Friday, April 3, 2020

5 Steps To Get Ahead With The Entrepreneur Lifestyle

success-road-sign-careerAccording to Gallup 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

8 Brand Models To Attract Your Perfect Fit Customer

target-report-profitAttracting the right customers is the key to success in business, whether you have a new startup or a mature enterprise. In my role as an advisor to entrepreneurs, I often see struggling businesses trying to be too many things for too many people, resulting in customer confusion, initiatives executed poorly, and high costs, few customers, and slow growth all around.

For example, Xerox tried to broaden the use of "xerox" as the standard term for "photocopying" to extend their existing customer segment into office automation and all kinds of computing. As they watched their market share dwindle instead, they realized too late that these segments were already defined, and they needed a new focused brand to attract customers from other segments.

These days, branding is less about products or solutions, and more about the overall customer experience and expectations. If the shopping process, delivery, and support level does not match their expectations, no innovative product features will compensate. The result will be less visibility, slower growth, with fewer delighted customers and little word-of-mouth marketing.

In my experience, the place to start is selecting your desired customer segment first, and then matching it with one of the following generic branding models, to best fit your desired customer segment. Then design your product, marketing, shopping environment, delivery model, and support around that model. Here are the common branding models I see working out there today:

  1. Premium or exclusive solution. Existing brands such as Tesla, Virgin Atlantic, Rolex, and Harvard University seek to appeal to an elite customer segment, implying prestige, exclusivity, and high customer personalization. The audience for this business model is limited, so make sure you can deliver to their expectations.

  2. Lowest-cost solution with minimal customization. At the other end of the spectrum, many startups and big companies, including Amazon and Walmart, expand their customer segment by being the most cost efficient, with low overhead and little customization. Don’t attempt this model without high automation and a big investment up front.

  3. Family local business everyone can trust. Many customers are highly attracted to a home-town business, where they may know the owner and always enjoy the warmth and intimacy of a personal customer experience. This is by far the most common brand out there, but without rebranding, it has very limited potential for growth and scaling.

  4. Tech-focused service that solves complex problems. Companies in this realm typically are thought of as services business, even though they may offer product components as well. The customer experience is a function of satisfaction with both the service, support, and usability of complex products. Examples would include ADT as well as IBM.

  5. Service businesses to find the best solution. Examples of this business model and brand would include Airbnb for finding places to stay, and Expedia for the best airline reservations. To be successful in this type of business, you need to satisfy two customer segments; one being the solution provider, and the other being the end-user customer.

  6. Recognized expert and specialist in one domain. Depth of focus is both the strength and the weakness of this type of brand – the message is easy to communicate, but there is always the temptation to move to a mass market for growth. You can find specialists in almost every industry, and their success is gated to customer experience and reviews.

  7. Purpose-driven rather than profit-driven. For some market segments, there is no greater attraction than a worthy cause, where business success is a byproduct of the company focus, rather than the primary objective. Examples include Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability while selling clothing, and Whole Foods, the organic grocer.

  8. Public utility required by all customer segments. Becoming a recognized brand as a public utility may be difficult and costly, since most of these positions are already occupied by large companies with long histories. You may be able to provide cheaper electrical power via solar, but bureaucratic regulations and credibility can be expensive.

In my experience with startups, brand positioning is often done last, after all the cost and quality tradeoffs, options, packaging, and support process are set. For example, technologists will try to build the best high-tech product, and then somehow expect to become the low-cost high-volume provider for the non-tech market segment. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Other companies try to change their branding when growth stalls somewhat later, without any changes to product or process, trying to attract an additional market segment for growth. This approach is equally fraught with peril. My message is to make branding an integral part of your solution design process, and keep it there.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/18/2020 ***



Monday, March 30, 2020

10 Startup Practices With A Proven Record Of Failure

startup-failure-chartUnfortunately, 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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



Sunday, March 29, 2020

How To Change Your Perspective And Create Innovation

turn-on-innovationIn 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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 na├»ve 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



Saturday, March 28, 2020

7 Key Culture Elements That Drive Value In A Startup

office-business-drive-valueAs an entrepreneur, it’s never too early to set the culture you need for a thriving business, as well as thriving employees, customers, partners, and vendors. In fact, in my experience, cultures are very hard to change, so if you don’t get it right the first time, the road ahead will forever be difficult. “The Art of War” culture as an analogy for business doesn’t always work anymore.

I’m seeing more and more business success stories like the one in the classic book “Uncontainable: How Passion, Commitment, and Conscious Capitalism Built a Business Where Everyone Thrives” by Kip Tindell. He is the Founder of the very successful Container Store, while still making Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list for seventeen consecutive years.

He offers a set of seven principles and values for his ultimate win-win philosophy and harmonic balance among all stakeholders, as a roadmap for any company to develop a profitable, sustainable, and fun way of doing business. I recommend that every aspiring entrepreneur and serious business professional take each one of these to heart from day-one of their startup:

  1. Talent is the whole ball game. When you surround yourself with hugely talented, passionate, dedicated, and genuinely kind people, you will succeed in whatever you do. Tindell’s mantra is that one great person is equal to three good people. Start with only the very best people, demand excellence, and train them to stay ahead of the pack.
  1. Craft mutually beneficial relationships. This requires spending the extra time needed to really get to know your employees, vendors, and customers, and letting them get to know you. Know the issues they face, and search for ways to help them, make them happier, more productive, and more profitable. The result is more win-win than win-lose.
  1. Reframe selling as an activity that improves customer’s lives. If you get to know your customers well enough, you can provide solutions that make selling and service the same thing. It’s a win-win deal that keeps customers coming back, helps your company, and incents customers to bring in their friends through word-of-mouth and social media.

  1. Great communication is the best leadership. How can people trust their leaders if they’re not being fully informed about what’s at stake? The objective is to communicate everything to every person. It starts with daily ongoing communication between team members, and extends to the top with executive updates and informal listening sessions.
  1. Simultaneously deliver the best selection, service, and price. Stick with what you know and do it better than anyone else. Keep is simple, and think solution rather than item-based, for the proper perspective. The best relationships with vendors give you price and selection leverage, and the best service relationships bring customers back.
  1. Team members must act intuitively, based on training and motivation. Intuition is nothing more than the outcome of previous training and experience. More training on your solutions and customer needs means better intuition and anticipation of how to help customers. Happy and motivated employees won’t be afraid to use their intuition.
  1. Build and maintain an air of excitement in your company. Faithfully following the first six principles will build that sense of excitement where everyone wants to be there and feels the sense of energy, customers and employees alike. You can’t force that feeling of warmth and caring, it has to be authentic and come from the hearts of talented people.

The great management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Today company culture is more important than ever in driving strategy and value, not the other way around. A great culture in an entire business infrastructure of executives, employees, vendors, and customers working together to achieve a common goal of everyone thriving.

No leader can “create culture,” but they must create the environment where the desired culture can emerge and flourish. Leaders do this by driving values, values drive behavior, behavior drives culture, and culture drives performance. High performance makes new leaders. This is the self-reinforcing circle of excellence every business needs to succeed. Are you driving the right values in your business?

Marty Zwilling



Friday, March 27, 2020

5 Entrepreneur Lifestyle Drivers That Lead To Success

achievement-entrepreneur-driverAs a startup advisor, I see many aspiring entrepreneurs whose primary motivation seems to be to work part time, or get rich quick, or avoid anyone else telling them what to do. Let me assure you, from personal experience, and from helping many successful as well as struggling entrepreneurs, that starting a business is hard work, and doesn’t come with any of the benefits mentioned.

Yet, for those with more realistic expectations and the right motivation, the entrepreneur lifestyle can be the dream life you envisioned. Based on a classic study by the Wharton School of Business, in a survey of 11,000 MBA graduates over many years, those running their own businesses ranked themselves happier than all other professions, regardless of how much money they made.

So what are the right motivations, and how do you candidly assess your own? Indeed, there are many self-assessment tools available online, but I was more impressed with insights provided in a classic book “What Motivates Me: Put Your Passions to Work,” by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. These guys are workplace culture experts, and claim to have inputs from 850,000 people.

The authors offer portraits of some key individual personality types, such as achiever and thinker, and tie the relevant motivators for business success and happiness to these types. I have amplified these here from my own experiences to focus on the entrepreneurial subset of businesses:

  1. You love doing your own thing and being in control of your destiny. As an achiever, you thrive on tight deadlines, ambitious goals, and leadership challenges. Even in chaotic startup environments, you normally finish required tasks on time and to high standards. Team members see you as high-energy, determined, and action-oriented.
  1. You are driven by a cause or purpose to change the world. As a builder of new things and people development, you are not afraid to speak out on significant issues and world challenges. You cultivate loyal friendships, people growth, and thrive in strong team environments. You see success as making a difference in the world around you.
  1. You are tuned into others’ emotions and want to help people. As a caregiver, you understand the problems of others, and are determined to provide solutions which will make their life better. You love to have fun at work, and believe that balancing work and family is critical. People see you as great for demanding customers and team bonding.
  1. You are driven to compete and win in the marketplace. Being reward-driven, you are driven to win money, customers, applause, and the admiration of others. This determined nature can help you accomplish great things in new organizations. You are seen as a doer, but one who needs recognition and incentives to produce your best work.
  1. You simply know there is a better way or solution to the problem. As a thinker, you love to learn, use your imagination, and enjoy the feel of adrenaline rush now and then. You get frustrated with bureaucracy, and won’t accept that things have always been done a certain way. Team members see you as the lifeblood of innovation in the organization.

In a critical extension to this thinking, the authors and I would outline another dimension to these personality types and motivators, by defining five motivation grade levels that also impact entrepreneurial motives, actions, and satisfaction:

  • Level A. Primary motivation is to make a difference in the world, with a secondary motivation of earning a living. These people define their roles in terms of their customers’ or employees’ or coworkers’ needs, not their own.
  • Level B. Primary motivator becomes making consistent return for stockholders. These are still good people with an intent to provide great products and services, but making a difference takes a back seat. This often happens when a Level A company goes public.
  • Level C. At this level, it’s not just money but the love of money that becomes the primary motivator. Entrepreneurs at this level will seek the minimum cost and quality to be more competitive. Advertising, pricing and support practices may show questionable integrity.
  • Level D. At this level, greed takes over as the primary motivator. Unethical acts are tolerated, and customers may be treated unfairly or harmed. We all know a corporate giant or two at this level who went out of business in the financial crisis a few years back.
  • Level F. At the lowest level are those involved in Internet scams, Ponzi schemes, or organized crime. Entrepreneurs motivated to work at this level harm not only themselves, their employees, and customers, but also society in general.

In the long-term, entrepreneurs in Level A are the happiest, successful, and most productive. Certainly we see some Level C and Level D entrepreneurs who appear to be prospering, but appearances can be deceiving and fleeting. Make sure your motivation to be an entrepreneur is more than a dream, and will stand the test of time for you and all the people around you.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, March 25, 2020

7 Tips To Maximize Breakthrough Thinking In Business

Breakthrough-thinking-in-businessMost of you realize that survival in business today requires grabbing hold of tomorrow’s opportunities with disruptive innovation, before your competition or a new startup gets there. The challenge is to create a culture of forward thinking in your company, and avoid the traps of following the paths of least resistance and most comfort that appear in every mature company.

For example, Hewlett Packard, the recognized leader in scientific calculators at the time, rejected Steve Wozniak’s idea for a personal computer as having no opportunity, since they were sure that no ordinary person would ever need to use a computer. Wozniak’s ideas were too far outside the HP comfort zone of business and scientific users, but Steve Jobs wasn’t ignoring the clues.

I just finished a new book, “Create the Future: Tactics for Disruptive Thinking,” by Trend Hunter CEO Jeremy Gutsche, who outlines his proven methods you can use to break free of the traps that limit future thinking in most companies as they grow and stabilize. I see these traps all too often in my role as business advisor to small companies as well as large.

Thus I support the following key strategies, recommended in the book, to help you and your team realize your full potential in keeping up the ever increasing pace of change in the marketplace:

  1. Spot the subtle clues that hint toward great ideas. The first challenge is to make time to scan for ideas, filter down to the best ones, and look for patterns. This means talking to your loyal customers, as well as non-customers who are in related market segments. It also helps to bring in outsiders periodically to suggest ideas you might be overlooking.

  2. Eliminate learned behavior and mental shortcuts. We are all human, so our creativity gets limited by learned behavior and all the things we do to function as productive adults. One antidote in any business to schedule a monthly “fun day” to foster and reward creative thinking, team bonding, and set the culture for breakthrough ideas.

  3. Maintain a sense of urgency and need to be proactive. Most entrepreneurs remember the sense of urgency they felt in startup mode, but don’t see it in their team today. In stable businesses, you get what you reward, so you must incent urgency with metrics for number of proactive projects, expected implementation guidelines, and no failure penalty.

  4. Expand rather than reduce options for future choices. In business, you tend to make decisions that get short-term results, not realizing that certain choices can fix you to the path you are on and reduce your future potential. You need to push yourself to consciously make decisions that open up options for the future, rather than close options.

  5. Don’t let success make you complacent and protective. Every business needs a balance of hunting for new opportunities, versus farming the results of the market you have won. Too much farming, and you fail to adapt. Many of the most iconic brands suffer from the traps of farming. Maybe it’s time to reorder your top ten priority list.

  6. Bypass linear thinking in an exponentially evolving world. As we are bombarded with what’s happening today, we fail to forecast tomorrow, because we forget that the pace of change is not simply faster, but accelerating. It helps to track the amount of change in your market, and maintain scenarios to disrupt it or avoid being disrupted.

  7. Master discomfort to achieve breakthroughs. New ideas are awkward, because they require you to change. We all have many traps that create discomfort and block us from seeing the potential from change, including unknown risks and hidden costs. Accept that comfort is not a good thing in business, and counter it with the anticipation of success.

Now is the time to be excited as an innovator during the greatest period of change in human history. You, your team, and your kids need to choose to enjoy the enhancements, disruptions, and changes of key technologies that reinvent humanity and business. You can make it a great time to be alive, or an oppressive burden. I find the former to be a lot more fun and satisfying!

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/11/2020 ***