Wednesday, June 29, 2022

5 Unfair Advantages To Help You Succeed In Business

unfair-advantagesOne of the things I’ve learned over my years as a business mentor and investor is that life isn’t fair when it comes to succeeding in business. You may think that passion and hard work are all you need, but I believe we all have unique strengths, and you need to recognize yours, and capitalize on them above all else, in order to get the advantage you need to win in business.

In this context, I’m convinced that most of you already have, or can acquire, what it takes to succeed in business. I see a good discussion of the relevant strengths and issues in a new book, “The Unfair Advantage,” by Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba. These authors speak from their own wealth of experience in creating and growing technology startups, marketing, and fundraising.

Here are the key elements of the strengths framework they have developed, with my own insights and experience added for your consideration:

  1. Money: the capital you have, or can easily raise. While it is indeed honorable and impressive to run your business on a shoestring, there is no argument that having access to more money, or relevant assets, is a strength you should take advantage of. It can expedite growth, acquire competitors, cushion mistakes, and lengthen your runway.

    In the business world, your ability to raise money is often paramount to your success. In that environment, you need to look broadly and work effectively on all the available sources of capital, including friends and family, angel investors, and strategic partners.

  2. Intelligence and insight: book and street smarts. Book smarts represent your current depth of understanding of technology and business concepts. The more you have, the greater your potential. Street smarts are largely about people skills, which require emotional insights. Use friends and mentors with extensive experience to gauge both.

    In my experience, emotional intelligence (EI) is a better predictor of business success than IQ. EI rates a person's ability to recognize emotions, to understand their effect, and to use that information to guide your next move. Fortunately, you can develop this skill.

  3. Location and luck: right place at the right time. I’m a proponent of the old adage that you make your own luck in business. If you need venture capital, maybe you need to spend more time in Silicon Valley or Boston. If you like your current location, tackle an opportunity that is big there, rather than trying to solve a problem elsewhere in the world.

    I always recommend to every business professional that they have a goal, and then be willing to maneuver. This is called the serendipity mindset. What seems like the wrong place or a chance meeting might be the start of an important partnership or opportunity.

  4. Education and expertise: formal and self-learning. Don’t believe the myth that a formal education is not an advantage – it teaches you how to learn effectively. Not many of us are self-learners by default, and experience and failures take a long time. The key is to keep learning, from mentors, books, and online. Focus on business as an expertise.

    In any career, an advanced degree, such as an MBA or PhD, will at least give you entrée into more opportunities. From that point forward, results and creativity are the drivers. In my view, going back to school midway in your career will likely make you a better leader.

  5. Status: network, connections, and personal brand. To prepare you to build outer status advantages, you need to develop and demonstrate first an inner status advantage of confidence and self-esteem. Motivation and recognition are usually tied to increasing our status, and people around you will unconsciously look for and react to your status.

    Personal branding is how we market ourselves to others, and is very important in this Internet age. The days are gone when you could hide behind the company brand. I recommend that you get more visible at industry conferences and on social media.

After reviewing these strengths and recommendations, you may find that you already have what it takes to succeed, but haven’t been using it effectively. Now is the time to assess your own position, get input from constituents and mentors, and focus on improving your position where you can. Only then can you enjoy the advantages you deserve, and have more fun as well.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/15/2022 ***



Monday, June 27, 2022

10 Indications That It’s Time To Ask For Help At Work

business-man_ask-for-helpIf an entrepreneur doesn’t find themselves in over their head at least 20% of the time, they are probably not pushing the limits, not taking enough risk, and probably not working on an idea that’s worth doing. The challenge in to know when and how to ask for help, and not let bravado and ego mask anxieties. The best people know when they don’t know, and know how to find the right help.

Unfortunately, too many entrepreneurs I know are terrible at finding and accepting help. Perhaps it’s because they jumped into this lifestyle because they are passionate and stubborn about following their own vision, and they enjoy being their own boss. Too often they are also hesitant, inexperienced, and fearful of hiring people or finding a mentor to be the partner they need.

In the spirit of mentoring and helping entrepreneurs recognize their own weaknesses, here are ten key indications from my experience that you as an entrepreneur may be nearly broken, and it’s time to look for some help:

  1. You start seeing every business problem as a personal affront. Your business is not all about what is best for you, but what is best for your customers. In reality, your customers care more about your product and service, so feedback on product shortcomings or service glitches are meant to help your business, not hurt you.
  1. Startup challenges become more depressing than energizing. The best entrepreneurs thrive on being able to push the limits, and tackling the tough challenges that ultimately result in real innovation which can change the world. If you find yourself dragging in to work, and dreading the next surprise, you may be in over your head.
  1. You have no idea how to pivot with the latest market trends. Successful entrepreneurs pride themselves on always having more ideas than can possibly be explored, so they are never at a loss for new alternatives to explore. If you don’t see a new trend as a new opportunity, you may be in over your head. Seek help or get out.
  1. You are completely surprised by a negative event you should have foreseen. At the end of a given month, you suddenly are totally out of cash. You know you should have been tracking the burn rate, or inventory requirements, or late receivables, but have found yourself totally distracted by a flock of emergency daily issues.

  1. You know what is required, but you continue to procrastinate. Sometimes it’s obvious that closing a deal requires some tough negotiation or sales calls at the top, but these are not your forte, so you can never find the time or energy to get them done. Maybe it’s time to find an advisor, or a board member with the right connections.

  1. Angry outbursts become more common than real leadership. Too many executives revert to bullying and micromanaging when they are in over their heads. In the long run, this tactic does not work, and your business suffers, as well as all those around you. If you catch yourself acting out in anger, get some help before more damage is done.

  1. You start playing the blame game. We all know entrepreneurs that are quick with an excuse for every problem, like we were too early for the market, the vendor let me down, the economy took a downturn, or my competitor is cutthroat. Every startup founder has to remember that the buck stops with them, and they must learn from every mistake.
  1. Living in a state of denial, and misrepresenting the truth. When an entrepreneur is in over their head, they can’t face the hard facts of business losses and missed customer commitments, and they can’t face their team. Thus they find themselves communicating less and less, and downright lying to people, while rationalizing that this causes less pain.

  1. Jeopardizing your integrity to hide shortcomings. If you catch yourself saying things and doing things that violate your own sense of ethics, you are likely in over your head. These could include cutting quality corners, shorting vendor payments, and sabotaging team members. Now is the time to get help before you destroy yourself and your startup.

  1. Letting a sense of entitlement show through. It’s easy for an entrepreneur in over his head, and frustrated with all the challenges, to convince themselves that they are entitled to that fancy sports car or a six-figure salary once the first investor money rolls in. They let the burn rate go up too fast, and the business burns down before it really starts.

As a serious entrepreneur, you need to differentiate these symptoms from the plateaus we all feel from time to time as we jump from one learning curve to the next. In most cases, if you focus for a couple of months, you will find yourself happily afloat at the new level. That is just getting in over your head in a healthy way, rather than an unhealthy one.

According to Whitney Johnson in a Harvard Business Review article on this subject, the smart recovery is to send out an SOS (stop, organize, secure) before you drown, when you find yourself really in over your head. As an entrepreneur, you are expected to swim in unexplored waters, so there is no shame in accepting life preservers, as long as you learn from the waves.

So remember, none of us is perfect, and almost no entrepreneur gets it right the first time. If you never make mistakes, you are not taking enough risk to win in today’s market. But always be self-aware, and not be afraid to take a hard look in the mirror. Do you like what you see, and are you willing to change it?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Pros And Cons Of A Secret Business Relationship

secret-business-romanceWe all have to communicate and collaborate with other people at work, but most of us start out instinctively trying to maintain an emotional distance from others in the work environment. In fact, most employee training courses recommend the distance if the work relationship crosses management levels, and most management policies strictly forbid fraternizing with the team.

Yet the 2019 Office Romance Survey by Vault, Inc. found in polling more than 700 professionals at companies nationwide, that 58 percent had participated in an office romance, and almost three-quarters of those who’ve had relationships said they’d be willing to engage in another one. So recently I started looking for some expert guidance on the pros and cons on this issue.

One source I like is the classic book “Who’s That Sitting At My Desk?” by Jan Yager, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, and is a coach and speaker on work issues and friendship. She outlines the potential benefits of “workships” (work relationships) evolving into friendships and romances as follows:

  • Improve communication and productivity. Even casual friends at work are more likely to understand your requests, be convinced of the value of your ideas, and more likely to work in concert with you on projects. That’s a win-win situation for both sides as more positive things happen more quickly. Warm feelings also make the work seem easier.
  • Offer support through tough times. Positive workplace relationships can help balance some difficult issues you are facing outside of work. Even at work, if you are struggling with a difficult project, getting some help and support from friends there can easily make the difference between success and failure. We all learn more from people we trust.
  • Aid in self-esteem. Work places provide that day-to-day interaction opportunity that is a key to self-esteem for many. Friends are more likely to provide the positive feedback and accolades that we all need from time to time. Friends are also less likely to exhibit aggression and rudeness, which can lower the self-esteem of any receiver.
  • Can be a competitive advantage. Despite accusations of favoritism, if your friendship with the boss is one of many factors in why you get promoted, that friendship may be a big plus for you at work. If you easily make friends with people at work, it means that you have good relationships skills, which is a key requirement as you move up the ladder.

Of course there can be negative consequences to close friendships and romances at work as well:

  • Work-related betrayal. According to most experts, romantic betrayals are the most frequent type of friendship betrayals, with work-related issues a close second. Betrayals at work run the gamut from telling lies, coloring the truth, plagiarizing work, to saying negative things to the boss. Of course, all these things can happen in any workship.
  • More vulnerable emotionally. Through friendship you open yourself up to acceptance, being liked, admired, respected, trusted, and appreciated. You also open yourself up, as do others when they befriend you, to the greater possibility of disappointment, rejection, and misunderstandings. Success is the best antidote to emotional vulnerability.

  • Competition over salary, promotions, and position. Sometimes friends share too many details on salary levels, work habits, and promotion expectations. This can cause feelings of unfairness, and initiate emotionally competitive efforts. The result can be a loss of friendship, and even loss of any working relationship.
  • Hard to keep work-related disagreements separate from personal relationship. Work-related disagreements break up many romantic relationships, and broken personal friendships break up many businesses. In this new age of collaboration, unemotional different perspectives and disagreements have been proven to lead to better decisions.

If you are contemplating a transition from a workship to a more intimate relationship, according to Yager, you should make sure that it satisfies the following three conditions:

  1. Make sure the move is a shared wish. There are three distinct kinds of friends: casual, close, and best. A fourth category is more intimately romantic relationships. None of these four work well if they are "one-sided,” meaning only one of the parties is committed.
  1. Be ready to reveal and involve your non-work experience. Some people find that they have much in common in workplace duties and perspectives, but have nothing in common outside of work. Or they really don’t want to share their personal life details.

  1. Expect increased pressures from trust and discretion issues. All relationships bring increased demands for your time, and bring expectations and pressures during any changes in your life, or at work. Make sure you both have the shared values in your personal life, as well as at work.

In my view and experience, the benefits of more friendship at work far outweigh the disadvantages. Socializing at work today, contrary to a couple of decades ago, is considered collaborative and productive, rather than a waste of time. Today the trend is to “open” office spaces, even for executives, versus the private and quiet offices of yesterday.

Going further in the friendship direction, to a romantic relationship, is still almost always a negative at work, because the emotional ties and tolls often override rational actions. As an example, I find that most Angel investors still decline to fund startup founders that are romantically involved, citing the high risk of breakup.

Work relationships are in vogue, inside a company for collaboration and teamwork, and outside to customers and partners through social media for loyalty and interactive marketing. But all good things can be overdone. Are you maintaining the right balance in your work relationships?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, June 25, 2022

10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Every New Venture

questions-entrepreneurDeciding to be an entrepreneur is a lifestyle move, and should be part of a long-term strategic plan. You shouldn’t be making this decision just because you are mad at your boss, or you would like to be rich, or someone else thinks you have a good idea. In these changing times, if you already have a startup, with no plan, maybe it’s time to think ahead for a change.

Formally, that’s called developing and maintaining a strategic plan. Usually that means writing something down, since it’s hard to maintain something, or track yourself against it, if it’s not written down. From my experience, and the experience of other entrepreneurs, here are the key elements you should think about as part of the process:

  1. Personal interests and aspirations. Do you love managing your own schedule, overcoming obstacles, starting a new adventure, facing financial risk, and relish the opportunity to change the world? Money should not be the big driver here.
  1. Right idea at the right time. Do you believe that you have an idea for a company that you can implement better than anyone, and maintain a competitive advantage? If you are thinking nonprofit (social entrepreneur), can you rally the world around your cause?
  1. Take inventory of what you have. Look critically at yourself and your existing organization for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). What resources do you have, skills and functions, and what do you do best?
  1. Assess customer demand. Do customers really need what you want to do, or might they see it as “nice to have?” In the relevant market large enough, and growing fast enough, to make it a profitable opportunity?
  1. Providing minimal resources. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for all entrepreneurs is time and money for the ramp-up period. Do you have money saved, or available from friends, or current employment to support the transition?
  1. Visualize the future. What do you envision your business looking like in five to ten years? Is your mind full of ideas for repeating the experience, or are you looking to build a family business that you make your legacy?
  1. Manage existing relationships. How important to you is the balance between family, outside relationships, and work? Do you have dependents that must be factored into every career and lifestyle equation? What personal support resources are available?
  1. Education and training roadblocks. Does your dream require additional time and money for training or academic credentials? If so, can these be done concurrently with an entrepreneurial rollout plan? What other roadblocks exist?
  1. Location, location, location. Most entrepreneurial efforts can best be done, or can only be done, in a specific geography or country. Are you willing to relocate as part of your strategic plan? Can you start where you are and relocate later?
  1. Willing and able to measure. Can you define measurable milestones to help you track progress and provide feedback? Strategic plans that cannot be measured will never be accomplished. Are you committed to achieving milestones and measuring progress?

I’m not suggesting here that a strategic plan is a one-time set-in-stone effort. In fact, quite the opposite, every plan must be improved and adapted as you learn more and the world changes around you.

On the other hand, if your way of doing business might be described as fire first and aim later, to seize today’s opportunity, you are charging into the future on only a wish and a prayer. The crash landings can be tough, and definitely won’t feel good as a long-term strategy.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, June 24, 2022

7 Ways To Find And Nurture Future Leaders In Business

future-business-leadersEvery business owner I know wishes that all team members were leaders, to proactively tackle the challenges of growth, interact effectively with customers on their needs, and eventually step into your role. Yet you know that real leaders are hard to find, and often remain hidden just below the surface of your team. Are you sure you know what to look for, or how to develop potential?

In fact, our natural human tendency is to see all team members as followers, or to continually view them as they appeared on the day they joined the business. My objective as a business advisor is to incent you to take a fresh look at everyone on a regular basis, and recognize the behaviors of team members who are beginning to display the leadership attributes you need:

  1. Look for a commitment and ability to deliver results. Most often this means a focus on the objectives of the business as a whole, and taking the initiative to drive results, rather than just work hard. You need to look for higher team collaboration and productivity around this hidden leader, as well as high individual performance.

    Effective collaboration with other people, as well as leadership, requires a high level of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. Some people have a high IQ, but can’t leverage that into leadership.

  2. Focus on team members who develop relationships. I’m not talking about the social butterflies, but people who always seem to engage with the right people to help get the job done, both upward and downward. These people are never hesitant to give credit to others, and thrive by delivering win-win solutions, rather than win-lose outcomes.

    Relationships outside your business can be just as valuable as relationships within. The best potential leaders are always seeking new connections at industry conferences, in community relations, and by communicating with key customers and influencers.

  3. Notice people who always take a customer perspective. Many people on your team will seem to focus on internal processes, or are willing to take shortcuts to optimize costs and profits. You need leaders who focus on delivering value to the market and dealing with competitors, addressing customer and competitive needs now and in the long-term.

    It’s no secret today that customers are more demanding than ever. In addition to good customer service, they are now expecting a total memorable experience, from quality, to shopping, and delivery. No team member leader can afford to ignore customer views.

  4. Recognize those with consistent individual integrity. Your team members with high integrity demonstrate sound moral and ethical principles and always do the right thing, no matter who's watching. Of course, that assumes that you nurture a culture that rewards integrity. Look for team members that learn from their mistakes and don’t blame others.

    Team members with integrity are people you can trust. Look around you, to single out for leadership opportunities those key people that you give your toughest challenges, with confidence that they will resolve it without embarrassing either you or the business.

  5. Increase your individual communication practices. You won’t recognize hidden leaders by observation alone. You need to be proactive in regularly communicating to team members one-on-one, understanding their needs and aspirations, and making sure they understand your strategy and goals. Mentoring and coaching are also important.

  6. Foster a culture that rewards risk taking and innovation. By default, most team members hesitate to take the risks of leadership, due to fear of your penalties, or lack of support. You need to be positive about the need for constant change and innovation in your business, support their efforts, and reward people for all initiatives and learning.

  7. Increase your delegation and review practices. In my experience, business managers that have the most trouble finding hidden leaders are ones who are reluctant to delegate real responsibility to others, and insist on micro-managing. You have to be the role model for leadership and delegation, and let your people learn to deal with issues themselves.

You may be the single leader that initiated your business or organization, but you will find that many more leaders are required to keep it healthy and growing. Thus a key part of every leader’s job is finding and nurturing those hidden leaders in every organization, and recruiting new ones from the outside. You can’t be successful in your business long-term, or career, without this task.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/10/2022 ***



Wednesday, June 22, 2022

6 Keys To Transforming Yourself Into A Startup Leader

business-startup-leaderMost people I know in business begin by capitalizing on technical strength or passion for change, such as engineering, or focus on saving the environment. They don’t realize that it takes more to succeed in business or a career – it takes leadership skills to get people to follow you, including peers, a team, business partners, and customers. Luckily, you can learn needed leadership skills.

Of course, you can always ride on someone’s coattail, and let them do the leadership, while you do the hard work in the shadows. But I suspect you won’t find that very satisfying in the long-term, and you may never reach your ultimate goals. I recommend a proactive approach to get you thinking and acting like a leader today, starting with a focus on these key strategies:

  1. Push back on your fear of taking a leadership position. Start now in building a vision of your future self as a leader, rather than a follower. Intentionally step outside your comfort zone often enough until the fear and discomfort goes away, and you develop a new mindset of enjoying the act of attracting others to follow your lead in new directions.

    In my experience, the most common qualm of business professionals is fear of failure. Yet every successful leader will tell you that some failure is normal along the way and necessary for learning and growth. Own your mistakes and don’t make excuses.

  2. Set achievement goals outside your current strengths. We all tend to focus on goals around what we already do well, rather than ones that will force new learning, such as how to be a better leader. I urge you to force yourself to be a regular new learner, by tackling new problems, listening to expert mentors, and finding time for leadership books.

    Also, it’s possible to turn your weaknesses into strengths by getting guidance from peers you trust who have complementary skills, hiring people with the expertise you lack, and overcompensating with excellent preparation. Count on the people around you to help.

  3. Celebrate small successes in your leadership efforts. Becoming a leader takes time, so it’s important that you recognize that it won’t happen all at once. You need to take credit for every small step in the right direction, and use that as motivation for tackling the next plateau. Don’t be afraid to ask peers and friends for feedback and progress reports.

    Sometimes aspiring leaders forget to break their big goals into a set of smaller ones for the short-term, so they see no progress along the way. As a result, I'm convinced that many of you will never see that magic moment when you finally feel success as a leader.

  4. Accept leadership roles in safer non-business roles. There is always a need for someone to take the lead in your favorite charity, community service, or family event planning. These will raise your confidence, assist your learning, and give you practice in improving your leadership skills that you can bring back to the office or business.

    As another example, many entrepreneurs I know enhance their leadership skills by taking on roles mentoring college students and younger peers. Soon they find themselves more confident in building and leading a team in their own business or career.

  5. Actively broaden your business network to new domains. Take the initiative to meet new leaders in your domain and related ones, at business conferences and networking events. New people will give you new perspectives and challenge your own. Look for leaders that can be your role models for areas that are not your current strength.

  6. Redefine your job as leadership versus delivering results. As your business or career matures, you need to progress from doing the job to a focus on strategy and leading. In reality, only you can make this happen. Many business professionals remain stuck in their current role, and wonder why they are never perceived as leaders.

I find that many business professionals and entrepreneurs are jealous of others in leadership roles, but are hesitant to make the step into that domain themselves. Hopefully, with the initiatives outlined here, you can allay your fears, and sharpen your leadership skills, to be able to achieve your potential as a leader. You too can achieve your dreams of business and personal success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/8/2022 ***



Monday, June 20, 2022

8 Signals That It’s Time for Change In Your Business

change-in-businessWhen the economy struggles as it is doing now, that’s a strong signal that things have to change, and it’s hard to miss. But most of us in business have to deal most of the time with weak signals, or change that is happening in a far more subtle way. These changes can be cultural, like the increasing need to be social, spawning Facebook and a hundred others, or technological, like the explosion of mobile devices around the world.

No business or startup wants to be the next Myspace, or even the next RIM (BlackBerry), where changes in the marketplace were subtle. Recognizing and interpreting weak signals into timely decision making is critical to your business, and it takes skill and focus.

The challenge is knowing what to look for, and how to react. I saw some real guidance in the classic book by Loc de Brabandere and Alan Iny, “Thinking in New Boxes.” While the focus of the book is really on business creativity, the following triggers were outlined as weak signals which should not be overlooked in your efforts to think outside the box, or think in a new box:

  1. A changing value proposition. For example, if it’s getting harder to charge a price premium for the product you’re marketing, or others are offering your subscription service for free, it may be time to start thinking in a new box. Another example is seeing substitute versions of a product, like eBooks, for a low price displacing hardcover books.
  1. New unmet consumer or customer needs. Perhaps you own a consumer products store and see that following the introduction of a new iPad model, there are no attractive protective cases for them yet available. Or you notice that people are getting overnight delivery from Amazon, but your retail store offers no home delivery options.
  1. The entry of new competitors and new suppliers. You are selling several successful computer video games, but notice more and more new ones popping up on smartphones. Or you notice that your line of high quality tools is being undercut by cheap knockoffs manufactured in other countries.

  1. The advent of new breakthrough technologies. You are still providing conventional digital wristwatches while Apple and others are delivering high-tech new versions that sync with your smartphone. Or you are still delivering coupons via the local newspaper, while new entrants are loading them onto your loyalty card or smartphone.
  1. Changes in your organization’s core performance metrics. For example, quarterly sales on one of your most important products suddenly decreases, or your inventory across a whole category has surged. If one metric changes, it may not be significant, but someone needs to monitor whole categories for fluctuations that may be a weak signal.
  1. Unfulfilled business and other potential opportunities. Sometimes you might be astonished to notice something that has not yet occurred, and therefore signals to you an opportunity, like new transportation alternatives. Taxi or bus companies are often slow to recognize a new popular travel location based on population shifts or resort communities.
  1. Broad disruptive events. Everyone notes macro changes, but the weak or secondary implications are often overlooked. Look hard for unanticipated consequences of events like new government regulations on financial processes, changes in environmental patterns, or sociological changes in other countries. First responders are the winners.

  1. Premonitions, anxieties, and/or intuitions. Weak signals may be even more subtle or insidious. Perhaps your assistant mentions that your phone has been ringing much less lately. Or you sense that some of your best people are getting bored. Such inklings and realizations can be valuable warnings of significant impending change.

All weak signals need to be treated with a continuous innovation mindset and urgency, to stay competitive and current. Here is the recommended five-step approach to thinking in new boxes:

  • Doubting everything you think you know.

  • Probing the possible issues to fully understand what is happening.

  • Divergent thinking to create many new boxes, concepts, and hypotheses.

  • Convergence through testing and validating back to a small number of viable changes.

  • Re-evaluating relentlessly for the agility to survive.

New entrepreneurs are notoriously great at capitalizing on new opportunities, both weak and strong. But nurturing this ability after the first burst of creativity, to accomplish the necessary pivots, and keep from getting seduced by their own initial success, is a more rare commodity, even in the startup community.

If you aren’t reacting to weak signals almost every day in this era of fast-paced change, then you are missing opportunities and falling behind. What new boxes are you implementing these days?

Marty Zwilling