and ignore the message. Intended receivers who totally disagree with a message will claim they never heard it, or actually not remember it, unless you repeat it often and rephrase it to match their context. It is to your advantage to tune your message for maximum fit to their perspective, and full awareness of their concerns.

It’s important to remember that as a business leader, your impact and effectiveness is directly related to your ability to deliver messages and communicate exceptionally well. Of course, delivering messages is not just saying the right thing, but also listening, writing, body language, and practicing what you preach. Fortunately these are skills you can learn and practice.

The acid test is the feedback you are getting, or not getting. No questions does not always mean that everyone has heard and is acting on your message. Maybe it’s time to be more proactive in follow up, seeking feedback from others about how you can communicate more effectively.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/31/2021 ***

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Few Kids Lead In Business, But Most Need Your Help

Princess_party_business_coachI continue to see stories of really young entrepreneurs, like this article, profiling 25 kids that made a million dollars before graduating from high school. This makes me wonder what starts that entrepreneurial drive in kids, and how early parents and schools should start teaching the basics.

There are already some good books out there for youth entrepreneurs, such as the classic one from my friends Adam and Matthew Toren, Kidpreneurs: Young Entrepreneurs with Big Ideas. They assert, "It's never too early! Even children can be introduced to basic business principles and the rewards of entrepreneurship”. Another one is Kid Start-Up: How YOU Can Become an Entrepreneur, by Mark Cuban, Shaan Patel, and Ian McCue.

Even if you are not sure that your child is a budding entrepreneur, there are several practical reasons to introduce him or her to the basics of business. Here are a few facts from the National Council on Economic Education emphasizing the need for more business training, starting much earlier:

  • More than 1 in 6 students in the USA do not have a baseline level of financial literacy.

  • Nearly 1/4 of millennials spend more than they earn.

  • 67% of Gen Y have less than 3 months-worth of emergency funds.

As early as grade school, with parental guidance and resources like these books, kids can gain some valuable experience in starting, managing, and growing a successful business venture. The positives include:

  • Learn to make money. Even young children (ages 5-10) can and need to understand the concept of income – expense = profit. They need to understand that having money is not an entitlement, and not related to the volume of their demands.

  • Start a summer business. The best way to learn is a “hands-on” approach like creating a simple business to sell lemonade or deliver newspapers. In this context, parents can explain how their own business works, and where the family income comes from.

  • Bring the family together. All parents need to do things with their kids. A family that grows together, builds character and achieves financial success. The entire family can be active in the business venture.

  • Understand how business works. A place to start may be a reality game like ThriveTime for Teens Board Game, where they will be faced with money and life decisions like buying cars, managing expenses, paying for college, using credit cards, buying stocks and starting businesses.

  • Able to invest money wisely. Several companies, like Charles Swaab, offer programs like Money Matters: Make it Count, which teaches the financial basics to teens through Boys & Girls Clubs across the country.

If your child is old enough to get on the Internet, he or she is old enough to start learning business skills. Many education organizations provide free online tools to help students explore the world, increase intercultural awareness, and participate in a community of like-minded international teen leaders. It’s not a big jump to e-commerce and the costs and decisions of running a business.

We all know that technology comes naturally and early to this generation. Gen-Y and Gen-Z are already showing us new ways to use it to grow and profit in business. I can’t even imagine what the next generation will bring. You better start your business now, and have fun while you can, before we are all branded as ancient relics.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Entrepreneurs Are Needed To Make Web Searches Smarter

Web-3.0Soon you should be able to ask your browser or smart phone context-specific questions like "Where should I take my wife for a good movie and dinner?" Your browser would consult its intelligence of what you and she like and dislike, take into account your current location, and then suggest the right movies and restaurants. If you are the first to deliver this, your startup might be the next Google!

This has been a long-time dream of Tim Berners-Lee, the man who (really) invented the World Wide Web. He calls his dream the ‘Semantic Web’ (or Web 3.0), meaning it understands user context. He and many other experts believe that the Semantic Web will act more like a personal assistant than a search engine.

If you add the next generation of natural language processing (NLP), you will be able to ask Google Voice Search or Apple Siri the questions right through your smart phone. The system will compile your interests in your local storage, so the more you use it, the more it learns about you, and the more relevant will be the results.

These virtual personal assistants still have some work to do to meet the key attributes that we have grown to expect from a live personal assistant. Here is an entry-level benchmark for the new software personal assistants:

  • Simple and intuitive communication. A personal assistant must be able to understand intent and context, as well as learn common acronyms and shorthand phrases, whether written or spoken. Siri is a step in this direction, but still has very limited learning and context sensing abilities.

  • Technology environment savvy. A good assistant know how get things done efficiently, recognizing user hardware and software limitations. In today’s mobile hardware environment, that means able to set up meetings, convert text messages to voice, find contact information quickly, and search the Web intelligently for outside info.

  • Memorable personality. Every personal assistant has to deal with a variety of moods and people every day. This requires a pleasant, outgoing personality, with politeness and respect always. They must also be able to balance courtesy with assertiveness when necessary to insulate you from unwanted solicitation and other distractions.

  • Good organizational skills. A personal assistant must be highly organized and detail-oriented. That means total handling of the calendar, scheduling appointments, taking calls, logging messages, screening e-mail and doing other duties with some sense of priority and problem-solving.

I believe the current major drive to mobile devices and apps has slowed the progress toward this new semantic environment, but it’s coming. Of course, many are still fighting it as well, due to privacy concerns. In my view, the increasing consumer demand for personal marketing and personal assistants will soon overcome paranoia, and reasonable boundaries will emerge.

There are already many examples of startups edging into this space. On the basic search engine front, WolframAlpha is an amazing computational engine often used by Siri, which creates intelligent results, graphs, and reports from any natural language question. But we are a long way from agents that can do full natural language processing from voice and think on their own.

Current advertising and public relations startups are already poised along these lines, all the way from clothes shopping, art galleries, online advertising, to managing press releases. In some ways, these aren't that different from the old Amazon.com "recommendation engine," which suggests new products based on your surfing and buying habits, but they go much further.

Just think of the fertile ground all this opens for startups! If you’re looking for that ‘million dollar idea’ to build a plan around, here is your chance. But don’t wait too long, because the din for the Semantic Web is getting louder and louder. Catch the wave soon or it will pass you by!

Marty Zwilling

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