Friday, August 7, 2020

10 Strategies For Success Long-Term As Well As Today

strategies-for-successEvery one of you has had to deal with the conflicting requirements of optimizing your business in the short term versus the long term. In the short term you need customers to find you at any price, and in the longer term you need revenue, profit, and return loyalty. Even a million users on your social media site won’t pay the bills until you sell some advertising or a premium service.

In a larger public company, it’s all about making your quarterly numbers, versus investing in strategic growth alternatives that may not pay off until several quarters later. The challenge we all have as business leaders is balancing the focus between business today and tomorrow.

Based on my own experience in both large and small companies, I agree it can be done, with the essential principles outlined in a new book, “Winning Now, Winning Later,” by David M. Cote, former Chairman and CEO of Honeywell. Although his focus is naturally on bigger companies, I contend that his recommended strategies apply equally well to entrepreneurs and startups:

  1. Demand a mindset of deep thinking for the long term. Don’t allow you or your team to succumb to the mistake of narrowing the scope of thinking to solving today’s problem only. That keeps people from pushing themselves to develop the kind of new solutions that will permanently change the business for the better, versus short-term band-aids.

  2. Connect operations today with long-term goals. In my experience, even in startups, longer-term strategy often gets pushed off the agenda due to current challenges. Overtly connect every operational problem to your strategy, rather than putting strategy on a different plane and making it only an annual event. Don’t make growth a big-bang event.

  3. Separate serious business threats from daily crises. The natural human tendency is for people to treat all problems as short-term, and apply patches rather than solutions. Strategic threats, including new competitors, market changes, and environmental issues need deeper analysis and full resolution, before they jeopardize your business survival.

  4. Make process improvement a constant focus. Don’t wait for a short-term crisis, or a long-term one, to force process improvements. By being proactive, and empowering and rewarding your frontline employees for improving processes, you will enhance your business productivity and growth in both the short term as well as the long term.

  5. Build and model a high-performance culture. Every business team becomes inwardly- focused by default, comparing themselves only emotionally to others they know within the organization. It’s your job as a leader to be the model high performer, quantify the team view with metrics, and expand awareness to the best outside competition and new tools.

  6. Attract, train, and reward only the best leaders. This strategy requires allocating a significant portion of your time, even as daily crises grow, to the nurturing of the leadership pipeline, mentoring high potentials, paying them well, and rewarding results with positive short-term feedback, as well as strategic promotional opportunities.

  7. Constantly scan the horizon for growth opportunities. Distinguish growth opportunities from survival efforts, and make sure they are adequately funded, rewarded, and measured. Get outside the company regularly to get feedback on future customer needs, emerging technologies, and the views of influencers and experts in the field.

  8. Explore partners and M&A to solidify your strategy. These days, the market is moving so fast that it is rarely adequate to rely only on internal development to keep up with change. You need to be constantly assessing mergers and acquisitions, as well as divestitures. Hone your process for due diligence and integrating these new elements.

  9. Proactively prepare for downturns and recoveries. Make sure you are paying attention to macroeconomic and customer trends, and planning early moves, rather than waiting for the crisis. This means identifying initiatives early, communicating openly with your team, and asking for their help on the dilemmas of production cuts and layoffs.

  10. Initiate succession planning for all roles, including yours. Don’t let promotions and succession planning be driven only by your HR function. Everyone, including your Board, should have a role. Make sure internal top performers are vetted, as well as outside candidates. Can you name the top three candidates for key roles in your organization?

If you look deeply into the success of the most recognized business leaders today, such as Jeff Bezos, you will find that they practice many or all of these principles. Even though your work and solutions for short-term objectives often seem to conflict with strategic goals, I am convinced that, with focus, you too can balance these priorities, and build a legacy for all of us to be proud of.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 07/23/2020 ***

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

7 Ways Every Entrepreneur Should Evaluate A New Idea

Board-Artificial-RobotAs an advisor to entrepreneurs, one of the most common requests I get is for an evaluation of a next startup idea. I try to explain that even the most innovative idea will fail if it is not a good fit for you at this time, so the question I ask them is “why you now” rather than “why this solution now?” The right person can make any idea a business success, and the wrong one will always struggle.

The reality is that I can’t judge any idea in your context, because I don’t know your passions, knowledge base, and experiences. If you show me a written business plan, I can assess it from a technical perspective, but that doesn’t tell me if you are the right person to create the business. Thus I can only recommend some context for you to make your own idea and business decisions:

  1. Play to your passions and personal interests. Pick an arena that gets your creative juices flowing, rather than one that everyone says is the next big thing. If your goals in life revolve around social change or the environment, aim in that direction for your startup, rather than maximizing revenue and profit. If you are not motivated, you won’t succeed.

    Entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, who founded Zappos, was passionate in his belief that he could “deliver happiness” to customers, before making a profit, through innovative moves like surprising 80% of customers with free overnight shipping. He succeeded well in both.

  2. Trust your background and intellectual strengths. The most successful entrepreneurs focus on solving a problem that they personally have experienced, and are convinced they fully understand. Also the same applies to dealing with the business elements, such as marketing, business operations, and finances. You may need a partner on this one.

    Bill Gates learned to appreciate the power of computers at a very young age, but was frustrated that available models were large and hard to program. He invented BASIC and Windows, snagged Steve Ballmer for marketing, and Microsoft helped change the world.

  3. Consider your access to resources for startup efforts. Take a realistic view of your ability to assemble the necessary funding, and attract the right people. Your strengths in physics and electronics may be excellent, but most of us could never attract the funding required for a new microchip process. Maybe you need to start with a smaller idea.

    Experts estimate the cost of the first next-generation chip factory to be at least $10 billion. Unless you have deep pockets, you probably need some strong connections and support from the people at Intel or AMD before committing your entrepreneurial life to this effort.

  4. Assess the time and effort you are willing to commit. Most startup ideas will fail, if you approach them like a hobby that you can work on occasionally and on weekends. It’s hard to win when other entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, are known to work hundred-hour weeks, and don’t have a family to balance. Your time is a critical limited resource.

  5. Count the depth of your relationships with key people. Most successful startups have deep relationships with experts who can mentor and support them, or provide access to critical resources and funding. There is no entitlement in this business. You need to enjoy building the new relationships you need, and nurturing the ones you have, to succeed.

  6. Check your interest in learning how to fill the gaps. No matter how experienced and knowledgeable you are, every startup is a new learning process. If you don’t enjoy learning, stick to ideas and businesses that are “cookie-cutter” versions of what you already know. Your success depends on enjoying the journey as well as the destination.

  7. Test your ability to communicate value to others. Some of the highest potential ideas and businesses require a massive educational and sales effort, which may not be your forte or interest. Very few ideas these days have such obvious value that “if we build it, they will come.” Most startups require leading a team of people, and engaging customers.

So before you make those cold calls to me, or any other constituency, for an assessment of the viability of your next great idea, my advice if for you to take a hard look at your own drivers and resources, per the items listed here. I’m convinced that there are more than enough startup ideas around, such that you can pick one to match your profile, and we all win with your success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 07/21/2020 ***

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Monday, August 3, 2020

7 Success Factors When Your People Are The Solution

Business-Customer-ServiceThe critical success factors for a product business are well known, starting with selling every unit with a gross margin of 50 percent or more, building a patent and other intellectual property, and continuous product improvement. If your forte is a service, like consulting or web site design, it’s harder to find guidance on what will get you funded, and how you can scale your business.

On the product side, once you have a proven product and business model, all you need is money to build inventory, and a sales and marketing operation to drive the business. With services, scaling the business often implies cloning yourself, since you are the intellectual property and the competitive advantage. You have no shelf life, so you can’t make money while you sleep.

Indeed, there are some success factors that are common to both environments. For example, both need to provide exemplary customer service, build customer loyalty, and provide real value for a competitive price. Here are the additional success factors that are really key to a startup with a services offering:

  1. Get your service out of your head and down on paper. If you can’t quantify or document your service for repeatability and new employee training, you will kill yourself trying to grow the business. Even artisan-based services, like graphic design and writing good ad copy, have innovative processes and principles. Capture your “secret sauce.”
  1. Start with a service you know and love. A successful services business, more than a product business, comes from a skill or insight that you have honed from experience. If you don’t have a high level of commitment and passion, you customers won’t seek you out. Now all you have to do is pass it to the many new members as you grow your team.
  1. Don’t let your service be viewed as a commodity. Low cost and low margin products can be winners, if the volume is high enough. You don’t have enough hours in a day, or trained people, to succeed with lower margins in a services startup. Thus you need to highlight how your service is more innovative and higher value to your target customers.

  1. Recruit only the best people, with the right base skills. Customers won’t pay to see your new employees learning on the job, and outsourcing the real work to a cheap labor source is a recipe for disaster. Make sure they bring solid base skills, so your training can focus on the innovative and unique elements that your service brings to the arena.
  1. Be a visible and available expert in your domain. Be accessible on social media, write a blog or articles for industry publications, and participate in conference panels and speaking engagements. This substantiates your expertise and value, builds peer relationships, gives you access to the people and technology to keep you current.

  1. Practice being a good communicator. Customers can touch and see a great product, but services are a bit ethereal. You have to communicate how your service is the best, to your own team, as well as to your customers. If you deliver a great service, but no one knows it, your business will suffer. Make sure everyone knows your vision and values.

  1. The customer experience is more than the service. Product companies sometimes equate customer satisfaction with customer service, but it’s more than that, especially with services. Make sure that every interaction with every customer is positive, the service delivered is exemplary, and always follow-up for reference and repeat business.

For some entrepreneurs who feel the need to attract outside investors as a critical success factor, they should be aware that professional investors almost never invest in a services-only company. The investor perspective is that no manufacturing or inventory implies a minimal need for capital up front. They tell these entrepreneurs to sell themselves, execute well, and grow organically.

Thus your services business success totally depends on you, your skills and resources, and your ability to bring customers to the table. You are the ultimate critical success factor for your business. Are you ready to make it happen?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

5 Ways To Build Startup Resilience And Avoid Failure

entrepreneur-resilienceOne of the characteristics that every good investor looks for in an aspiring entrepreneur is resilience, or the ability to learn from and bounce back after a failure. You don’t have to have previous startup problems to show resilience – everyone should have a story of tackling a tough challenge with minimal success, but using the failure to move on and achieve an objective.

With startups, almost every entrepreneur I know has failed at least once, often several times, but never gave up, and ultimately achieved their goal. Evan Williams, for example, before cofounding Twitter, started a podcasting platform named Odeo. The platform couldn’t compete with Apple’s podcast section of iTunes, so he recast his efforts into microblogging, and the rest is history.

The challenge is how you can enhance your own ability to bounce back, and highlight that attribute to your team and outside constituents, including investors and business partners. If done well, such failures can actually give you an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. In my experience, here are some key preparation strategies that work:

  1. Practice and highlight your conviction to never give up. Many experts tell me that more startups fail simply because their founder gives up, than for any other reason. Real entrepreneurs have told me that they become energized when told that they are facing an insurmountable barrier. Their satisfaction comes from proving nay-sayers wrong.

    Howard Schultz, who built Starbucks into a billion-dollar success, started with a strong conviction that people would pay for “an experience” of fresh-brewed cappuccino by the cup, rather than buying equipment. He never gave up, despite multiple setbacks.

  2. Actively seek and learn from the counsel of smart people. Some entrepreneurs, unfortunately, become more and more isolated in hard times, or surround themselves only with friends and supporters. Make sure you actively interact with and show appreciation for people smarter than you, even if they don’t always agree with you.

    Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, although extremely successful in their own domains, share a great relationship as mentors for each other in learning how to deal with today’s challenging business and social problems. People who listen are always more resilient.

  3. Demonstrate decisiveness rather than paralysis by fear. Making any decision is almost always better in business than no decision. You have to look at making decisions as a positive learning opportunity, rather than a chance to fail. Every investor wants to see entrepreneurs who are willing to take responsibility for action, and get it done.

    When it’s time for a decision, your gut instinct should never be your only input. All of us have access via the Internet to multiple expert sources, insights, and data to support our own experience, to make more relevant and timely decisions.

  4. Maintain an optimistic outlook, rather than pessimistic. Optimism is a mindset fueled by confidence in yourself and an ability to gather and filter knowledge. Confidence is built by finding your purpose, playing to your strengths, and taking tough challenges in small steps to show progress. It also helps to emulate the success of others with similar goals.

    Don’t be lulled into thinking that optimism is a personality trait you either have or don’t. Optimism can be learned, by really looking for your successes, rewarding yourself for your progress, and using a mentor to steer you in the right direction.

  5. Use metrics in lieu of feelings to measure progress. Don’t let your feelings get you down, with no quantification of what failed, or what you need to do to come back. People who set quantified goals and objectives for themselves and their teams, and measure results, always know where they stand and are not surprised by feedback from others.

The ability to bounce back also requires continuing attention to your physical needs and feelings. Don’t forget to maintain a healthy balance between business and personal demands, including family, sleep, and time off for enjoyable activities. Make sure that you take the time to internalize the strength that comes from struggling, and the insights that come from failure.

Then you too can become one of the rare entrepreneurs, sought by every investor, who continually bounce back stronger from every failure until they achieve success beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 07/19/2020 ***

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

7 Ways Getting In Bed With The Enemy Can Be Win-Win

handshake-hands-teamworkEntrepreneurs seem to have blinders on when looking at competitors. Generally they are so focused on killing competitors that they fail to see the positive potential of a strategic partnership or some other type of collaborative relationship. Sometimes you have to put aside the emotion and the passion, and just look at what is best for your business.

Strategic partnerships in this context can take the form of joint ventures, intellectual property licensing, outsourcing agreements, or even cooperative research. All of these offer the potential for a win-win relationship with a nominal competitor, rather than a win-lose deal, as long as both sides can remain humble and not try to dominate the relationship.

Always start with a formal proposal, limited in scope to a specific common objective or technology, for a limited amount of time, bounded by a two-way non-disclosure statement. With this agreement in place, there are a host of ways that both sides can win:

  1. Share common technology. Every startup has a core competency which should not be shared. Beyond that, there may be a large percentage of common technology where they both need to minimize cost to gain share from the big dinosaurs who already have this advantage.
  1. Expand the market for both. Typically, there are market opportunities that neither of your core competencies can win alone. A strategic evolution of your combined strengths may be able to open up a new segment that neither of you could do alone in the same timeframe or at the same cost.
  1. Up-sell related products or cross endorsement. If your customers would benefit by having products from both companies, you might negotiate the opportunity to include the other’s product as an add-on. Where your competitor isn't really competing with your direct market, you can refer business to each other without anyone losing customers.
  1. Benchmark your practices against a true peer. The best way to do this is to establish specific performance targets with incentive-based rewards for meeting and exceeding these targets. The information exchange from day-to-day interactions of engineers and marketers will drive you enhance your own processes to be more competitive.
  1. Expand core competency and solidify strengths. Both partners must not forget they are still competitors. By sharing and learning in non-competing areas, they can focus their limited resources on solidifying their core competencies, and expanding their unique segment of the market. Let market response dictate a later split, merger, or acquisition.
  1. Willing to learn from each other. Learning from each is part of the win-win equation. No entrepreneur has all the insights they need, and none should be so arrogant as to assume they hold all the cards. Of course, it’s important to start with a bounded agreement which clearly lays out expectations and areas that are off-limits.
  1. Think about the future. Once you have established your credibility and value, a strategic partnership may extend to a financial relationship. They may have the finances you need to invest in a business area they know, where you have the core competency. Longer term, when ready, it may be time for merger or acquisition.

While most entrepreneurs think of strategic partnerships as big company deals, it actually works better for small companies. In large corporate environments, competitor cultures may be so set that collaboration is difficult, while I find that small company peer competitors usually have no trouble at all getting along. The industry leader arrogance has not yet set in.

Even for small companies, it is critical that all employees be well-informed about what skills, technology and information can be shared with their partner and what is off-limits. This will offset the normal instinct to think of a competitor only as a threat. It is smarter to capitalize on the positive aspects of a competitive situation rather than killing each other so no one wins.

Marty Zwilling

*** See Turkish translation, thanks to Zoltan Solak ***

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Friday, July 31, 2020

7 Personal Strategies That Define Great Entrepreneurs

bill-gates-great-entrepreneurAs an angel investor in startups, I’m a believer that smart investors invest more in you as the entrepreneur than the next billion dollar solution you are pitching. Yet I find that most of you find it hard to make the case that you can be the next Elon Musk or Bill Gates. I’m not looking for words, but examples of how your habits and attributes have produced results, even before your startup.

In my experience, building a business is more about getting results than having the right dream, or the right technical skills. I want to see and hear that determination, never-give-up attitude, and focus that separate the exceptional entrepreneurs from the other ninety percent that ultimately fail or give up in the face of the big challenges that face every new business.

In this context, I recommend that you highlight in your investor pitch some key personal attributes and mindsets, such as the following, that will convince a savvy investor to believe you can deliver the business as well as the solution you are pitching:

  1. Highlight prior results from your early initiatives. Even if you are still in school, and never started a company before, strong entrepreneur candidates can point to projects they initiated, led, that produced significant results. Founders like Gates and Zuckerberg always had projects going, and even dropped out of school to start their big business.

  2. Relate a higher purpose to your business proposal. These days, customers expect to hear and see social and environmental value from a new business, rather than just a new technology or profit. Certainly, investors want to see a financially attractive opportunity and return projection, but also want entrepreneurs who can take it to the next level.

    For example, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard made it clear from the beginning that his company mission was to save the environment, not just be another outdoor clothing seller. He built an "activist company," and continues to lead and profit from that strategy.

  3. Give your examples of determination and problem solving. The startup road to a successful business is always a long one, with many unknowns to overcome. Even if you don’t have previous businesses to reference, relate examples of your problem solving ability and determination in other contexts. Highlight your growth and continuous learning.

  4. Demonstrate business acumen as well as technical. Many aspiring entrepreneurs are so focused on their technology, that they display no interest or credible understand of the financials and metrics of growing a business. This can be mitigated by introducing a partner with the necessary complementary skills and focus to balance the equation.

    Before looking for an investor, you or a partner need to demonstrate an understanding of the implications of startup valuation, revenue projections, break-even, and ROI. Ignoring these, or taking an unrealistic position, will kill even the best solution proposal.

  5. Practice excellent communication and listening skills. The ability to get your message across effectively, through story-telling, examples, and clear terminology is key, not only in convincing investors, but in attracting customers, vendors, and business partners. Great entrepreneurs know how to listen and learn effectively, as well as talk.

  6. Keep a positive perspective, even on competitors. Great entrepreneurs never degrade their competitors, and provide a positive outlook on all the challenges ahead. They position competitors as a base for their solution advantages, and an indication of existing market demand. They talk positively about how customers will appreciate value.

    For example, I often hear statements such as, “competitor x’s product is expensive and hard to use.” Real entrepreneurs highlight their positives by saying “compared to product x, our solution supports new environments, and still gets the job done faster and easier.”

  7. Show credibility as an industry influencer and leader. As an entrepreneur, you will have be able to deal with disparate views, and ultimately build solid people relationships in support of your efforts. Relate how you have been able to lead a team, and positively influence an organization to align with your beliefs. Leadership is tougher than invention.

As an investor, I see hundreds of innovative solution pitches, but only rarely do I see an aspiring entrepreneur who demonstrates the attributes outlined here, and can convince me that they could be the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. I urge you to take a hard look now at how you come across to peers and people in business. You may be the biggest hurdle to your own business success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 07/16/2020 ***

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

5 Due Diligence Tips Before You Invest In A Startup

startup-investment-entrepreneurAfter you have heard a few startup success stories, like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, you may be tempted to invest some money yourself, maybe by pooling your funds with other investors who claim to have a great track record. My advice is to leave the investing in startups to the professionals (or friends and fools).

First of all, despite a few visible blowout successes, the odds of a payback from investing in startups is very low (that’s why VCs look for 10X returns to cover failures). Most investors agree the odds are better buying traditional public stocks, or even commodities. Even the hot new crowdfunding companies carefully don’t talk about their record of returns to investors.

Secondly, there are many scammers out there who look and act just like Bernie Madoff, even though he is safely tucked away in prison for the next 150 years. Most frauds are not on the scale set by Bernie, but even a few thousand dollars lost would hurt you and me as much as a few million did for some of his victims.

So what can you do, and what are the “red flags” to look for as you do your due diligence before pooling your money with other investors, or accepting money for your startup from investors? Here are some common sense tips:

  1. Get financial statements and verify. Every reputable investment firm is registered with FINRA and files regular reports with the SEC. Look for these and investigate thoroughly to check the truth of every statement about the company. Ask for references, and call or visit previous “successes” of the company to verify experience and satisfaction.
  1. Avoid “insider deals.” The Internet has just made it easier and faster for vultures to feed on investors tempted by the possibility of an “inside deal.” Someone you don’t know promises you an “inside” deal. Why would a stranger pick you out to make rich? Does that make any sense?

  1. Listen for “unnamed sources.” Run away if all current investments are with “sensitive” clients, who are unnamed or unable to be contacted. Remember the old newspaper publishing rule of “All facts must be verified by two independent sources.” People claiming to be unbiased may actually be paid promoters or company insiders.
  1. Any mention of “offshore.” Watch out if someone has a complex plan involving offshore bank financing or gemstones or oil leases in Iran to make you rich. Why get involved in a complicated scheme you don’t understand, when there are plenty of opportunities that are legal and you can understand?
  1. Sounds too good to be true. The age-old wisdom here is that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true. I continue to be amazed at the fact that the Secret Service still gets 100 calls per day from victims of the Nigerian unclaimed cash scam alone. What are these people thinking?

Here are a few questions you should ask that might allay any remaining qualms, or convince you to run immediately:

  • How much am I paying in commission or fees?
  • Has your source been involved in any arbitration cases or lawsuits?
  • How do they get paid? By commission? Amount of assets managed? Another method?
  • Has the firm ever been disciplined by the SEC or a state regulator?

Unfortunately, in the startup and investment business, we are trained to rely on networking, connections, and professional integrity for many decisions. Remember that people who run scams may be highly polished and sophisticated, and can wrap their con games in such an air of legitimacy it may be hard to see the truth.

Don’t assume you are safe now that Bernie is out of the picture. If you have evidence of fraud, don’t be too embarrassed to contact the Securities and Exchange Commission. If others had done this sooner, his clones wouldn’t be out there today looking to help you out (of your money).

Marty Zwilling

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