Wednesday, June 26, 2019

5 Reality Checks On Running A Charitable Organization

Charitable-organization-startupA common misconception I often hear in the startup world is that non-profits are easy and safe, since they don’t have to pay taxes, and they don’t have to make a profit for their shareholders. In reality, from the feedback I get from non-profit executives, exactly the opposite is true.

Technically speaking, in the United States, a non-profit corporation or association is one which has been exempted from Federal income taxes by meeting the criteria set out Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code, most notably religious, educational, and charitable entities like the Salvation Army. Other countries have similar exemptions for similar organizations.

Yet even a non-profit has to make a profit on everything it sells, in order to cover operating expenses (salaries, offices, equipment, research, travel, etc.), unless it relies wholly on donations. Even then, the business and leadership efforts to solicit and manage donations cost real money, and may be more difficult than the marketing and sales jobs of most startups.

Here are the common reasons I hear that make starting and running a non-profit actually more difficult than starting and running a conventional business:

  1. Creating a non-profit 501(c) business is a long and arduous process. You can start an LLC for-profit in less than a month, often for less than $100. A non-profit 501(c)(3) status requires filing IRS Form 1023. For a serious entity, the form must be accompanied by an $850 filing fee, and may take as long as two years to complete successfully.
  1. Investors are not interested in non-profits. Even non-profits usually require startup funds for facilities, people, and inventory. But because they can’t project excellent returns on investment, no investors will likely be interested. Also, they can’t sell shares on the stock exchange to raise money, even though both the NYSE and Nasdaq are non-profits. That means they need to grow organically, or find a philanthropist.
  1. Reputable non-profits need to keep their operating expenses low. This usually means keeping wages low, and no fancy facilities. Thus it’s hard to attract top-notch talent, premium locations, and first-class marketing campaigns. Managing volunteers, and running any organization with these constraints is a challenge.
  1. Results are always subject to public scrutiny. Most startups, as private companies, don’t have to disclose their salaries and spending habits to anyone other than the IRS. Non-profits have to answer to watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator for how much of their proceeds actually make it to the causes they proclaim to support.
  1. Some laudable non-profit missions are hard to sell to supporters. A common complaint from many non-profits is that both government and private funders would rather spend their dollars on ‘sexy’ causes such as children’s charities, cancer, and heart disease, rather than long-term causes like global warming and erasing hunger in Africa.

Unfortunately, misuse scenarios, like the lavish lifestyles of leaders and scams, have given the non-profit environment a bad name, making things even tougher. Even reputable organizations, supporting veterans, the police, firefighters or children, often raise eyebrows, with alarming real data like these from the America's Worst Charities report on a popular activist news website:

  • Kids Wish Network – 2.5% distributed cash aid from $137.9 million collected
  • Breast Cancer Relief Foundation – 2.2% distributed cash aid from $63.9 million collected
  • Firefighters Charitable Foundation - 7.4% distributed cash aid from $62.8 million collected
  • National Veterans Service Fund - 7.8% distributed cash aid from $70.2 million collected
  • Children’s Cancer Fund - 4.6% distributed cash aid from $43.7 million collected

These numbers vividly show that non-profits with good causes can fail to achieve satisfying results, in the same way that for-profit startups often fail, even with good products. Despite these challenges, my advice is still to follow your heart and your passion when starting a business.

You shouldn’t choose a non-profit, or a for-profit, because one seems easier, or one can make more money. Do it because you love the cause, the service, or the product, and the challenges will get lost in the satisfaction and results you achieve along the way.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, June 24, 2019

9 Keys To Effective Communication In Today’s Business

Bulletin-Board-List-Business-StickiesWhen was the last time you changed how you communicate to your team and to your customers? The way you deliver your message is key to maximizing its impact, or even reaching the intended audience. Don’t count on people reading your Annual Report for breaking news. Your team needs to hear from you on a regular basis, on a channel they can relate to easily and quickly.

Thus, top business leaders now deliver requests to their team via text messages, and even expect updates from top national leaders via Twitter. As a business advisor, I still find owners and entrepreneurs who have never sent a business text message, written a blog, or produced a small video to update their constituents, or highlight a key message.

If you know someone in this category (including yourself), here are some key principles, from my own experience, that you can help me pass along for the benefit all of us:

  1. Every message must be keyed to your expected receiver. The limited channels for delivering a message have exploded in recent years, with social media, the Internet, and smartphones. Your team and customers will judge you by how timely and effectively you deliver the message. For example, I find that millennials rarely read emails or policies.

  2. Use professional wording and tone in all business messages. Even with the new channels, don’t forget that business is not casual for your constituents. Skip any urge to use abbreviations, slang, or emoticons. Make the context clear, and keep the content on point. People still expect separation between business and personal relationships.

  3. Build a communication culture of engagement and participation. The days of command and control are gone, and you can’t depend on your title and the management hierarchy to amplify and relay the message. For example, messages are better delivered these days via informal weekly “town hall” meetings, rather than official CEO updates.

  4. Minimize the use of meetings to communicate. Employees already spend up to 70 percent of their day in meetings, so meetings should be minimized and reserved for two-way decision-making opportunities, rather than delivering a message. With modern tools, you can deliver messages in a much more palatable format, without lost productivity.

  5. Use every message as an opportunity to highlight people. Everyone listens to messages where they expect to see and hear team members get recognized and rewarded. Even if you have bad news to deliver, try to couch it in the context of some positives and extraordinary effort. Always talk to the people, rather than about them.

  6. Remember, your actions speak louder than your words. It’s more important than ever that you be visible and approachable. Your team wants to feel comfortable that your actions are consistent with your message, and you are empathetic to their needs and feelings. Even customers these days expect to see and hear you online and in public.

  7. Pack each message with focused value to the recipients. People lose interest quickly receiving generic or irrelevant messages. Make sure every message you deliver is factual and valuable to your audience, and delivered in a compact and relatable fashion. Don’t try to pack multiple important messages into a single communication.

  8. Always communicate as a person, rather than a business entity. Real engagement depends on your team’s understanding of your commitment to them and what the business goals mean to you. Business names and brands are important from a marketing and consistency standpoint, but insiders, and even customers, want to be part of a family.

  9. Follow-up your message delivery with a question opportunity. By asking people for a personal perspective, or questions, you show inclusiveness and concern for people. In addition, their feedback and questions give you important information for follow-up and future actions. Overall, this is important to maintain engagement and relationships.

New communication tools have made great leaps forward in utility and potential impact, just like products. In addition, modern business leaders have raised the bar on employee and customer expectations. Just as you regularly update your products and processes, you need to enhance your communication style and tools to maximize your leadership. Your success depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/11/2019 ***

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

6 Clues To The Right Employees For Your New Venture

job-interview-innovationEntrepreneurs are usually highly creative and innovative, but many innovative people are not entrepreneurs. Since it takes a team of people to build a great company, the challenge is to find that small percentage of innovative people, and then nurture the tendency, rather than stifle it.

A few years ago I read a classic book “The Rudolph Factor,” by Cyndi Laurin and Craig Morningstar, which is all about finding the bright lights that can drive innovation in your business. The story most specifically targets big companies, like Boeing, but the concepts are just as applicable to a startup with one or more employees.

The core message is that real innovation and competitive advantage are more people-based than product or process-based. Every good entrepreneur needs a people-centric focus to ferret out creativity and innovation in his team, and to build a sustainable competitive advantage.

The authors observe that people who behave as mentors tend to have an uncanny ability to recognize and nurture people who have innate capabilities along these lines. Here are six of the characteristics they and you should look for:

  1. Problem solvers. Innovators are naturally creative and love new challenges. Some may appear a bit eccentric to people around them. They generally promote unconventional ways to solve problems and have an easier time than most at identifying the root cause of a problem.
  1. Passionate and inquisitive. These team members are passionate about their work and light up when talking about their role or a particular project they are working on. They often ask “Why?” even when it is not the most popular question to be asked.
  1. Challenge the status quo. They believe that questioning is of value and benefit to the organization. This is also how they discover what they need in order to solve a problem, so they aren’t rocking the boat just for the sake of rocking the boat.
  1. Connect the dots. Innovators have the ability to quickly synthesize many variables to solve problems or make improvements. To others, it may appear as if their ideas come out of the blue or that there is no rhyme or reason behind their thinking.
  1. See the big picture. They tend to be natural systems thinkers and see the whole forest rather than a single tree … or just the bark on the tree. They may express frustration if people around them are having conversations about the bark, rather than the forest.
  1. Collaborative and action oriented. They are not loners, and have the ability and confidence to turn their ideas into action. They act on their ideas, sometimes without knowing how they will accomplish them. The “how” is always revealed in time.

Your challenge is to go forth with this new awareness and thinking, to find and mentor those bright lights that will drive innovation and competitive advantage. The next step after finding innovators is to integrate them into your team. A key aspect is establishing a team-based culture that is a safe environment to share and execute ideas.

In fact, this safe and nurturing environment has to extend beyond a single team to the highest levels of the organization. It should embody a style of leadership that is essentially a commitment to the success of the people around you. That opens the door for anyone in the organization to lead from where they are, rather than waiting for management to “do something.”

Innovation is at the very heart of every successful startup. Everyone wins when you look at things very differently and wonder “why”, not “why not.” What better way to extend this power than to surround yourself with more highly creative people? Then you can make the world a place of possibilities, as well as probabilities.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

5 Keys To Growing What You Have Planted As A Startup

marketing-community-gardenHave you noticed that more companies beg you to participate in their business today? It started with an email survey on your last stay at their hotel, but now includes requests for online product reviews, to social media input on the design of future products. They do it because engaged customers become loyal advocates and buyers. Welcome to the “Participation Age” of marketing.

Some say it’s happening today because it’s new, and technology makes it possible. Others say it stems from Intrinsic Motivation Theory, which asserts that people have always been motivated by a desire to join, share, take part, connect, and engage, and find that experience rewarding. In any case, your business needs it today to rise above the crowd and edge out competitors.

If you want all the specifics, you must follow the new wave of marketing experts, like Daina Middleton, and her classic book “Marketing in the Participation Age.” I’m most intrigued by one aspect that I believe relates to every business - the move from a hunter-based metaphor to a gardening metaphor – nurturing what we have planted, based on the following five rules:

  1. Embrace test-and-learn values. That means constantly trying new marketing elements, understanding quickly what works, and immediately scaling, then moving on to the next alternative. Nurturing marketers reserve a minimum of 10 percent of their marketing budgets for testing and learning. It’s a dynamic customer environment out there.
  1. Innovate; don’t perfect. The nurture approach leverages from the best of the moment, quickly adding value before someone else does it first. The concept of continual innovation is crucial, because the best may not last long. Pick something that is good enough and embrace the flaw as an opportunity to learn. Adapt quickly and move on.
  1. Act quickly and motivate others, including participants, to act on your behalf. Motivate people, including your customers, to do something to improve your marketing today. Inspire your organization to act quickly and create an environment that rewards moving quickly. Estimate and act; because if you don’t, your competitors will.
  1. Mix and blend; don’t invent. Partner with others to create unique solutions that might benefit your brand, product, or solution. Choose an agency partner who is pushing the envelope and remember to consider technology, media, and creative opportunities. Look for elegant blends of all three, not an elegant single media solution.
  1. Embrace risks and champion failures. Prepare to learn from mistakes and accept that failures are inevitable in finding success. Partner with agencies that are willing to put skin in the game and get paid only if they deliver results. It often takes several failures to find opportunities that yield the best results.

In the current world of escalating change and information overload, marketing is not a luxury, and participative marketing can be the key to success, even for very technical solutions. We often see a mediocre product with effective marketing outperform a good product with little or poor marketing. Big marketing budgets alone and single blockbuster campaigns don’t assure results.

The message is simple. Ask your customers and partners for ideas, try them all, measure results, and scale up the ones that work. The participants, not the marketers, are in control, and they are demanding a relationship, not just a marketing message. If they don’t find value in the relationship, they move on. The choices and opportunities are theirs.

The situation is not unlike the attraction of current major social media sites, like Facebook, successful multiplayer game sites, like Activision, and today’s real world sports and politics. Gen-Y members were born participants, and they are a major force in every business domain. People thrive on continually learning, feeling empowered, and providing input to the world they live in.

So if you are a startup, or even a mature business, you need to nurture these intrinsic desires and develop more meaningful customer relationships that yield greater revenues. Marketing is no longer a one-way conversation. Does your marketing include listening as well as talking?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, June 21, 2019

5 Elements Of Innovation That Are Not Product Related

Elon-Musk-non-product-innovationHaving a breakthrough idea or technology alone does not assure business success. “If we build it, they will come” may have worked as a movie theme for Kevin Costner, but as an investor, I tell entrepreneurs a great solution is not enough. Successful businesses require innovative people, who have built an abundance of innovation capital, to win support and resources for their ideas.

Professional investors are adept at looking for innovation capital, beyond the passionate pitch. Of course, the best evidence is you have done it before, and succeeded more often than you failed. That’s why Elon Musk, and a few others you could name, don’t have any trouble getting investor attention – they have the reputation and networks to successfully commercialize creative ideas.

I saw this message illustrated well in a new book, “Innovation Capital,” by Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr, and Curtis Lefrandt, who all have excellent credentials in the real world of business, as well as the academic world, through their innovation consultancy and access to key business leaders. I like their summary of five key components of innovation capital that we should strive to maximize:

  1. Human capital: forward thinking, problem solving, persuasion. A key skill everyone looks for is your ability to engage in mental time travel to envision opportunities before others do. Then you need creative problem solving to come up with a solution, and the ability to persuade others of the viability and value, and to join you on the journey.

    You can enhance your human capital by constantly updating yourself on new trends, social movements, and new technologies, to get a sense of where things are headed. Commit time to thinking deeply about the future, focus on problem solving by first principles, and practice continuous learning in areas where you desire expertise.

  2. Social capital: influencers, leaders, investor relationships. Successful business innovators excel at networking, through both strong and weak social ties, to get the resources and support they need. They nurture connections to other innovators and entrepreneurs, financial benefactors, organizational leaders, and potential customers.

    Remember that in business, sometimes who you know is more important than what you know. You can always use more social connections, but to be effective, think through your networking objectives first, and categorize the contacts you already have. Use social media channels, as well as conferences, to develop and maintain relationships.

  3. Reputation capital: visible track record for innovation. What counts most here is that you have been a founder, rather than a contributor. You may have founded a new process, or built a reputation for innovation by taking on challenging and visible assignments, or by associating with prestigious individuals and getting their support.

    Reputation doesn’t come without favorable exposure. Many business owners I know are obsessed with countering any negative information, but don’t work on getting positive visibility and endorsements. They don’t highlight their scrappiness - their dogged spirit that allows them to get a lot done with a few resources – a great innovation reputation.

  4. Impression amplifiers: actions to get attention and credibility. Most impression amplifiers fall within one of these seven major categories: broadcasting, signaling, storytelling, materializing, committing, comparing, and creating scarcity. Successful innovators use these effectively for the power to influence the behavior of others.

    To amplify your impressions and win support for your ideas, you need to focus on a fundamental human need and make it personal. Elon Musk does this masterfully when he talks about SpaceX going to Mars to assure the future of mankind, and learn about the origins of life. Then he commits that he intends to be among the first to move to Mars.

  5. Innovation leadership: vision, inspiration, attracting talent. Investors and others look for evidence of the virtuous cycle of innovation leadership – a lofty vision attracts better talent, producing better products and memorable customer experiences, attracting key customers, building a stronger brand, which attracts the best talent. The cycle repeats.

    Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn has always talked about the company vision to connect everyone on the planet and to “create economic opportunity for the global workforce of three billion people.” As you create an innovative product, put an equal effort into a compelling vision.

It’s time for all you entrepreneurs and business professionals to take stock of your own situation and decide if you have the innovation capital to win the support you need from bosses, colleagues, partners, and investors, for your next breakthrough idea or invention. If not, now you know the places to start. We need you, and I’m convinced we all win when you win.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/07/2019 ***

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

5 Key Attributes That Foretell New Venture Survival

business-successEvery startup wants to be a predictable success, yet so few ever achieve this enviable position. In reality, getting there is not a random walk, and requires an understanding of the stages that every business must navigate and the organizational characteristics necessary at each stage.

Les McKeown, in his book from a while back, “Predictable Success” outlines these stages and characteristics for any business. He points out, for example, that every business should anticipate the early struggle stage, a possible fun stage, and probably a turbulent whitewater phase, before they can hope for the predictable success stage.

This predictable success stage is defined as a point where you can set and consistently achieve your goals and objectives with a consistent, predictable degree of success. Unlike previous stages, where you may not know how or why you have survived, you now know why you are successful, and can use that information to sustain growth in the long term.

His studies show that companies at this stage show five key characteristics, which I believe every startup should strive to achieve from the very beginning:

  1. Decision making. The ability to readily make and consistently implement decisions. You need a sense of flow – decisions are made without the decision-making process placing a burden on the organization, or the leader. Decision making is delegated and decentralized, freeing management to concentrate on what they can do best, rather than micromanaging others.
  1. Goal setting. The ability to readily set and consistently achieve goals, and really being in control. It has to happen seamlessly, as part of the day-to-day operation of the business, not as the resource-sucking, do-it-at-the-last-minute event that it is in so many organizations. Goals are hit more than missed, and people are willing to take timely, corrective action.
  1. Alignment. Structure, process and people are in harmony. Otherwise, a lot of time and energy is expended by people because they have to manipulate the organization’s processes and/or structure in order to get things done. There is just the right amount of process and structure to efficiently get the job done.
  1. Accountability. Employees become self-accountable, in addition to being externally accountable to others. When empowered to make decisions of genuine import about their own jobs and responsibilities, and given the resources and freedom required, each employee personally buys in to the overall success.
  1. Ownership. Employees take personal responsibility for their actions and outcomes. This results is everyone pulling together, rather than by the manager group constantly “pushing.” There is a deep sense of co-dependency, where managers are dependent on their teams for delivering, and employees are dependent on managers for guidance.

As challenging as it may seem to achieve these characteristics in your business, the bigger challenge is to retain them for the long haul. Many businesses slowly slide into a treadmill stage, where they become over-systematized, or on toward the big rut where creativity disappears (“the way we have always done thing”), on into the death rattle, where the market moves faster than the company.

As a startup, you need to walk before you can run. That means starting early to practice and implement the techniques that will lead to predictable success. Remember that the lynchpin of the entire framework comes down to your own personal ownership and self-accountability. There is no room here for excuses or half-way efforts.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, June 17, 2019

5 Reasons Business Leaders Are Short On Relationships

short-on-relationshipsIf you are a business professional or owner today, success is more and more about relationships. People relationships are the key to career growth, more than results, and customer relationships build brands, rather than the other way around. In this era of communication overload with many misleading messages, we have learned to count first on the people we know well, even virtually.

In fact, I believe that for all of us, relationships are our most important asset. Yet I find in my business advisory activities that busy entrepreneurs and professionals, especially the introverts like me, find it hard to spend the necessary time networking and nurturing the relationships they need to get ahead. The result is slow growth, frustration, and exhaustion, rather than success.

I recently saw some real insight on the barriers to building relationships, and how to get around them, in a new book, “Success Is in Your Sphere,” by Zvi Band. He has a proven track record, despite being an introvert himself, of building and managing relationship-oriented businesses and tools, and is now a well-recognized speaker and writer on this subject.

Here is a summary of the barriers we both still see all too often in the business world, with some thoughts on how to overcome them:

  1. Many fear human limits in number of relationships. It’s true, we all have limits on the number of relationships we can manage. According to studies, intimate relationships are limited to about five, but most people can easily handle 50 to 150 or more professional ones, if they work at it. That’s more than enough to put you ahead of your competition.

    In fact, you can get far beyond that number if you take advantage of the tools, process, and technology out there today, such as social media, text messaging, email, customer relationship systems (CRM), and discipline yourself to prioritize relationship building.

  2. Most let existing relationships decay over time. That’s a natural human reaction to accepting new relationships, as required by normal daily activities. The challenge is to continually refresh important old ones, and to proactively add key new ones on a regular basis. Busy business professionals often tell me they are too busy to allow networking.

    I recommend setting aside some time each week for networking, including phone calls to key advisors, lunches, emailing follow-up to contacts, and regular attendance at business and industry events, to reconnect to old relationships, as well as build new ones.

  3. Our social and relationship needs change as we age. The general trend shows an increase in relationship network size during adolescence and young adulthood, but a “continuous decrease” afterward. Many business professionals also feel more confident about their own knowledge and abilities over time, so tend to rely on fewer relationships.

    Don’t forget that the world of business and technology is changing rapidly around you, so the ability to change and keep up is becoming more and more the key to your success. Top business executives, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are always proactively seeking new relationships in areas that are relevant to their business interests.

  4. Good relationships are harder to decipher than ever. First of all, the age of the Internet makes every relationship search a global affair, with thousands of candidates. The good news is the wealth of alternatives; the bad news is the time and effort required to select the right relationship, and then keep it going. Sorting it all out is the challenge.

    Fortunately we have Facebook, Skype, and other social media, with video, voice, and easy travel to help you build and maintain connections, anywhere in the world. Smart professionals use these facilities to hone their perspective, and get the help they need.

  5. Short-term thinking overwhelms long-term value. As humans, we are instinctively wired to prefer short-term gains to long-term benefits. Some of your best potential relationships may take years to bear fruit, which poses a challenge when we’re predisposed to urgent issues rather than long-term strategies and future opportunities.

    My advice in business is to adopt a portfolio strategy for relationships, as you would as an investor in stocks or startups, with the understanding that there will be winners and losers over time, as the world changes. Don’t just invest in the passion of the moment.

The message here is that relationships are your key business asset, and not just an ancillary pleasure or burden. Keep them high on your priority list, and work every one with key tools and discipline. When leveraged properly, relationships can be your most effective sustainable competitive advantage in growing your business or your career. Make the investment today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/03/2019 ***

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