Sunday, May 16, 2021

7 Key Skills For Survival In Today’s Business Career

survivalsurviverescue-help-armsThe days when you locked and loaded your career in school, and then blasted away down that same narrow path the rest of your life, are gone, never to return. Career survival today requires thinking and acting like an entrepreneur starting a business, staying nimble and resilient, willing to pivot, and supersensitive to the market realities of supply and demand.

Over the years I have spent mentoring entrepreneurs and startups, I often notice the similarities between successful professionals managing their careers and successful entrepreneurs building a business. Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, helped me crystallize these similarities with his classic book “The Start-up of You.” Here are key survival skills for both lifestyles:

  1. Adopt the mindset of a permanent beta. Finished ought to be an F-word for all of us. We are all works in progress. Each day presents an opportunity to learn more, do more, be more, and grow more in our lives and careers. Keeping your career in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, and intend to improve yourself.
  1. Regularly assess and refine your competitive advantage. Your competitive advantage is the interplay of three different, ever-changing forces – your assets, aspirations and values, and the market realities of supply and demand. Smart professionals constantly assess the market, and strengthen and diversify skills.
  1. Plan to pivot as you learn. Change is the only constant in this world, and every change is an opportunity to learn. Plan to adapt, and start it every day on the side. Don’t wait for something to fail before you learn, or before you consider a change or pivot. The best pivots are to take advantage of an upside, rather than avoid a downside.
  1. Build and use your network. World-class professionals don’t try to take on the world alone. People playing a solo game will always lose out to a team. Successful entrepreneurs are ones who put together the best teams. Build your network with people smarter than you. With effective networking, who you know is what you know.
  1. Pursue breakout opportunities. Success begins with opportunities, but these mean nothing unless you execute on them. Others taking breakout opportunities can be dismissed as lucky, but more often it’s the result of their work to be at the right place at the right time, with the right mindset. Be curious, confident, and willing to learn.
  1. Take intelligent risks. We are all risk takers. But we are not all equally intelligent about how we do it. In a changing world, minimizing risk is one of the riskiest things you can do. The most intelligent risks are those where the potential downside is limited, but the potential upside is virtually unlimited. Those are the risks every business jumps to take.
  1. Maintain that sense of urgency. Entrepreneurs know that in business, change overtakes the best of big companies, and even startups have to maintain a sense of urgency to stay ahead of the curve. For every professional, opportunities come and go at an astonishing speed, so only a continuing sense of urgency will keep you alert.

In addition to you and the network around you, there is a broader environment that shapes your career potential. It’s the local culture and society around you. So think carefully about where you choose to live and work, or where you choose to start a business. Your maximum potential may be in another place in the global environment, or as a volunteer versus an employee role.

In the bigger picture, I’m convinced that we were all born as entrepreneurs, with the instincts listed above to survive, grow, and prosper. How many of these career survival instincts have you used lately to deal with the changes we all see?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

6 Practical Keys To Enhancing Your Business Acumen

business-acumenThe most successful entrepreneurs and executives I have seen are savvy business people first, and experts in their field second. This may seem counter-intuitive to technologists, especially in an era when technology seems to be driving the world. Yet the sad truth is that a technology not focused on a real problem is not a business, and will probably fail in the marketplace.

Examples that come to mind include satellite phones, the Segway PT vehicle, hydrogen fueled auto engines, and many more. The issue in these cases was usually not the technology per se, but the bigger business picture of marketable prices, ease of use, and support infrastructures.

It still amazes me how many entrepreneurs can fathom the physics of gyroscopes, but fail to comprehend the big picture requirements for positive cash flow and profit. Kevin Cope, in his classic book “Seeing the Big Picture”, does a great job of outlining the basics of business acumen for executives, and helped me assimilate some practical ideas on building the essential elements for entrepreneurs:

  1. Reserve time daily to research the market, as well as technology. Learning is a never-ending requirement for every entrepreneur. At best, all they teach you in school is how to learn. In these days of rapid change, most experts believe that the facts college students learn as a sophomore are obsolete before they exit their senior year.

  1. Build relationships with key experts in your business domain. Talk regularly with peers and advisors who have been there before you. Your focus should be on listening and asking questions, rather than defensively arguing that your situation is somehow different from all the others.

  1. Be proactive in contributing business ideas and follow through. Talk is cheap when it comes to innovative ideas in business. You don’t really understand a new idea, until you try to write it down and succinctly communicate it to peers and critics. Waiting to follow through until you are backed in a corner is usually too little, too late.

  1. Network in the industry as well as outside. The best entrepreneurs have the best “little black book” of expert contacts. Through personal outreach, as well as industry organizations, they are constantly on the lookout for people smarter and more experienced in their domain. Networking requires sharing as well as taking.

  1. Even the best have mentors they really use. A mentor is someone who will tell you what you need to hear, while friends and associates often tell you what you want to hear. Of course, it’s good to have both, but don’t confuse the two. Above all, be accountable to yourself in your efforts to keep the big picture in perspective.

  1. Understand the business, then add value. The more business acumen you accumulate, the more likely you will be to bring real innovation and survive the deadly challenges. Ultimately, every business decision is a quest for maximum return on investment (ROI), utilizing cash, technology, and human resources.

You don’t have to have an MBA to understand that even the most complex multinational businesses are made up of five key drivers – cash, profit, assets, growth, and people. While each driver is unique, it is also completely dependent on all the other drivers. Experts in technology might thus only understand twenty percent of what they need to succeed in business.

In my view, the big picture starts with a continuous effort to better understand the basic business elements, as well the technology and people elements. The next step is using all the elements of business intelligence available today to sort through and prioritize the flood of information and evidence of continual change in the market all around us.

The best entrepreneurs never lose sight of the big picture, and they never stop learning until they die. Unfortunately, it too often works the other way around.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, May 14, 2021

8 Creative Pricing Strategies Most Startups Overlook

pricing-strategyAs an advisor to new business owners, I’m accustomed to seeing primarily the simple traditional product pricing strategies, usually driven by competitor prices, or cost plus a reasonable margin. I often wonder whether you as the entrepreneur have worked as hard on your pricing strategy as you have on your innovative solution. I hate to see money left on the table through poor pricing.

For example, I believe that Starbucks surprised most people by proving that they could take a commodity business, a coffee shop, and make it a worldwide profit winner, just by justifying premium pricing with a quality product, the right locations, personalized service, and appealing to the professional customer personas.

As I look around at other great businesses out there, I see many have incorporated innovation into their pricing strategies, as well as their products or solutions. By definition, true innovations are things we haven’t seen yet, but here are a few pricing alternatives that have contributed to the success of companies I know, and I recommend for evaluation by every business leader:

  1. Charging a premium for your technology innovation. If your innovation is real, it brings added value to the table, so most customers, especially early ones, are willing to pay a premium over competitive products. Later, when that innovation becomes the new norm, you must be prepared to lower your price to meet new competitors.

    Elon Musk and Tesla are prime examples of this approach, when the market for all-electric vehicles was new. Now that it is more mature, they are offering lower-cost alternatives, consistent with non-electric competitors.

  2. Define ancillary services to increase the average price. Small but important options to provide expedited delivery, or priority service can significantly increase your average sale, without being tagged as a higher price. Here it is important to monitor customer feedback, as you may find one of these services could be a revenue source in itself.

  3. Set a price based on your customer psychology bias. If competitor prices are high, keep yours in the same ballpark, but slightly lower, despite lower cost. Be aware that most people see two digit numbers as lower than three digits. Convince customers that you are selling at a loss, or use a sale price much lower than the original price.

  4. Include free digital products to enhance physical ones. Your incremental costs to ship software tools to complement a retail device, such as a smart home product, is near zero, and it may justify a sizeable price increment. Digital products also allow users to be advocates for you and help each other, thus reducing your support and marketing costs.

  5. Offer a “name your own price” to pay what you want. Believe it or not, in some market segments, customers with many alternatives, who see extra value from your product, will altruistically offer more than you might need to compete and thrive. Everlane and Radiohead have used this strategy on specific items to build their customer base.

  6. Flat pricing – charge the same for many combinations. This pricing strategy started primarily associated with buffet restaurants, but the concept has now been applied to many other businesses. Amusement parks sell "day passes," and cell phone providers sell “unlimited use” plans. With e-commerce online, I see many new industries jumping in.

  7. Pricing based on personal attributes and timing. Often online consumers will provide information such as birth dates, education levels and occupations. These can be used to estimate their propensity to buy, and combined with the time of day, and competitive trends, to offer an optimal price to close the sale as well as meet your revenue targets.

  8. Offering a lower price to penetrate the market. The lower price helps a new product or service penetrate the market and attract customers away from competitors. Of course, raising prices later is difficult, unless pre-specified. Examples include an online news website offering one month for a dollar, or a bank offering free checking for six months.

So you see, pricing a product is not a simple exercise, and requires the same creativity that you have put into your solution and your marketing. Your goal is to make each of these elements complement the others, and deliver a more competitive and successful business.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/28/2021 ***

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

6 Tips For A Marketing Focus To Match Your Solution

integrated-marketing-communicationsIf you are a passionate technologist, it’s easy to forget that marketing is required to sell even the most compelling solution, to cut through the information overload everyone sees today on the internet. If customers don’t know you exist, you can’t solve their problem, they won’t buy. Getting customer attention often takes more innovation today than solving the tough technical problems.

If marketing is not your thing, then you need to find a partner or outside expert to help you. As a business adviser, I still see too many new venture founders who skimp on their marketing focus, or start too late. You really need to start marketing your solution before you even build it, to validate the need, and keep your focus on the features that customers really want and need.

To get you started on the right track, I always recommend the following pragmatic tips that you probably already know, but are always worth re-validating with every new initiative:

  1. Quantify how your unique features add value. It’s easy to fall back on the generic message that your solution is easier to use, has more function, and comes with great service, but who looks twice at that message? If you can’t state clearly why your startup is the only choice, then it’s time to regroup before spending your hard-fought funding.

    Every business needs a unique selling proposition (USP), that is a concise, straight-to-the-point statement about the special benefits you offer customers. For example, Warby Parker boosted selling glasses online a while back with “Try five frames at home for free.”

  2. Talk to real live customers in addition to marketers. Go directly to customers to set priorities, and get a feel for emotional as well as factual realities. Avoid the use of jargon, big claims, and special promotions. Do case studies and gather customer testimonials, as well as build relationships that lead to advocacy, loyalty, and word-of-mouth support.

    A simple and inexpensive way to do this today is to add an interactive tool like LeadChat to your website. You will likely be amazed at the kind of requests you get, and what you can learn, which could lead to new opportunities, new products, and new customers.

  3. Network with local organizations and industry groups. Networking is all about marketing yourself and your company. Start small by meeting with key online influencers over coffee or lunch, and take the time to join peers and speak to industry groups for recognition and credibility. Cold calls to strangers and email blasts are not so productive.

    You can get started by visiting your local Chamber of Commerce and attending the next Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. From there, it’s just a matter of follow-up to find the leaders in your industry and make yourself one of them through panels and talks.

  4. Proactively dig in to find prospects who really need you. Too many of you succumb to “cheap” marketing pitches from others – usually measured by the number of customers to be contacted, rather than fit for the solution you have. Give priority to prospect quality versus quantity. You won’t need the multiple follow-ups and time to close new sales.

    An approach which is coming back into vogue with the pandemic is consultative selling. This means overtly offering your expertise for free, and worrying about selling your solution afterward. It works in fashion, real estate, and certainly in the technical world.

  5. Use social media for marketing, not just feedback. Many entrepreneurs I know faithfully monitor social media to quickly respond to problems and react to customer feed back, both positive and negative. Far fewer lead with their best strategies on this media, including regular incentives to customers, pointers to case studies, and technical insights.

  6. Build a marketing plan with deliverables and metrics. If I don’t see a documented marketing plan, with measurements driven by industry norms, I assume that you are counting primarily on your passion to assess growth. Passion is necessary, but not sufficient for survival. You need quality measures for marketing, just like your product.

In general, I recommend effective marketing is the first thing you should think about when contemplating a startup, rather than the last. In today’s world, the last thing I and investors want to hear is “if we build it, they will come.” You have to find your customers – don’t count on them finding you. Remember, good marketing is not rocket science – you too can learn and we all win.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/27/2021 ***

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Monday, May 10, 2021

6 Ways To Extend Creativity To All Areas Of Business

think-outside-the-boxMost aspiring entrepreneurs believe their initial idea and inspiration requires the most important creative thinking. Experienced entrepreneurs will tell you that the initial idea is the easy part, and it’s the later implementation, and the competitive business marketing that are the real creative challenges.

There is a tough balance here to achieve, since a large portion of starting and running a business requires analytical, logical thinking. In fact, our education and training to logically associate related concepts reduces our ability to add the creative side, even though we were all born without that bias. Maybe that’s why “thinking outside the box” is so rare.

While looking for guidance on how to be more creative in growing a business, I came across Michael Michalko’s classic book, “Creative Thinkering,” which clearly applies to business as well as personal environments. With his insights, I offer the following recommendations on how to nurture and build your creative business capabilities:

  1. Look for familiar patterns in unrelated subjects. Due to learned habits and routines, new ideas default to be similar to old ones. Creative thinkers get results by combining dissimilar subjects, like investors and competitors. I find that startups looking for funding often never even think of asking strategic partners, rather than just venture capitalists.
  1. Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change. Stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine contradictory approaches, or working with opposites. Many businesses have found that raising the price of a product to give it status can win more customers than a price war.
  1. Think the unthinkable. We all need ways to unstructure our imaginations to explore the outer limits of alternatives, so that we can go beyond the typical solutions. In business, this may be as simple as replacing a product line that is still profitable, or a recent startup making a takeover bid for a large company. Creative people at Facebook are likely working on this one right now.
  1. Intention is the seed of creative thinking. Intention has a way of bringing to our awareness those things that our brains deem important. One way to prime for creativity is to generate an awareness of what you want to accomplish. If you study the Amazon 1-click patent long enough, you’ll likely find something of your own worth patenting.
  1. Change the way you speak, and you change the way you think. Many entrepreneurs focus on deficiencies, and phrase their thoughts and ideas with negatives, such as no, never, and don’t. Make a conscious decision to become a positive-thinking person by creating positive speaking patterns. Ten customer referrals is better than “no complaints.”
  1. You become what you pretend to be. Attitudes influence behavior, but behavior also influences attitudes. Reality has often been shown to conform to beliefs, whether they be positive or negative. In business on the Internet today, it’s easier than ever to pretend to be a large and mature company, and successful startups don’t have to pretend long.

Brainstorming, ideation, thinking outside the box, disruption, creative thinking – whatever you want to call the process of developing successful new business approaches – is something that must explore every day in your business. You have to let go of things that are holding you back, and take chances in business, especially after that first great idea.

You cannot will a new idea. But you can train your imagination, like a muscle with regular exercise, to conceptually blend dissimilar concepts from different contexts, leading to original ideas and insights. How long has it been since you have conceived and implemented a really creative idea in your business?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, May 9, 2021

6 Techniques For Kickstarting Time Management At Work

work-management-kickstartOne of the toughest challenges of an entrepreneur in building a startup is the fact that there are so many things that you don’t know how to do, or don’t like to do. Things like raising money, building a business plan, or hiring and firing people. These aren’t fun, especially for a visionary. That’s when the curse of procrastination steps in.

The result is that certain things just never seem to get done. Jan Yager, in her classic book, “Work Less, Do More” talks about procrastination as a primary obstacle to efficient time management. She describes how you can grow so busy doing everything but what you should be doing, that you’re unaware that you’re failing to address what’s really fundamental to your success.

I haven’t met an entrepreneur yet who can honestly say they haven’t felt this challenge. Here are some techniques I espouse from Jan and others for conquering procrastination:

  1. Plan your daily activities in advance. Make whatever it is you’re avoiding the very first task you do on a given day. Don’t start the day by checking e-mail, surfing the Internet, or reading the newspaper. Get a priority task done first every day, then take a break or do some low priority work that you enjoy more.
  1. Set up a personal reward system. Pick a reward that will be a real motivator, something you truly want but have been denying for yourself. For example, as soon as you complete your financial projections, you can call your business partner to skip out for that round of golf he keeps mentioning.
  1. Try creative procrastination. If you are finding your top priority to be too daunting, try tackling the second or third most important items on your to-do list. You will accomplish all your day’s priorities, but in a different order. That’s better than substituting a trip to the doughnut cart.
  1. Arrange for gaps in your schedule. Build space into your schedule so you actually have some free time that will still permit you to get the priority project done without the tendency to put yourself down or engage in the self-criticism that too often accompanies procrastination.
  1. Face the truth head-on. Take a few minutes to contemplate why you are delaying something. What does the postponement provide? What will it take to get you to act now? Write down the real deadline. Maybe it’s time to hire an expert, or assign the task to someone else on the team. Move the ball.
  1. Define a period without distractions. Make a resolution to turn off the phones for the first hour of a day, or close the door to your office to discourage interruptions. Do not let anyone distract you from your priority tasks during these periods.

A closely related malady to procrastination is the well-known “Parkinson’s Law” – all work will expand to fill the time allotted. When you add procrastination, people tend to start things too late, and then miss the deadline, no matter how far in the future it is set.

Psychologists assert that procrastinators actually sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own path. They actually choose paths that hurt their performance, and avoid success in life. It represents a profound problem of self-regulation.

If you are a chronic procrastinator, or your business partner is one, becoming a successful entrepreneur is unlikely unless things change. You can change yourself, using the techniques described above, perhaps combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. Believe me, it’s worth it for your personal well being, as well as that of the business. Start now.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 8, 2021

10 Tips For Entering The Startup Community This Year

finding-a-jobThese days I see a surge of new startups as businesses seem to be recovering from the pandemic. If you are not starting one yourself, the next best thing is joining one as a partner, or as an early employee. It takes much the same preparation to make you the best entrepreneur, or the best job candidate. Of course experience is the best teacher, but you need to get the job to get the experience.

According to Ford R. Myers, a noted career coach, and author of the classic book, “Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring,” many job seekers and career changers make the mistake of halting all their efforts as summer approaches, believing that nobody will be hiring until early fall. He and I believe that these next few months are the perfect time, especially with the pandemic, for starting a new career.

Here are some tips from both his perspective and mine to stave off the coming summer “brain drain” and focus on the next step of employment, or starting a whole new career as an entrepreneur:

  1. Create and control your Internet image. Whether it's LinkedIn, YouTube, or Facebook, you need an online presence. No online presence may brand you as “old school,” and not startup material. Carefully monitor the "personal brand" you're building on the Internet to keep it positive.
  1. Perform an internal career audit. Now is a perfect time to take an honest look at your career -- where you've been, where you are today, and where you'd like to go. Identify new goals based on your own definition of career success and then take action.
  1. Invest in career coaching. A qualified career coach can help you get totally clear on your objectives, differentiate you from the competition, market you effectively, get the offer, and negotiate the best compensation. Don’t assume it’s a luxury you can’t afford.
  1. Actively work the network. Spring and Summer are the best times of the year to make new connections and find new startups, with outdoor activities and sports. Contrary to popular belief, business networking is not all done at investor receptions and conferences.
  1. Follow-up with existing connections. Make new connections through your network, and always follow up with people you've already met. I’ve never met an executive or professional yet who didn’t enjoy being asked to share his expertise and views, and most will then remember you as someone who really cares.
  1. Update your career "tool kit." Most job seekers still use only their resume as the cornerstone of their search. But there are many other items you should have in your "career tool kit" – good online profiles, accomplishment stories, positioning statement, contact list, professional references, letters of recommendation, and more.
  1. Tune your business fashion sense. Fashion trends in startups are more relaxed and modern than you may see in large enterprises. It may be time to update your apparel to prevent the impression that you are stuck in the past and may have a difficult time adjusting to the startup world. It also will boost your own confidence level as well.
  1. Volunteer or seek internships. There are many volunteer opportunities available during this time of year. This is a good way to get practical job experience, help people, and to meet other professionals who may be able to recommend you.
  1. It is better to give than to receive. The fastest and most effective strategy for getting help is to offer help to others. Ask the people in your network who they might like an introduction to or if there is any way that you can be of assistance to them.
  1. Become an opportunity magnet. Always think and speak positively, and never say anything negative. This will help you to become an opportunity magnet -- poised to attract, interview and "hire" your next employer.

The most important thing is to get out there and work the territory. If you adopt a defeatist attitude or wait for the job to find you, startup founders and peers will quickly see this, and you will be defeated. Startups are hard work for everyone, so enthusiasm, confidence, and a can-do attitude are essential to success. The harder you work at it, the luckier you will get.

Marty Zwilling

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