Saturday, October 1, 2022

8 Types of Aspiring Entrepreneurs Who Will Not Start

Mike Cannon-Brookes | TEDxSydney 2017Every entrepreneur I know is dismayed by the number of friends who approach them with a line such as “I have an even better idea that will change the world, and one of these days I’m going to get around to starting my own business.” I always wonder what is more important to them on an ongoing basis than changing the world, since their startups usually never materialize.

With the cost of entry to be an entrepreneur so low today, the common excuse of “lack of funding” doesn’t get much sympathy from me. People can build great ecommerce sites with free tools, smartphone apps in their spare time and use crowdfunding to bypass the dreaded angel funding and venture capital penalties. There must be something deeper that slows people down.

So if you have a great idea, and funding isn’t an overwhelming challenge, what are the real reasons that the world is filled with so many “wannabe” entrepreneurs that never get around to starting up?

Based on my own experience mentoring real entrepreneurs and likely candidates, there are at least eight categories of non-starters. I’m sure you will recognize someone you know, maybe even yourself, in one of the following groups:

  1. Enjoy the dreaming, but not the implementation. These are people who often call themselves “idea people,” who like to talk about their vision and leave the implementation to some lesser beings. In my experience, there are a wealth of good ideas out there, and the harder part is converting the dream into a profitable business.

  1. Unwilling or unable to acquire business implementation skills. Our culture propagates the myth that business skills, like rocket science, can only be learned in a classroom or lab. In today’s world, with a pervasively connected and constantly updated Internet knowledge base, online self-learning is always available and more productive.

  1. Irrational fear of failure or embarrassment. Everyone has some fear of the unknown, and that’s a good thing for survival. Successful entrepreneurs are ones who overcome their fears and manage some risk and failures as a part of the learning process. Others are debilitated by their fear, avoid risk at all costs, and never start.

  1. Equally irrational fear of dealing with success. We have all seen people on the cusp of success, who seemed to intentionally undermine their momentum, only to fail near the finish line. Of course, too much early success can kill a business, but real entrepreneurs are certain that they can grow and learn from success, just as they do from failure.

  1. Insist on perfectionism, rather than pragmatism. I know very talented inventors who have been working on the same technology for 20 years, and still want to do more research to make sure it’s perfect before selling a product. In today’s rapidly changing market, perfection is a fleeting and impractical objective. Pragmatists create a minimum viable product (MVP), test it in the market and iterate to success.

  1. Unable to maintain their focus and resist distractions. “Focus” is the key to success as an entrepreneur. A business that tries to do too many things for too many markets will likely excel at none and discourage all potential customers. Focus means keeping priorities straight, separating important from urgent, organizing and delegating.

  1. Substitute excuses for accountability and responsibility. Excuses are efforts to rationalize failure after the fact or justification for never starting. The best attribute of a real entrepreneur is acceptance of the fact that “the buck stops here.” There are always alternatives, pivots and creativity to overcome any obstacle.

  1. Simply not a self-starter, leader or decision-maker. These are the products of the industrial revolution, who wait for others to tell them what to do, and love to find fault and play the victim.  When you adopt the entrepreneur lifestyle, it’s up to you to set the pace, stay positive, be the model and lead the follow-through.

If you expect someone else to make your decisions and bear the risks and responsibilities of implementation, then “one of these days” will probably never come for you. So my view of what it takes to be an entrepreneur is simply to adopt the right attitude and full accountability. People who want it bad enough will get around to it. How long will you be a “wannabe” entrepreneur?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 30, 2022

8 Keys For Transforming An Innovation Into A Business

EntrepreneurAs a mentor to many business professionals and owners, and aspiring entrepreneurs, I find a wealth of innovative ideas, but often less insight on what it really takes to transform ideas into an income stream that can excite new customers into long-term business success. Thus my guidance is usually more on the realities of creating a business, rather than critiquing ideas.

For example, innovative technologists often come up with a new device or app, just because they can, and assume everyone will want one. Social entrepreneurs pitch me their latest idea for reducing world hunger (such as producing edible algae), but forget that hungry people probably don’t have any money. It takes a wealth of hungry buyers to sustain a great business idea.

So, unless you are satisfied doing research on a shoestring, I encourage you to focus highly on achieving business success, as well as on creating an innovative solution. I was happy to see this strategy expertly illustrated in a new book, “The Innovation Mindset,” by Lorraine H. Marchand. She speaks from decades of experience with innovation at big companies, as well as startups.

I’m happy to add my own insights here for your consideration to her suggested eight essential lessons, with supporting case studies, for evolving any innovative idea into a business reality:

  1. Every innovation must solve a customer problem. A key attribute of every innovation transformed into a successful business is that it must provide a solution to a real problem that potential customers are willing and able to pay money to acquire. Beware of “nice to have” solutions, or available alternatives that are cheaper, better known, or easier to use.

  2. A great innovation starts with at least three ideas. I find that many entrepreneurs are so blinded by their initial idea, that they fail to evaluate alternatives. I recommend that you always use brainstorming, or expert feedback, to define similar approaches and markets, before proceeding to produce and sell a solution that may be expensive to change later.

  3. Be a dreamer first, but a realist on marketplace risk. One of the best ways to assess development risk is to build and test a prototype, or minimum viable product (MVP). What looks good in your head may have unforeseen challenges in cost, reliability, and usability in the marketplace. Investors expect this step to be proven successful before funding.

  4. Test your innovation with at least a hundred customers. Believe it or not, customers are not all like you. I have found, for example, that “early adopters” love innovation and new features, while “mass market” customers enjoy simplicity and usability. Don’t be hesitant to use focus groups, crowd funding, and personal interviews to quantify interest.

  5. Be ready to pivot at any point in the process. Every successful business owner you know will tell you that their original plan has changed or pivoted from the original. Primary reasons include unanticipated customer reactions, early competitors, financials not meeting projections, and channel partner issues. Plan for change before the crisis.

  6. Write down your business model and five-year plan. I believe that writing down your business plan has tremendous value for you, even if you don’t need investors. Generating a written plan will force you to think through all the key elements for success, including market definition, solution features, financials, real competition, and marketing.

  7. Take the steps needed to improve your success odds. You can improve your odds by reducing risks. Certainly, some risks are uncontrollable, such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic, but others are manageable. For example, you must secure adequate funding for operations, hire good people for operations, and manage your reputation and service.

  8. Maintain communication and trust with constituents. This starts with building a positive and persuasive pitch deck for investors and team members, and updating your team on a weekly basis with progress and next steps. It also means building trust and credibility through visibility, feedback, and really listening to your team and customers.

Please do not get the impression that a business should reduce the current priority on innovation. We all know that the pace of innovation is increasing, and the market is responding positively. I simply suggest that innovation alone does not assure business success.

For long-term success, you must apply the rules and realities of business outlined here with the same passion and determination that generates your solution innovation. Many of your peers and competitors are already there, so it’s never too early to start today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 9/16/2022 ***

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

5 Strategies To Thrive Despite Information Overload

Information_overload1Every business leader I know is overloaded with data these days, with a wealth of new business tools, social media channels, and countless emails and text messages. Yet, ironically, they still feel they are always behind in recognizing the impact and need for change. As a consultant, I often get asked for help in mining all this data and using it for long-term success in their business.

For example, just think of the data generated and captured for every online customer purchase transaction on the Internet. It starts with a browser capturing your shopping search initiatives, to cookies remembering your preferences, your software logging purchase details, to feedback via Yelp and social media data. People like me tell you to use all that data to win over competitors.

The challenge is to thrive on that opportunity, rather than let it drive your stress and costs through the roof. I was happy to see some practical guidance on this issue in a new book, “Thriving on Overload,” by Ross Dawson. Mr. Dawson is a world-leading futurist, entrepreneur, and public speaker, who offers five key principles, which I can amplify, for turning information into value:

  1. Purpose: thriving requires an understanding of why. Your first challenge is to decide what information and why it is relevant to your business. I often see businesses madly collecting data without a clear purpose of relevancy, or ability to analyze it. I encourage each of you to simplify and balance your life by focusing only on the data you can use.

    Don’t let your passion, culture, expertise, or past experience distort what information you need, or why you need it. Success in new ventures does require foundational knowledge, and then consistently keeping abreast of the constant change in today’s marketplace.

  2. Framing: look for patterns and context to simplify. Before you start collecting new data, spend some time defining the frameworks and connections you need. Avoid the stress of trying to make sense of random data, and the cost of experts and software to extract value where there is none. I suggest visual frameworks you can create today.

    Another approach to framing is to use structured thinking about the future, for sensitizing yourself about what is relevant. Remember that every decision you make is about the future. You can’t change the past, so orient your framing around future value elements.

  3. Filtering: discarding information beyond your capacity. We all have limited cognitive capacities, so don’t take in more than you can process. Choose only the best media formats for each type of content you choose to engage with, across the range of text, audio, and video. Assess your daily limits for absorption, and use available filtering tools.

    A key issue in every leader’s filtering is your rules for saying “yes” to requests for time, money, and relationships. If you say yes to too many things, you will inevitably be overwhelmed, and not able to seize the most compelling new information sources.

  4. Attention: don’t be distracted by irrelevant inputs. Schedule your thinking and analysis time to avoid interruptions and multitasking. Too many leaders I know think they can process data in the background, while on the phone or tapping into another meeting. The power of full attention is needed for success in processing the current data overload.

    In fact, sometimes we need the extra attention of deep-diving for true comprehension, discerning difficult patterns, identifying new connections, or refining the structure of our frameworks. Deep-diving is a state of total immersion. Use it for tough data challenges.

  5. Synthesis: connect and integrate disparate concepts. To truly comprehend the value of multiple data sources, you must stay open to new ideas, and ready to learn new lessons from uncharted territory. I recommend that you supplement your own synthesis with artificial intelligence and mentoring from experts in related disciplines.

    Another approach to improving your ability to synthesize disparate information elements is the use of contrarian thinking. Develop this ability by clearly articulating your current view on a specific issue, and then assembling a strong argument for the contrary case.

For every business leader today, managing massive amounts of information without being overwhelmed is a prerequisite for survival and success. The age of information overload is already here, and you can be assured that it will continue to accelerate. I recommend that you start today to implement the strategies outlined here for your own well-being, as well as mine.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 9/12/2022 ***

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Monday, September 26, 2022

6 Ways To Learn The Realities For Starting A Business

startup-realitiesDespite the rush in every academic institution to offer more courses on entrepreneurship, I still haven’t found it to be something you can learn in school. Of course, you can pick up the basic principles this way, but the problem is that the practical rules for success are changing so fast that no academic can keep up. The best thing you can learn in school is how to learn.

The successful entrepreneurs I have met and worked with over the years all seem to share that passion for learning, and they see rapid market change not as a problem, but as an opportunity for them to move ahead of the crowd in changing the world. Making big money is usually the last thing on their mind, and most are happy living on Ramen noodles in a sparse apartment.

From a practical standpoint, there are many ways to learn about business change, and the opportunities that may spring up at any moment. Here are six steps that every aspiring entrepreneur should take full advantage of:

  1. Communicate with peers who have “been there and done that.” The common term for this is networking, but I find that many aspiring entrepreneurs like to do all the talking about their latest new idea and fail to listen. You don’t learn anything while talking. Successful entrepreneurs love to share, but they respond better to pull rather than push.

  1. Research current success stories and role models. The Internet is better than the Library of Congress or any university, since it changes daily to keep up with reality and is interactive. Reserve some time each day for your favorite blogs and influencers, follow up with social networking and expand your personal contacts offline.

  1. Find a business mentor, as well as a friend. A mentor is someone who will tell you what you need to hear, while a friend might tell you what you want to hear. Actually, you need both, and the ability to tell the difference. I find that all entrepreneurs benefit from bouncing their ideas off someone else, and unique perspectives can add real value.

  1. Don’t skip new “learning how to learn opportunities.” These include the classes in school that focus on case studies and team exercises, but extend beyond the academic world to professional and industry seminars. Focus on the opportunities that match your needs for today, since you never know too far ahead what you need to know next.

  1. Volunteer to help organizations related to your interest. There is no better way to broaden your perspective and understand realities than to work in an environment where motivations are positive. You can get real leadership experience and real learning without long-term commitments and financial pressures.

  1. Start your own small business. The cost of entry for an entrepreneur is at an all-time low, with very low incorporation fees in most states, website creation tools for free and the ability to create and offer smartphone apps for a few thousand dollars. Learn from the challenges of a startup with a low-risk idea before you bet it all on the big dream.

I fully recognize that self-initiated learning is not for everyone. If you are one of those people who likes structured classes and counts on spending a couple of week in the classroom every year to catch up, I don’t recommend the entrepreneur and startup lifestyle. Starting a new and innovative business is not a highly structured process, and finding time for structured learning is unlikely.

Finally, it is always helpful to check your motivation to be an entrepreneur. If you see it as the path to easy money or as an escape from an existing job or family pressures, it’s time to recognize that learning doesn’t come easily if your heart isn’t in it.

There is no substitute for doing what you love, and loving what you do. Once you learn to love learning, you too can be a successful entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 25, 2022

7 First Impression Negatives Every Founder Must Avoid

negative-first-impressionRelationships are the key to survival and success for entrepreneurs, and first impressions usually turn into lasting impressions. As an advisor to many early-stage entrepreneurs, I caution them to always be prepared for that chance meeting with a famous investor, a potential partner or an industry guru. It’s not smart to believe that your passion and gift of gab will impress anyone.

Advance homework and preparation is key to every good first impression. With smart people, you can’t bluff your way past tough questions, and talking more and louder about your dreams won’t fill the gap of relevant content. Despite the fact that you can’t predict the circumstances of every first meeting, there are many faux pas that you can avoid, including the following:

  1. Failure to recognize an important person before introduction. Every entrepreneur should build a “cheat sheet” of 10 key individuals they hope to encounter at any given meeting or networking opportunity. The impact of responding first with facial recognition from LinkedIn or Facebook is huge compared to possible alternatives.

  1. Start talking immediately about your project and background. Asking questions and listening will leave a greater first impression more often than talking. Even more impressive are targeted questions that indicate you already have done your homework on their current role, expertise and company affiliations.

  1. Quick to name-drop common friends and business links. A mention or introduction from a shared friend will always give you an advantage. But be cautious about dropping names of people who may not really know you, or whose recollection of you may not be so positive. The investors I know are quick to do some real due diligence.

  1. Ask a thousand questions, with no apparent objective. To make a memorable first impression, you need to make your objective clear in simple and non-emotional terms, before the other party has to ask or guess. Think of it as not wasting the other person’s time, and always positioning the next step, like asking for a meeting or a partnership.

  1. Flaunt how much you know about every subject. It’s important to do your homework and appear knowledgeable on relevant subjects, but a good impression will turn bad if you interrupt every answer with a correction, or can’t stop talking about any given subject. Good initial conversations should never be turned into debates or political platforms.

  1. Easily distracted by a friend or someone more important. We all hate being dumped quickly in a business or personal situation for someone more attractive or important. Smart entrepreneurs learn how to smile and maintain eye contact, make transitions positively and proactively follow-up to solidify their impact, rather than lose it.

  1. Dress to make a statement or stand out in the crowd. Appropriate dress is all in the eye of the beholder, so that should be your criteria. If you are presenting to a group of angel investors, assume business attire or match the norm of members. Washed-out jeans may be your norm at work, but won’t impress most long-time business executives.

With a little forethought and business sense, all these mistakes can be turned into opportunities for you to be remembered. All it takes is the same diligence that every entrepreneur puts into solution development, their business plan and investor presentation. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that first impressions usually last longer than any documents you prepare.

Psychologists say it only takes three to five seconds for someone to form a lasting first impression. Either consciously or unconsciously, people important to your future will make quick judgments about your professionalism, character and trustworthiness quickly.

Don’t jeopardize the future of your startup, and your chosen lifestyle, by assuming you can wing it. Only preparation will keep you and your image from flying astray.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 24, 2022

8 Sure Signs That Your Leadership Style Needs Tuning

leadership-lessonsMost entrepreneurs assume that success is dependent on their product expertise, coupled with some knowledge of how to run a business. In fact, I have found from personal experience and mentoring that both of these are necessary, but not sufficient, for building a business. Successful entrepreneurs today must practice human-centered leadership to compete and win.

There are many leadership styles out there that may have worked well in the past, including authoritarian and paternalistic. But in this new age of relationships, these often work against your business. There is more and more evidence that a more human-centered or heart-centered leadership yields the best results with your team and with customers in the long run.

As top business consultants and leading proponents of this leadership style, Susan Steinbrecher and Joel Bennett, in their classic book “Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well,” do a good job on the details of why and how this approach leads to greater satisfaction and well-being for the team, and by extension, to the bottom line profit and impact of the business.

Here are some examples from their book and my experience of the many indicators, challenges that entrepreneurs will probably recognize, which highlight the value and need for increased focus on the human element:

  1. Collaborative team sessions seem to drag on. Entrepreneurs often complain about the amount of time wasted in meetings, because one of the team members just wants to be heard, or feels that what he or she has said is not valued. Great leaders learn to listen actively to conversations, so people don’t hold up progress just to be understood.

  1. Disruptive office politics start to show. Startups with weak directives, poor communication, and ineffective cultures are breeding grounds for negative interpersonal dynamics. Office politics are really about self-interest and self-esteem. Heart-centered leaders create engaged teams that are too highly motivated to waste time on politics.
  1. Investments and acquisitions fail. Failure is often not due to fiscal irresponsibility or lack of due diligence. Business-to-business relationships usually fail because the leadership team underestimates the impact and the importance of recognizing the human element. Effective entrepreneur leaders focus on getting people needs satisfied early.

  1. Team conflicts become personal fights. A conflict and a fight are not the same thing. The best entrepreneurs understand their people and embrace constructive conflict for steering through the maze of innovation and change common to every startup. Toxic relationships are emotional, often personal, disagreements which are counter-productive.

  1. Demand for coaching, counseling, and discipline training is high. The most-used workplace training programs are really about matters of the heart. Managers need training in coaching, counseling, and discipline because they resist or have difficulty communicating with team members. Punishment at work is not a motivator to change.
  1. Difficulties retaining key employees. Top team members rarely quit the company. More often than not they quit their boss. All too often, quitting is a response to a perceived lack of leadership or appreciation by key executives. Human-centered leaders connect with each team member at a personal level to assure ongoing commitment.

  1. Evidence of crossing the line ethically. If entrepreneurs show only an exclusive focus on the bottom line, team members may convince themselves that they have to bend the rules to be successful, which can easily lead to lying, cheating, and stealing. Leaders need to focus on a human-centered culture in their actions, as well as every message.

  1. Customer relationships culture is slipping. Your startup can’t sell and compete on the strength of your customer relationships, if the business culture in your startup is not human-centered. That startup culture has to come from the beginning and from the top, meaning heart-centered leadership from the entrepreneur.

There is an increasing body of evidence that teams and leaders focused on the human element not only live well, but are winning in their profit-making objectives as well. Examples of exemplary companies practicing this model include Starbucks Coffee and the Whole Foods. Both of these are human-centered businesses that boast high growth, high loyalty, and low employee turnover.

How evident in your leadership style is your commitment to personal understanding, open-mindedness, authenticity, trust and integrity? If you haven’t tried it, or you aren’t getting the feedback from your team than you want, maybe it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror. It’s never too late to learn.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 23, 2022

5 Key Initiatives Define The Ultimate Startup Leader

Leadership-keys-minMost aspiring entrepreneurs are convinced that the strength of their initial idea somehow defines them as a leader, as well as the success potential of their derivative business. In my experience, it’s a lot more complicated than that. It takes leadership ability, as well as a good idea, to make a successful entrepreneur, and great leaders evolve from key leadership decisions along the way.

Fortunately, basic leadership and entrepreneurial skills can be acquired from experience and training. If you don’t have the entrepreneur leadership attribute or interest, but want to be an “idea person” or inventor, then I recommend that you find a partner with the requisite skills to implement and run the business from your idea.

Yet we all know that there is a big gap between good entrepreneurs and a great business leaders. Great leaders seem to make the right pivotal decisions at every critical point along the way. I’ve never been able to clearly define those key points, and what separates the good from the great at these points.

So I was happy to see Julia Tang Peters, in her classic book “Pivot Points,” tackle this issue. She concludes from her work with many modern business leaders, including CEOs Bud Frankel (Frankel & Company) and Glen Tullman (7wire Ventures), that there are five pivotal decisions that propel certain entrepreneurs to be gifted leaders:

  1. The launching decision. At some point an idea captures your imagination and creating a business becomes more than just about income. You define goals that rivet your attention, galvanizing you to turn dreams into reality. The launching point establishes the platform on which every potential entrepreneur becomes an actualized entrepreneur.
  1. The turning point decision. This is the confluence of your willful decision to do more, and the pressing need to take action. It unleashes an extraordinary verve to take the idea or business to the next level. It tests your capabilities and capacity in various ways, stretching them far beyond your comfort zone and requiring total commitment.
  1. The tipping point decision. Here you are catapulted into leading and working on the business, as distinctly different from the work of mastering your subject and working in the business. At this point you will have built a team whom you trust with substantive responsibilities, freeing you to hone the art of leading, inside and outside the business.
  1. The recommitment decision. Now is the time when you as the leader look at where you are and where you want to go, knowing the need to renew the commitment or leave. For many this happens during disruptive change, like being acquired or being the acquirer. For others, it’s a personal decision to balance family life, or do something different.
  1. The letting go decision.  The ultimate test of leadership is letting go at a time of strength so that others can carry on the work. It may be a hold’em or fold’em business situation, or simply time to plan for succession. This decision point is the most emotionally challenging, since letting go is pivotal in defining the terms of the entrepreneur’s legacy.

I’m certain that an understanding of these points will equip you with the knowledge you need to take the right path on decisions when it matters most. The world is full of high-achievers and high expectations, but without the proper framework for turning entrepreneurial determination into real leadership accomplishment, you risk going nowhere.

I agree with Peters that entrepreneurial leadership is not all about people traits or characteristics, but often about the choices they make at key decision points along the way. Of course, skills in decision-making are not enough alone to make a great entrepreneurial leader. Here are some of the other characteristics I look for:

  • Willing to listen, and will address skeptical views.
  • Always an evangelist and a good communicator.
  • Willing to question assumptions and adapt.
  • Proactively sets metrics and track goals.
  • Ties rewards to performance results.
  • Aggressively takes smart risks.

So a great idea is necessary but not sufficient to make you a great entrepreneur and a great leader. Work on the right characteristics, and think hard about those five key pivotal decisions that can make or break your satisfaction and your legacy. It’s more fun when you are the entrepreneur leader you want to be.

Marty Zwilling

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