Friday, December 9, 2022

8 Activities To Satisfy Your Boss You Are Accountable

Brainstorming over paper. Original public domain image from Wikimedia CommonsOne of the attributes that I often recommend to the business professionals and entrepreneurs I mentor is to always be totally accountable for your actions and ideas. I too often see people who are quick to make excuses, blame failures on peers or customers, or see management as the reason for their lack of productivity. Lack of accountability can permeate an entire organization.

In any business, accountability ideally starts at the top. For example, Howard Schultz at Starbucks was quick to accept accountability for a racial bias incident a few years ago in one of his stores in Philadelphia, and he shut down all his stores for an anti-bias training session, rather than try to blame a single store employee or overall cultural conditions.

Of course, at all levels of an organization or business, there are opportunities for accountability that can make or break your career or your leadership perception in the eyes of others. Here are my key recommendations for how to prepare and what to do in more mundane business environments and organizations:

  1. Make sure your activities are aligned with business goals. Personal accountability must be aligned with business requirements, or your performance will never be appreciated. The same is true with team goals and expectations. In other words, accountability has to lead to win-win outcomes for maximum business and career value.

    In my experience, developers can be so committed to a technology, such as hydrogen engines for cars, such that they may be unwilling to change as the business pivots for market reasons. In this context, accountability for a successful engine will never happen.

  2. Document plans and progress, with checkpoints. To the best of your ability, make sure that all accountability assessments are based on actual facts, rather than emotions and dreams. Make sure you set the expectations and responsibilities, and measure your results. Don’t expect your manager and other leaders to always see your contributions.

    Accountability requires that you manage your own efforts, as well as keep others up to speed. Don’t allow yourself to get focused on a specific task, at the expense of other work. Setting your own metrics, and measuring yourself, will facilitate accountability.

  3. Communicate ongoing needs and changes early. None of us can be accountable if we don’t know what is expected, or don’t have the required tools or training. It is up to you to communicate your needs and expectations clearly, before and during every assignment, rather than after a failure. Don’t pretend or actually be the victim.

  4. Generously give credit to others where credit is due. Don’t be reluctant to recognize the contribution of others to positive results that you are accountable for. Also, it helps to work collaboratively with your team and other teams in the organization. Recognize that some decisions and control have to be delegated in complex business organizations.

  5. Provide continuous improvement feedback to all. Accountable people always provide positive feedback to all concerned, without assigning blame or breaking relationships. Your goal should always be continuous learning and improvement. We all need feedback on what was done well, and what changes are proposed for the next time.

  6. Be available for mentoring and coaching to others. Accountability means a willingness to accept responsibility for sharing what you know with others on the team and helping them find and use the tools they need to complete the job. It also means investing in relationship and trust building so they support you in a time of your need.

  7. Be a proactive role model for team accountability. Don’t wait for someone else to lead the way in accepting responsibility for team results. Show them the way by being willing to declare positive accountability before being forced into a corner, or taking a defensive posture. You may find that your team, and your management, quickly rallies for you.

  8. Look at work assignments from a management perspective. Practice empathy by stepping aside to look at your work as other people see it. You have to be accountable to their expectations, as well as your own. Ask for the insights of peers and other leaders, and really listen to their perspectives without being judgmental, emotional, or defensive.

In all cases, these strategies to improve your ability to be accountable will also improve your personal ability to be productive and feel real satisfaction from your work. The business will thrive from the things you get done, and the learning it gains, including from your failures. The result is a win-win situation for everyone, even in today’s fast-moving and rapidly changing environment.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/24/2022 ***

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

8 Strategies To Drive Your Startup To Profitability

profitable-business-growthA common pain of startups after an exhilarating first surge of early adopters is a long and frustrating plateau of slow growth, where it seems like nothing you do will get your business to profitability. Too many entrepreneurs don’t know what to do at this point, largely accounting for a disappointing 50 percent of startups that fail in the first five years, according to InvoiceTracker.

Some make big mistakes, such as Webvan expanding too fast with a huge infrastructure, and Pets.com, trying to grow the business with a negative margin, under the mistaken assumption that winning customers is more important than making a profit. Others do far too little, assuming the viral effect and word-of-mouth will soon kick in, and sales will suddenly grow exponentially.

In any case, it’s no fun to be stuck in this stage, struggling to make payroll, and dealing with impatient creditors and unhappy investors. First you need to take consolation from the fact that you are not alone, and more importantly you need to implement an active growth and marketing plan to include the following initiatives:

  1. Ramp-up visibility and strategic alliances. It’s easy to get so pre-occupied with handling the business rollout that you forget to maintain and increase your social media interactions, search engine optimization efforts, and highlighting positive customer reviews on your website. Continually add new marketing and distribution partners.
  1. Real growth always requires real marketing. Word-of-mouth and social media may get you started, but there is no substitute these days for special promotions, webinars, presence at trade shows, and actively calling on decision makers. There is no magic lever for growth, so several initiatives are required, with metrics to assess value returned.
  1. Ask every employee to focus on sales. This starts with multiple messages from the top that growth is now the highest job priority, and key to survival. Openly reward employees who make the extra effort, champion cost-cutting issues, and enhance the sales process. Ask everyone to be an advocate of the business to their friends and connections.
  1. Personally optimize every cash flow transaction. Resist the urge to delegate accounting decisions, under the assumption that incoming revenue takes the pressure off. Now is the time to take advantage of volume discounts and deferred payment plans. Many entrepreneurs forget that the growth phase may be your tightest squeeze on cash.
  1. Increase the pipeline and the conversion rate. Now is the time to formalize lead-generation efforts, and initiate efforts to maximize the conversion rate to sales closure. Real growth requires new and innovative ways to find customers, as well as old-fashioned advertising and email blasts. Shorten the close cycle to grow faster.
  1. Introduce automation consistent with growth rates. Manual processes and people are always the most expensive to scale, so every process needs metrics to determine when automation is appropriate. Some startups hire more people to delay automation, or spend money wildly on new tools for the future. Both are strategies for business failure.
  1. Introduce new products and enhancements every month. One of your best sources of growth is existing customers, who are always looking for more opportunities to buy, and new offerings. Capitalize on competitor weaknesses that you can fill with minimal new investment. Actively listen to customer feedback, and don’t be a one-trick pony.
  1. Aggressively enter new markets and sales channels. If your local market isn’t giving you the growth you expected, it may be time to expedite your expansion to new major cities or export opportunities. If your website isn’t pulling in the growth you need, expand to Amazon and other channels. Growth requires market innovation as well as product.

An entrepreneur who has struggled to fund and build a dream solution may think they can relax when the first wave of customers come in. Unfortunately, the challenges of scaling a business, and making it profitable, often last longer than the product development phase. The good news is these challenges are not rocket science, so anyone can do it. Don’t give up your dream too early.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 5, 2022

8 Key Business Growth Burdens You May Not Anticipate

carry-the-worldEvery new entrepreneur who has not spent years in corporate life has the advantage of an unbiased look at business opportunities, but at the same time has the disadvantage of missing critical business experiences that can cost them dearly in their first startup venture. In my experience, building a successful business is more difficult than building an innovative solution.

Fortunately, despite their lack of basic business experience, the destined-to-be-great entrepreneurs never give up, following Bill Gates after his first failure with Traf-O-Data, and Jeff Bezos after early failure with his online auction site. All too many others are so discouraged or financially destroyed by their business learning experiences that they never try again.

Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work and learn for many years in both the corporate environment (IBM), as well as the exploding Silicon Valley startup environment of the 90’s. As an advisor to many startups since that time, here is my list of key business growth challenges that every first-time entrepreneur may not anticipate:

  1. It takes relationships to make a business work. An innovative solution is necessary but not sufficient to build a business. Businesses require people relationships, to find the right team, investors, contract vendors, and attract customers. As an introvert and a techy, I know well the challenges of building relationships in today’s competitive world.
  1. Startups don’t come with formal training courses. New entrepreneurs quickly find that what they learned in business school is no substitute for real-world business experience and training. Larger enterprises let you learn as you go, with minimal risk, and they pay for leadership training, employee management, and new project management tools.
  1. A successful business is a long-term effort. Entrepreneurs are an optimistic and passionate group, who normally expect their idea to go viral soon, and success to follow shortly thereafter. They aren’t mentally prepared for the long-term grind, with repeated tough challenges along the way. It’s a 24/7 job with no time off for vacation or fun.
  1. Personal finances must be kept separate from the business. Being an entrepreneur is a lifestyle, making it hard to isolate the startup finances from family financial stability and future retirement requirements. Startups don’t come with pension, health, or 401(k) plans included. Startup setbacks can easily cost you your house and credit rating.
  1. Building a startup is more about love than money. People with experience in big businesses have learned that you won’t be happy even if well paid, unless you enjoy the job. Entrepreneurs who love to invent new things, but hate business, need to find the right partners before embarking down the path to a new business.
  1. Not having a predictable income is an ongoing source of stress. People don’t appreciate a regular paycheck until they don’t have one. Entrepreneurs never know when they will be hit by technology advances, new competitors, economic downturns, or loss of a major customer. Early funding is a full-time effort, and it’s no fun for anyone.
  1. Running a business is lonely at the top. Once you have formally established a startup with you as the CEO, all former teammates will see you in a different light as the boss. Quickly, it will be difficult to get unbiased input, and everyone will wait for you to make the final decisions. It’s hard to find someone to share your fears and challenges with.
  1. Peer perceptions of you as an entrepreneur are not always positive. It’s popular today as a young entrepreneur to talk about your dreams and initiatives, and everyone seems to look up to someone running their own business. Later, colleagues with jobs in large corporations may look down on you as a person without job security or a career.

In all cases, I recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs that they spend some time first working for another startup, or in a corporate environment, if they aren’t absolutely certain about their lifestyle preferences. Life is too short to spend most of it in stress and pain, handling challenges you never anticipated, even if you are convinced that you can change the world.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, December 4, 2022

10 Mindset Elements That Tag You As An Entrepreneur

successful-entrepreneur-mindsetAs a startup advisor and investor, I’ve met many aspiring entrepreneurs, and I often get asked the question, “I have a great idea for a startup – do you agree that it real potential?” They don’t know that most experts agree the person is more important than the idea, yet I’ve never been asked, “I have a great idea for a startup – do you agree that I have real potential as an entrepreneur?”

Nevertheless, I’ve given a good bit of thought to some questions I might ask, or you should ask yourself, to get some indication of whether you have the right stuff to succeed and be happy in the entrepreneur lifestyle. Here are ten sample considerations that I believe will reveal positive indications of your potential as an entrepreneur, and also indicate that you will select good ideas:

  1. You see creating a business as a fun challenge. Many techies and inventors I know hate the thought of running a business – their fun and challenge comes from creating the innovative solution. For these, I recommend that they find a partner first who is willing and able to run a business. “If we build it, they will come” is not a viable startup strategy.
  1. You tend to ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission. This attitude indicates that you are comfortable making decisions, and ready to be your own boss - a major prerequisite for succeeding in any entrepreneurial endeavor. Of course, you do need to consider how often that strategy has worked for you, and how often it backfired.
  1. Making big money excites you, but is not your major driver. If you are dreaming of an opportunity to get rich quick, the entrepreneur route is not for you. Most great founders lived on Ramen noodles, without taking a salary, for longer than they like to remember. For them, money is a positive indicator of success, but not an end in itself.
  1. You relish the opportunity to set your own goals and targets. Real entrepreneurs are self-motivated, and hate to be driven by someone else’s deadlines and priorities. Arbitrary rewards, like salary bonuses or vacation perks, seem to just get in the way of achieving really great results. The fun is in the journey, as well as the destination.
  1. You treasure your breadth of interests, rather than your depth. To build a startup, you have to enjoy the broad range of challenges, from technical to marketing to sales to personnel. Big corporations need specialists, which is why most entrepreneurs move on to start their next business when their first startup gets too large.
  1. You enjoy building relationships as well as products. A startup is no place for the Lone Ranger. An entrepreneur has to be as adept at building a team, finding the right external partners, and finding customers, as building the solution. At the very least, you need to nurture a trusting relationship with a complementary partner to get things going.
  1. The perks of a big title and corner office are not important to you. Most startup founders are happy to work out of their garage or home office, where they can dress comfortably, have no set schedule, and interact easily with family and friends. With the Internet and easy global communication, title and offices are not competitive advantages.
  1. You see yourself as more of a do-er than a dreamer. People who pride themselves as the “idea” person most often fail as the lead entrepreneur. Startups are rarely at a loss for ideas, but always need a good problem solver to tackle the latest challenge. Businesses are all about implementation, production, and processes, rather than dreams.
  1. You usually keep your cool, even in tough situations. Entrepreneurs need to be passionate without being too emotional. The realities of starting a business are not all under your control, and partners and competitors with don’t always play fair. Your team and customers need to see you as a stable leader, not an unpredictable tyrant.
  1. Not afraid to actively listen as well as talk. Good entrepreneurs have an ego, but they are able to keep it in check. Selling your idea or product requires an understanding of the view of others, and the willingness to change based on customer feedback. Even the most famous entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates, has a trusted advisor like Warren Buffett.

If you recognize yourself positively in most of these characterizations, then I recommend the entrepreneur lifestyle for you. There is no better time, with the cost of entry being at an all-time low, and the public image of an entrepreneur at an all-time high. Startup investors and customers alike are waiting to line up behind you. And I’m already sure your idea has great potential.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 3, 2022

7 Steps To Creating An Effective Personal Brand Today

personal-brand-brochureIt’s been happening for some time, but business changes, accelerated by the recent pandemic, have highlighted the need for all of us to review our positions, image, and satisfaction at work. As a business consultant, I see and hear all around me people questioning their current and future career interests and growth, and wondering what they can do to make a decision and prepare.

Since the start of the digital revolution several years ago, when the Internet and social media gave everyone instant access to you as well as your business, I have recommended personal branding as a basis for survival and thriving in this new world. People need to believe in you, as well as your positioning and brand, for you to thrive in the business world today.

I was pleased to see these personal branding messages highlighted and confirmed in a new book, “The New Brand You,” by branding guru Catherine Kaputa. I add my insights here to her guide to uncovering your own unique value proposition, building a positioning strategy, and becoming a valuable brand:

  1. Assess whether your career path is on trend. Futurists predict continuous dynamic change in the workforce – the rise of new “work” and the demise of traditional roles. They predict many of us will be changing jobs multiple times, either by choice or necessity, in this new world. Ask yourself, “What is the future for what I do? Do I need new skills?”

    From my perspective, you should be aware that many pundits believe that now is the time to be working at a startup or small business, or starting your own business. These now provide better quality, better paying, and more exciting jobs than big companies.

  2. Imagine your best future with digital credentials. Now may be the time to build new credentials is this digital age by taking time for education courses and attending digital conferences. For example, with a strong background in traditional marketing, you may reposition yourself as a digital marketing expert, with a much better opportunity.

    The key to winning in this digital age is having more data, and managing it effectively. The days of managing your role or your business by emotion and gut feel are gone. I recommend that it is time to tune-in to all the data and analysis sources you can find.

  3. Launch a personal marketing plan for visibility. In this new world of work, visibility is more important than ever. Don’t assume your good work will get noticed and speak for itself, especially in this new world of remote work. Build a personal marketing plan, as you would for a new product, including regular highlight reports, progress, and results.

    Remember that the person who knows how best to market yourself is you. Start now to set yourself apart as a leader and generous citizen of your professional communities, and you can take yourself much further than you may have dreamed. Don’t be too humble.

  4. Ramp up face-to-face time with key contacts. Don’t be limited by only non-real-time communications, implied with emails, texts, and online forums. You need to step out of your comfort zone to socialize, meet new people, and collaborate with peers, company leaders, and mentors. Career enhancing relationships still need real-time communication.

  5. Look for opportunities to articulate your value. Humility may be a virtue in some realms, but not today in business. With the outside world, that could mean you need to maintain a personal website, be an active member of industry groups, and show value in social media profiles. Internally, you may need a video summary report of monthly value.

  6. Seek strong internal and external alliances. There is more truth today to the old saying that who knows you and trusts you is more important than what you know. For increased productivity and advancement, you need business friends both inside and outside your company, not just personal friends. Seek expert mentors and always evaluate feedback.

  7. Accept change as the new world of work. Now is NOT the time to resist change, or argue that the old way is still the best. You need to be proactive in seeking new roles, using new tools, and tackling new challenges. Try to see these as opportunities rather than problems to avoid. Use the same mindset with new team members and customers.

In summary, I recommend that you use personal branding as a strategy to leverage your personality, personal preferences, and abilities in the most effective way to enhance your career opportunities and value to your employer and customers. These days, it is all about personal empowerment and marketing, rather than just working and waiting for people to see your value.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/19/2022 ***

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Friday, December 2, 2022

10 Business Model Components Required In Every Plan

business-plan-componentsYou can’t succeed in business without an operational model that delivers value to customers at a reasonable price, with an underlying cost that allows you to make a profit. There are no “overrides” – for example, businesses don’t thrive just because they offer the latest technology, or because everyone wants to be “green,” or because their goal is to reduce world hunger.

I expect that should seem intuitive to all entrepreneurs, but every investor I know has many stories about startup funding requests with major business model elements missing. The most common failures are solutions looking for a problem, lack of a defined market, or an inadequate revenue model.

There are dozens of sources to help you construct your business model, and a good example is a classic book by venture capital investor Elizabeth Edwards, simply named “Startup,” which is really designed as a handbook for launching a company for less. I support her assertion that a business model consists of at least the following ten basic elements:

  1. Value proposition. What is the need you fill or problem you solve? The value proposition must clearly define the target customer, the customer’s problem and pain, your unique solution, and the net benefit of this solution from the customer's perspective.
  1. Target market. Who are you selling to? A target market is the group of customers that the startup plans to attract through marketing and sales their product or service. This segment should have specific demographics, and the means to buy your product.
  1. Sales/Marketing. How will you reach your customers? Word-of-mouth and viral marketing are popular terms these days, but are rarely adequate to initiate a new business. Be specific on sales channels and marketing initiatives.
  1. Production. How do you produce your product or service? Common choices include manufacturing in-house, outsourcing, off-the-shelf parts. The key issues here are time to market and cost.
  1. Distribution. How do you distribute your product or service? Some products and services can be sold and distributed online, others require multi-level distributors, partners, or value-added resellers. Decide whether the product is local or international.
  1. Revenue model. How do you make money? The key here is to explain to yourself and to investors how your pricing and revenue stream will cover all costs, including overhead and support, and still leave a good return.
  1. Cost structure. What are your costs? New entrepreneurs tend to focus only on product direct costs, and underestimate marketing and sales costs, overhead costs, and support costs. Test your projections against actual published reports from similar companies.
  1. Competition. How many competitors do you have? No competitors probably means there is no market. More than ten competitors indicates a saturated market. Think broadly here, like planes versus trains. Customers always have alternatives.
  1. Unique selling proposition. How will you differentiate your product or service? Investors look for a sustainable competitive advantage, like a patent. Short-term discounts or promotions are not a unique selling proposition.
  1. Market size, growth, and share. How big is your market in dollars, is it growing or shrinking, and what percent can you capture? Venture capitalists look for a market with double-digit growth, greater than a billion dollars, and a double-digit penetration plan.

Investors will want to understand your business model very well and very early. They don’t want to hear your customer sales pitch, which naturally avoids any discussion of how much money you intend to make, and how many customers you expect to convince. Giving that pitch to investors will only frustrate both you and them.

A viable and investable business model is one of the first things you need to highlight in your business plan. In fact, without a business model, your startup is just a dream.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Gust on 11/8/2022 ***

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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

8 People And Process Skills Required In Any Business

Business-colleaguesAs an investor in startups, I most often see entrepreneurs who are technologists, or at least have a real passion for a specific product. They rarely highlight their marketing and relationship skills, even though, in my experience, these are more often the key to success in business than product skills. I’m a believer in the old saying that investors look for great people, more than great ideas.

During my time in Silicon Valley, I was struck by the fact that most successful entrepreneurs seemed to personally know and regularly hear from all the “movers and shakers” who had the investment capital and leadership they needed. In addition to listening, they spent much of their time communicating their vision and marketing themselves to everyone they encountered.

For example, even though Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook as an innovative product, most experts believe it was successful due to his relationship with Peter Thiel and other top VCs that he convinced to invest early. While these investors, and early customers, will always argue that they found you, I’m convinced that there is no substitute for aggressive networking on your part.

Implicit in effective marketing of yourself and your solution are a set of skills that every professional needs and can develop over time in business, whether their focus is on career advancement, or starting your own company. Here is my list of key drivers that I find critical to thriving in big businesses, as well as startups:

  1. Networking to build and maintain key relationships. Relationships are key to finding opportunities, building trust, and continuous learning. All businesses these days are too complex to be one-person shows, so you need all the complementary held you can find to keep up with customers and competition, fill your expertise gaps, and scale the market.
  2. Marketing your personal brand and your vision. Selling yourself requires an ongoing confidence, without bragging, to relate your vision of the future, in conjunction with accomplishments of the past, in a credible story that illustrates your leadership and results to date. The best marketing requires storytelling skills, with emotions and values.

  3. Ability to relate aspirations to customer needs. You need to show insights to real customers and their needs, that get beyond your passions and projections. Typically this means describing interactions with customer groups, real customer feedback, and showing an understanding of price sensitivity, alternatives, and competitive offerings.

  4. Maintaining an insatiable curiosity about change. Great business leaders, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are constantly asking questions and reading books about new technologies, new cultures, and new business opportunities. They mentor each other, and seek out experts in domains outside their current expertise and experience.

  5. Assembling a winning team and delivering results. Here your challenge is to show that you can lead and motivate others to make things happen. You can’t build a business or deliver results alone. Many entrepreneurs try to do the whole job alone, or surround themselves with “yes” people, or count on family and friends to back them.

  6. Negotiating outside partnerships and vendors. Just like you can’t start a business alone, you can’t scale the business without external partners with expertise and access to specific customer sets, channels, manufacturing, and support. You need to highlight value for all parties to make every deal a win-win for all, rather than win-lose.

  7. Using metrics to measure results and commitments. Managing people and results require the ability to track progress and reward the right people. Some people try to do this based on gut feel and emotions, but full accountability and engagement means data and real-time feedback for credibility. Keep the focus on efficiency and growth.

  8. Managing time and priorities for maximum impact. The best entrepreneurs and business professionals always find time for strategic thinking and new ideas, no matter how many times they have to say “no” to immediate demands, or work extra hours. They prioritize tasks, define milestones, and measure results versus activities completed.

Business success is all about working with people, inside the company, outside with investors and partners, and always with customers. These skills, including effective communication, combined with discipline and a positive attitude, are what it takes to set your business apart from competitors, an make every interaction a memorable experience for you and your customers.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/16/2022 ***

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