Friday, February 21, 2020

6 Ways To Make You An Entrepreneur Before The Product

personal-brandMany of the entrepreneurs I advise or invest with spend considerable time on the Internet, keeping up with technology, customers, and competitors, but very few feel the need for an early personal presence. In fact, some totally avoid it, assuming their product or solution will speak for itself later. They don’t realize that you need to build positives early, to offset any negatives later.

The reality online these days is that even the best solutions attract doubters and unhappy competitors, so don’t wait for that first negative message to make you surface online. Be proactive in defining your personal and business identity early with positive content, well before your product debuts, highlighting your current vision, accomplishments, and personal image:

  1. Establish a personal brand online as an influencer and leader. Contributing to industry blogs, or starting your own, is an ideal way to express your positive values, and build a reputation that can save you later if your product stumbles, or you receive some negative challenges. A positive personal brand will give your product instant credibility.

    You should also use these forums to test and hone your solution idea for general acceptance, before your risk your own money and investor funds to build a shippable version. It’s easier, cheaper, and quicker to pivot at this stage rather than later.

  2. Anticipate and establish supporting social media accounts. It’s amazing how quickly competitors and “me too” products can encroach on your space, after your product debuts, with account names you should have reserved. You may not see the need for a YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter account now, until someone takes the name you want.

    Identify misdirection can be as devastating to a business as identify theft. Customers expect consistency of your brand name across all channels, so don’t pick a web site name if the comparable name is available or already taken on relevant social media.

  3. Consistently review and respond to relevant online feedback. There are dozens of tools available to help you monitor relevant activity, including Social Mention and Google Alerts. All significant feedback, both positive and negative, should be acknowledged or answered in a timely and non-defensive fashion to show that you are listening and care.

    Don’t make the mistake of ignoring negative comments or reviews, hoping they will go away, or someone else will come to your defense. Remember the classic “United Breaks Guitars” experience, which reportedly United cost over a billion dollars in lost business.

  4. Invest your time in networking online, as well as offline. Your reputation and impact these days are highly influenced by who you know and interact with online, as well as your recognized expertise. You need to be an active member of LinkedIn, Meetup, or equivalent sites where influencers exchange ideas and discuss current business issues.

    These online interactions must be complemented by comparable offline activities, such as participation in industry conferences, mentoring, and publishing print articles to solidify and expand your reputation. Every future entrepreneur should start by networking.

  5. Make your lifestyle a model of the online reputation you want. In today’s world, it is impossible to live one image, and project a different one online. The Internet, through pictures, sound, and text, sees everything, including the good, bad, and the ugly. In fact, sharing a positive portion of your personal story is a memorable way to get presence.

    If you listen carefully, I think you will find that most of the people you know who have a high respect for a famous entrepreneur, for example Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, will remember one or more their personal anecdotes, better than a technical contribution.

  6. Reach out to friends and supporters for positive mentions. If they credit you in their blog or industry articles, those backlinks will boost your SEO ranking, as well as your perceived reputation online. Most people now believe that we learn more from our mistakes than from successes, so even indications that you are not perfect can help you.

    I find that even friends and supporters online have short attention spans. If they don’t hear from you, or you don’t offer to do something for them occasionally, they will forget about you in assigning credit or soliciting mutual future support.

I recognize that preparation for and execution a product launch can be all consuming, causing you to back away from your normal networking and online communication activities. Yet I assure you that your personal impact, and future product success, can be severely impacted by this lack of focus. A positive online solution image and reputation requires constant personal nurturing.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 02/06/2020 ***



Wednesday, February 19, 2020

5 Priorities For New Business Leader Self-Development

business-leader-developmentIn my business of mentoring new entrepreneurs and advising small company owners, I recognize that most don’t start as experienced leaders, and most don’t realize that people leadership is a primary key to their future success. Building a business is not a one-person job, and leading by edict rarely works today. You need to pick the right people, and learn as you go to lead the team.

I just completed a new book, “The Self-Evolved Leader,” by Dave McKeown. While directed at larger enterprise leaders, it really hits all the key elements of learning and evolving as a leader that I recommend to entrepreneurs. It should convince you that no matter how much you know about technology, leading a team, as well as vendors and customers, is a whole new challenge.

I find that the hardest part of becoming the business leader you need to be, is learning and changing yourself, rather that trying to change the people around you. Here are the key internal characteristics that McKeown and I both see as critical to your growth from a technical expert who can develop a great solution, to the recognized business leader you need to be to prosper:

  1. Measure yourself on how much you have learned lately. True leaders are never satisfied with what they know about their leadership, as well as their products, and are always in pursuit of new learning. That means constantly seeking feedback, taking time for relevant seminars and guidance, and looking for positive changes in the organization.

    Another approach is to tackle one specific problem at a time. For example, if feedback tells you that you don’t communicate well, start measuring yourself on how many times you send out unsolicited notes on status, strategy, guidance, and praise for results.

  2. Don’t be afraid to demonstrate your vulnerability. Without vulnerability you can’t have an objective understanding of your leadership effectiveness. Until you admit your weaknesses, such as marketing or communication, you team won’t have the courage to take the initiative to show what can be done, and help you learn how to improve.

    In my own business career, this was a tough one for me. I felt that vulnerability itself was a sign of weakness, and the team needed strength. Over time, I learned that I could get more personal results, as well as satisfaction, by enlisting the natural strengths of others.

  3. Practice deep empathy for everyone on your team. With empathy comes compassion and an understanding of the impact your decisions as a leader have on your team. It’s the necessary foundation for helping everyone on the team develop into their best selves, and optimizing the output to be greater than the sum of the individual capabilities.

    If you’re naturally low on the empathy scale, make an extra effort to not just recognize team member feelings, and your impact on others. In private team member discussions and counseling, don’t be afraid to ask about feelings, and be willing to share your own.

  4. Foster a sense of connectedness between team members. Self-improving leaders recognize that what positively impacts one member impacts others, to improve actions, careers, and lives. All are interconnected, so optimal team performance is dependent on optimizing each individual role to their particular set of strengths, including yours.

    One of the best things you can do to establish that connection with your team members is to focus on building strong personal relationships with each, and foster relationships between them. As the leader, you must reach out to them, not the other way around.

  5. Understand what you can control and accept what you can’t. No leader can control all external circumstances around them, whether it’s politics, people, economics, or even the luck of the draw. Good leaders never complain about what they can’t control, and never demand results from team members which are outside their control.

    A key part of the acceptance process is learning to be the team model for coping with a crisis. If it involves elements outside your control, you must keep your emotions in check and make a more conscious decision about how to deal with the difficult situation.

The successful entrepreneurs I know all tell me that as they learned to be better leaders, they were able to spend less time on daily crises, and more time for the important things, like long-term direction and people development. Equally important, they were able to reduce their own stress level, improve business-family balance, and enjoy more satisfaction from their efforts.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 02/04/2020 ***



Monday, February 17, 2020

6 Challenges In Penetrating The New World Of Services

BusinessServicesSelling services has always been about relationships, but the challenges of building relationships with services clients have exploded. Customers today extrapolate their relationships not only from personal contact, but from every aspect of their interface with your company, including web site and social media interactions, access to peer reviews, as well as the actual services experience.

In addition, as every business becomes instantly global via the Internet, it’s virtually impossible for you to touch every customer personally. Thus services experiences and relationships tend to be based more and more on new media and technology. Customers today may actually feel a personal relationship, or an unsatisfying one, without ever interacting with you or your team.

I saw these modern challenges and some positive guidance summarized in the classic book, “Service Excellence,” by Ruth N. Bolton, a distinguished Marketing Educator Award winner at the W.P. Carey School of Business. I agree with her focus on six challenging characteristics, both old and new, of every services business:

  1. Intangibility of a customer experience with services. Customer services experiences can’t be seen, felt, tasted, or touched in the same way that people interact with tangible goods. Services experiences are different for each client, so it’s important to customize experiences and timing per customer. If your business doesn’t offer personalized services, don’t expect good relationships.
  1. Relationships are a function of customer culture. For consistency and efficiency, services companies have traditionally minimized personalization. Yet today, people of every culture worldwide expect every relationship to relate to their unique perspective. Companies need service strategies that increase spontaneity to enhance experiences.
  1. Experiences are more visible to other customers. In some cases, such as in a hair salon, services are delivered in view of other customers who may be impacted by your experience. In all cases, experience details are quickly and easily communicated to others via Facebook or Yelp, meaning a relationship will impact many others very quickly.
  1. Services experiences cannot be inventoried. Service organizations must find effective ways to manage capacity and thereby match the supply and timeliness of services with customers’ usage of them. It is very important for service companies to use and market peak load pricing, seasonal, and customer scheduling without impacting relationships.
  1. Infusing technology within the customer experience. Customers now expect services to be more technology-enabled, such as online banking, parcel tracking, transportation on demand, and smart home security. The overall experience and relationship derived are more and more set by the technology interaction, rather than personal interaction.
  1. New media shapes and reflects the customer experience. Unlike traditional media, which is not interactive, social media provides for and customers expect targeted, personalized, and socially responsible communications. These become a key part of your engagement and relationship, and also define community and demographic associations.

The rise of the “sharing economy” has sparked intense interest in services that allow people to co-produce the service in new ways, such as Airbnb for accommodation and Uber for transportation services. Thus your relationship needs to consider ways that customers can participate through spontaneous and discretionary contributions to your services, with variations for each market segment.

It’s time for all services organizations to take a future-oriented view of customer experience and relationships, rather than the traditional retrospective view. Services are no longer a simple people-to-people business. Relationships and experiences are now driven more and more by interactive media and smart technology. If your services business isn’t innovating with the market, it’s falling behind.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, February 16, 2020

7 Ways Growing Companies Drift From Startup Thinking

brainstorming-businessmen-computerEvery new venture that survives the first five years starts to drift away from their entrepreneurial thinking, and assumes they have achieved the path to longevity. In fact, even within Fortune 100 companies, almost 90 percent have encountered growth stalls or flirted with failure, or worse, in the last 50 years. No company can afford to lose the agility, flexibility, and innovation of a startup.

Examples of great companies that have achieved longevity, by initiating major changes, include American Express (originally express mail), IBM (tabulating and computer hardware), and J.P. Morgan (chemical manufacturing). Others, including Eastman Kodak (film and cameras), Pullman Company (railroads), and RCA Victor (radio) never kept up with change and are gone forever.

The many ways that great firms can slip away from entrepreneurial thinking were highlighted in the classic book, “Achieving Longevity,” by Jim Dewald, based on his own experiences as a corporate executive, entrepreneur, and Dean of the Haskayne School of Business. Here are a few of the key challenges he outlines that I have seen as well:

  1. Competitors are easier to quantify than new opportunities. Competitor statistics are the domain of analysts, financiers, and shareholders, so naturally it is attractive for companies to focus on them primarily. Undefined opportunities which may be built from innovation are the stuff of dreams and passion, relegated only to entrepreneurial thinking.
  1. Companies follow each other rather than the market. Change is hard. Businesses firmly ensconced down an existing path find it hard to leave their comfort zone or jeopardize current revenue streams, and tend to prioritize the value of incremental change, even in the face of new markets, technology, or economic conditions.
  1. The future is extrapolated from internal data analysis. Metrics and observations while running the existing business become the primary basis for future projections. This data reinforces what they already know and believe, so a divergent path rarely looks attractive. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy that often leads to disaster.
  1. Efficiency focus strips away resources from innovation. Through cost-cutting and highly-specialized hiring, firms unintentionally weed out the capacity to innovate and adapt to change. The drive for resource-based advantage can be profitable for big companies, but it is always temporary, never permanent.
  1. Penalties for management learning experiences. In an entrepreneurial venture, errors are expected, and even celebrated when positioned as learning opportunities. In stable corporate ventures, mistakes are seen as a signs of incompetence, and penalized by loss of bonuses or position. As a result, undefined new opportunities are deemed too risky.
  1. Focus on data-driven leadership versus passion. Strong creative views or even arrogance in new realms by entrepreneurs is expected and often revered, as was the case with Steve Jobs at Apple. In corporate boardrooms, a show of hubris or emotion is deeply troubling, and can end careers. Logic and data-driven leadership is the norm.
  1. Intolerance for pivots and failed experiments. Every startup I know has pivoted at least once, and expects failed experiments to lead them to the true market. In corporate environments the cost in time and dollars of a pivot or failed experiment can be huge, like turning a large battleship. Stakeholders and board members alike react very negatively.

What is most ironic is that the inverse of many of these challenges is critical to success in the first five years of a new venture – focus on competitors, generating internal data and analysis, emphasizing data-driven leadership, and creating standardized repeatable processes. Many see these activities as the elimination of entrepreneurial thinking, for stability and endurance.

My message is that the pendulum has to swing in concert with the market and the economy, as well as the maturity of the company. Today’s market is extremely volatile, where unprecedented change is the norm, and entrepreneurial thinking is the only way to assure longevity. Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the balance in your own mindset and your business.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, February 15, 2020

10 Timeless First Principles Of A Prosperous Business

business-success-principlesIn this world of constant change, new technologies, and a thousand cultures, it’s evident and somehow comforting to me that the basic rules for business prosperity really haven’t changed in the last hundred years. Business success is still more about the people than the technology or idea involved. As an angel investor and a mentor to entrepreneurs I still see this every day.

I was just reviewing a collection of essays by and about Napoleon Hill, “The Science of Success,” who is most recognized as the author of the best seller “Think and Grow Rich” from way back in 1937. Hill attributes his ten rules of success to Andrew Carnegie, who was in his prime well before that, over a hundred years ago, but I believe the principles are still critically relevant.

Since language and implication have changed a bit since then, I’ll restate Carnegie and Hill’s original principles here, with my own current-day commentary and recommendations added:

  1. Definiteness of purpose. Every entrepreneur needs to start by setting a major purpose for embarking down a specific business path. This objective needs to go beyond making a parent or spouse happy, getting rich quick, or advancing a technology. For success these days, the purpose better focus on people, and solve a real problem for customers.
  1. Master-mind alliance. Building successful businesses still requires the ability to find and inspire the best people who “have what you haven't,” whether that be skills, knowledge, connections, or funding. Then you must extend these alliances to vendors, partners, customers, and even competitors (coopetition).
  1. Going the extra mile. Hill's eagerness to serve others gave him greater opportunities, and this Law of Reciprocity works the same today. Doing more than you have to do is the only thing that justifies raises or promotions, and puts people under an obligation to you.  This is still one of the most important competitive differentiators that you can offer.
  1. Applied faith. This is a level of belief that has action behind it. Anyone can have ideas, passion, and faith about an important business opportunity. Yet for most people it’s only a daydream, since they are not willing or able to commit the actions required to deliver. Results are still the only true measure of success in business.
  1. Personal initiative. Successful entrepreneurs do what they need to do without being told how to do it. Asking for insight is not the same as asking for the next step, or asking an advisor to make the decision. Great entrepreneurs are proactive, not only in selecting the right idea, but in implementing a product, setting a price, and choosing customers.
  1. Imagination. This is the number one skill required for creativity and innovation. Without imagination, entrepreneurs cannot look at a problem from a new perspective. Without imagination, entrepreneurs cannot visualize how various solutions to a problem would work. Without imagination, entrepreneurs can never dream up new ideas.
  1. Enthusiasm. This is the contagious quality that great entrepreneurs have to attract correlative passion, commitment, the best people, and customers to their idea and solution. Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful motivational tools in an entrepreneur’s arsenal, and no success will accrue without it.
  1. Accurate thinking. Accurate thinking is the ability to separate facts from fiction via deductive reasoning, and to isolate and use facts effectively that are pertinent to your own challenges and problems. When the necessary facts are not available, accurate inductive reasoning or hypothetical thinking is required to fill the gap.
  1. Concentration of effort. In current terms this is called focus and determination, to never give up and never be diverted from your purpose. With focus and determination, you and your team will understand what's most important for success, and drive your motivation through the execution steps required.
  1. Profiting by adversity. This simply means remembering that there can be an equivalent benefit for every setback. Successful entrepreneurs learn from funding failures, economic adversity, ruthless competitors, and lethargic customers. They insist on greater efficiency, try new business models, organizational improvements, and better cash management.

Carnegie and Hill understood how business success rules were tied to the entrepreneur way back in the early 1900’s, and the evidence is that those rules are still as applicable now as they were then. Business models and technology have improved dramatically, but the power of people with foresight, passion, and determination continues to supersede all these elements.

So the next time you are tempted to broadcast an abstract email to me and other investors on your new “million dollar idea,” make sure you include your track record on how well you stack up against these rules for business success. Investors still tend to bet on the jockey, not the horse.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, February 14, 2020

5 Strategies For Startup Partnering To Win Long Term

elon-musk-jb-straubel-drew-baglinoBusiness partnerships have traditionally been agreements to drive more transactions than either company could do alone. The new paradigm, driven by disruptive technologies, cloud-served supercomputing, and the new generation of young adults with global empathy, is partnering and giving something now for a competitive advantage in the future.

An excellent example is the initiative by Elon Musk and Tesla Motors a few years ago to give away their battery patents, to infrastructure and competitive car providers, without transactional agreements. This will facilitate the expansion of battery charging and support facilities, and ultimately create more customers and growth for the whole industry, including Tesla.

Another partnering model example is the IBM Watson Group $1 billion investment to share cloud-based development and super-computing tools. A partnership was announced with the City of New York, to connect and grow NYC's startup ecosystem. This facilitates technology growth and innovation for startups in Silicon Alley, as well as positioning IBM for growth down the road.

These initiatives are what Bob Johansen and Karl Ronn call “The Reciprocity Advantage” in their classic book on how partnerships must work in the future for innovation and growth. Johansen knows this space, as a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley, and Ronn is a serial entrepreneur and managing director of Innovation Portfolio Partners in Palo Alto.

Their recommendations are consistent with mine in working with startups, as well as more mature organizations, to start future-proofing their growth in today’s world of relationships and conscious capitalism. The basic steps to adopting this reciprocity advantage paradigm can be summarized as follows:

  1. Identify your assets that have complementary value to others. Johansen calls this uncovering your right-of-way. Ideally, this is an existing platform where you already have established the ability to innovate with authenticity, and can afford to give access to others, with the potential to yield greater value later, like the Tesla and IBM examples.
  1. Find partners who can do what you cannot do alone. Here you are looking for formal and informal relationships that can increase your innovation potential in the long run, and not be inclined to undermine your own efforts. Some of the more interesting partnerships may be asymmetrical: very big companies partnering with startups, or even individuals.
  1. Learn by experimenting in low-cost and iterative ways. This is the new world of do-it-yourself (DIY) prototyping. FabLabs is an example of a new class of facilities for entrepreneurs to start experimenting early. Success is when both you and your new partners learn how to make money while experiencing new growth from the initiative.
  1. Scale it once you figure out what works. When you are convinced that your new business offering is desirable, viable, and ownable, then you are ready to scale. Cloud-served services will be an amplifier for almost any opportunity, not only in the developed world, but in the developing world as well. Social media relationships fuel the scaling fire.
  1. Maintain the agility to quickly pivot or quit. Not everything will work. Too many companies and entrepreneurs find it hard to stop a bad project. Key success indicators to monitor are passion level, and the ability to meet regular short-term milestones. If a plan doesn’t work, the key is to fail fast, create a new plan, but don’t give up.

The authors and I predict that the new forces of social structuring and the so-called digital natives (Gen Y and younger) will soon disrupt the traditional transaction model for doing business, as well as the current partnering model. Partnering will begin to happen across great distances, include reciprocity thinking, and even intellectual property will shift from a closed to a more open system.

It’s time for every individual, startup, and mature company, to uncover their shareable value, find complementary partners, and capitalize on their scalable advantages. I’m certain you will find it to be more fun and more productive than plotting every day to kill your competitors for growth.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, February 12, 2020

6 Personal Assessment Tools To Optimize Career Growth

career-businessman-arrowsToo many people, young and older, let their career and their lifestyle happen to them, rather than proactively making things happen based on their personal passions, skills, and interests. Others make decisions based on someone else’s interests, such as the father who wants his son to take over the family business, or dreams openly of having a doctor in the family. Neither of these approaches is likely to lead to a satisfying career or personal happiness for you.

These days, with the instant access to information and experts in every field around the world, and the wealth of personal assessment tools available on the Internet, there is no excuse for not exploring and evaluating the alternatives before you make a step forward. A very credible starting point is the classic book “Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success” by Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm.

Among other things, he outlines some of the popular assessment tools that I also often recommend as a mentor to entrepreneurs, including the following:

  1. MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Myers Briggs is one of the most widely used and recognized career assessments in existence, and does an excellent job of identifying your personality type so you can connect it to the right career and lifestyle. It can also help you better relate to others and become more self-aware.
  1. Gallup's Clifton Strength Finder. The focus of this tool is to help you discover your top five strengths and learn how you can use them to excel and perform at a higher level. The creator, Dr. Donald O. Clifton, is widely recognized as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, and has helped millions of people around the world discover their strengths.
  1. Marcus Buckingham StandOut Assessment. This one builds on the positive premise that the most effective method for improving people is to build on their strengths, rather than correcting their weaknesses. It’s the one to use if you have tried other assessments that claim to tell you who you are, but don't tell you what you can do with that information.
  1. Career Key. This one helps you identify careers and even college majors that match your set of interests, traits, skills, and abilities. It was developed by Lawrence K. Jones, a professor Emeritus in the College of Education at North Carolina State University, who specializes in the areas of school counseling and career counseling and development.
  1. MAPP™ Career Assessment. The MAPP career assessment is perfect for students, graduates and working adults. You'll get a wealth of information to help find the right career that matches your unique assessment profile. The MAPP career test was one of the first comprehensive career tests online for consumers, with over 8 million customers.
  1. Leadership Motivation Assessment. This one tells you how motivated you are to be a leader. After all, it takes hard work to become an effective business leader; and if you are not prepared to put this work in, or if, deep down, you're not sure whether you want to lead or not, you'll struggle to lead people effectively, and not be happy doing it as well.

If after taking one or more of these, you are still stuck on what domain you fit best into, whether you should be an entrepreneur, and how to get started, the following questions should help get those introspective juices flowing into action:

  • When have you been the most committed and passionate toward something in your life?
  • What talents do you use the most and what are your strengths?
  • Which roles and activities did you like and dislike in the past?
  • What aspect of those roles did you like the most and least?

After you get your own thoughts and assessment results together, it helps to get some feedback from people you respect, including parents, industry experts, and mentors. An outside perspective can be incredibly valuable as well, and help you narrow down what may seem like a long list, and relate that to the real world. Something you feel passionate about that doesn’t put food on the table, for example, may not be sustainable.

But the time to start is now. The most important point is to plot your own path, rather than be a victim of unpredictable circumstances and someone else’s whims. Don’t let other people be winners at your expense.

Marty Zwilling