Wednesday, March 20, 2019

9 Simple Approaches To Creating A Sure-Fire Startup

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As an advisor to startups and entrepreneurs, I often hear the myth that all new businesses must start with a great idea. I have to disagree. I believe the best entrepreneurs start by finding a large opportunity, and only then use good ideas to capitalize on that opportunity. The best opportunities are recognized from painful needs, plus a growing population of customers with money to spend.

For example, technologist entrepreneurs often come up with a new device or application, just because they can, and assume everyone will want one. Social entrepreneurs pitch me their latest idea for eliminating world hunger (producing algae), but may forget that really hungry people probably don’t have any money. It takes a real selling opportunity to sustain a business idea.

You will find specifics in the classic book, “The Entrepreneur’s Playbook,” by Leonard C. Green, which supports my view, and is full of practical advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, including easy ways to identify sure-bet opportunities, most not requiring any invention, before you finalize your innovative business idea. Here are some approaches that both of us recommend to get you started:
  1. Take a basic product and make it special (upgrade). Premium bottled water (Fuji), expensive coffee (Starbucks), and gourmet cookies (Mrs. Fields) are examples of what were once pedestrian products that have driven successful new businesses. Sometimes you need to take a commonplace item, like a cup of coffee, and make it an “experience.”

  2. Offer a no-frills version of a high-end product (downgrade). For example, Southwest Airlines eliminated all the frills that usually come with an airline ticket, and now they are a market leader, being copied by the majors. In supermarkets, everyone today knows that generic brands often offer more value and quantity, without giving up key ingredients.

  3. Find products that seem to fit together (bundle). Instead of requiring people to shop and pay for related items, combine them into one package. Today’s smartphones are more attractive than a separate phone, camera, computer, and software packages. Sometimes just including training and installation makes a product more attractive.

  4. Break existing bundles into separate packages (unbundle). This is obviously the inverse of the bundle approach. Home computers have long been offered in unbundled as well as bundled hardware and software, to allow for a lower entry cost and flexible configuring versus simplicity. Long-term warranties are now unbundled from appliances.

  5. If a product sells in one area, transport it to another. Importers/exporters make their living this way with products from different parts of the country or the world. The same concept resulted in the birth of franchises, which are essentially proven business models transported to new locations. The Internet is a business for transporting web services.

  6. Expand a narrow product offering to the mass-market. A popular incarnation of this approach today is to take an Internet-only product into brick-and-mortar retail for access to a much larger audience. The same concept applied to every startup which test-markets its product in a local area, then scales the business for national or global access.

  7. Take a broad-appeal product into a niche. With the widespread popularity of social media, I now see many businesses looking at niche market interest groups, such as sites for travelers, hunters, cancer support, and crafts. In television, this is called narrow-casting, to gear specific channels to a special audience, like golf, old shows, or history.

  8. Maximize the selection of products offered (think big). This approach brought us the “big box” stores, including Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. Online, the same concept has been implemented by Amazon and Alibaba. It allows customers to complete their shopping in one place, and businesses get the value of volume and common processes.

  9. Focus on in-depth expertise and support (think small). This is the inverse of the “think big” strategy, which you see at your local hardware stores, with knowledgeable and friendly support staffs. They specialize in the depth of their selections that a true connoisseur demands. Online sites now advertise customized designs and personal fits.
It shouldn’t be hard to see from these examples the wealth of business opportunities available without inventing a totally new product or technology. Thus I continue to tell entrepreneurs that business success is more about the execution, and the quality of the team, rather than the idea.

Also, by looking at the size of the opportunity, you can take a calculated risk, rather than close your eyes and step into the total unknown. Calculated risks are less likely to be fatal, and more likely to be fun and profitable. Think about it before you send me your next business plan to change the world.

Marty Zwilling
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Monday, March 18, 2019

5 Keys To Relying On Intuition In Business Decisions

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With all the progress in analytical tools and big data available, many people feel there is no place in business today for intuition and gut instincts. As an advisor to entrepreneurs for many years, I strongly disagree, and still see the value of at least combining intuition with logical analysis, as we face customers and markets driven by relationships, emotions, and unpredictable social trends.

I also see many successful entrepreneurs, including Richard Branson, who openly state, “I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.” The venerable Steve Jobs was reportedly in the same category. In proper business circles, it’s called thinking outside the box, so don’t be misled into concluding that business no longer benefits from individual thinking.

In fact, I just saw a new book supporting this position, “Decisive Intuition,” by Rick Snyder, an international business coach who has launched and grown several businesses of his own, as well as helped big companies, including Intel and Anytime Fitness. He digs deeper into how intuition works, and concludes that correctly honing and using your gut instinct is a powerful tool.

We both agree that a big challenge we face in helping business professionals is getting you to stop being stymied by your own inner critic – that voice in your head that you are not good enough, or are probably doing something wrong. We all have to make friends with our inner critic, and make room for our intuitive voice to show up and lead us to the right decisions.

Here is my interpretation of Snyder’s recommendations to develop your intuition, and get you to that balance of logical analysis and intuitive decision making:
  1. Isolate your inner critic from the rest of you. Of course, we all have that inner critic element, as it’s important for our safety and security, but it need not overwhelm what we have learned about our business and our customers. Keep it in its place by avoiding the moods and emotions that can cause you to censor yourself on key decisions.

    For example, when you begin to feel overwhelmed by the stress of a heavy workload or crisis, it may be time take a long walk to think, or retire to your favorite gym for a workout to change your focus. Then your intuitive forces will help you reach a balanced decision.

  2. Use humor to loosen the grip of your internal critic. Self-critic messages are already so heavy that often bringing levity is valuable in helping balance it all out. For example, say “Oh, there’s my inner critic again!” or “Apparently, my inner critic thinks that I shouldn’t be the one to do the investment pitch,” as you smile at its attempt to thwart you.

  3. Ask your critic what it’s trying to protect you from. Think carefully about what’s at risk if you follow through with the behavior you are fearful of or are being warned about. Now you can logically isolate the current situation from past experiences, and how this decision can be made, from more recent learning, without repeating past actual risks.

    For example, you might find that the critic is trying to prevent the repeat of past pain where you trusted someone and later felt betrayed, or a time when you delegated work to someone else and you felt let down. Now you decide from confidence rather than fear.

  4. Work to be a better advocate for yourself. Once you are able to isolate the internal critic portion of your being, and better understand its cause and boundaries, you will be able to restore trust in yourself, repair your own reputation internally, and restore self-leadership. The better you understand it, the quicker the critic will disarm and relax.

  5. Practice new behaviors to wire new neural pathways. New modes of trusting yourself won’t happen by thinking alone. If your inner critic procrastinates, start working on that task right now. If you have been hesitant to delegate work, make a list of all your activities and publish a delegation list for all to see. Repetition increases skill and defeats the critic.
With these tips, I’m convinced that you can train yourself and get help from the people around you to integrate your directional, social, and informational intuition with results from all the logical analysis and data tools to make better decisions in business. Even though I’m a technologist, I believe the most competitive and most innovative businesses will always be run by people, not robots.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/04/2019 ***
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Sunday, March 17, 2019

5 Investor Types Who Will Test Your Negotiating Style

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Every entrepreneur seeking funding loves the challenge of getting customers and investors excited, but dreads the thought of negotiating the terms of a deal with potential investors. They are naturally reluctant to step out of the friendly and familiar business territory into the unfamiliar battlefield of venture capitalists from which few escape unscathed.

In reality, a financing negotiation is not a single-round winner-take-all game, since a “good” deal requires that both parties walk away satisfied -- with a win-win relationship. Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, in their classic book “Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist” emphasize that there are only three things that really matter in this negotiation: achieving a good and fair result, not killing your personal relationship getting there, and understanding the deal that you are striking.

To be an effective negotiator, I agree that you first need to quickly identify and adapt to your opponents negotiating style. Feld and Mendelson identify the five most common negotiating styles that you will see on both sides of the table, and talk about how you can best work with each of them:
  1. The Bully (aka UAW negotiator). The bully negotiates by yelling and screaming, forcing issues, and threatening the other party. They usually don’t understand the issues, so they try to win by force. Unless this is your natural negotiating style, their advice is to chill out as your adversary gets hotter.

  2. The Nice Guy (aka used-car salesman). This style is pleasant, but you always feel like he’s trying to sell you something. While he doesn’t yell at you like the bully, it’s often frustrating to get a real answer (need to talk with the boss). For these, be clear and direct, and don’t be afraid to toss a little bully into the mix to move things forward.

  3. The Technocrat (aka pocket protector guy). This is the technical nerd who can put you into endless detail hell. The technocrat has a billion issues and has a hard time deciding what’s really important, since to him everything is important for some reason. Make sure you don’t lose your focus and fight for what you really care about.

  4. The Wimp (aka Marty McFly). You may be able to take his wallet pretty easily during the negotiation, but if you get too good a deal it will come back to haunt you. You have to live with him on the Board and making decisions. You may end up negotiating both sides of the deal, which is sometimes harder than having a real adversary.

  5. The Curmudgeon (aka Archie Bunker). With the curmudgeon, everything you negotiate sucks. He may not yell, but he’s never happy, and keeps reminding you how many times he has been around the block. If you are patient, upbeat, and tolerant, you’ll eventually get what you want, but don’t expect to ever please him.
Secondly, you should never walk into any negotiation blindly without a plan. Know the key things that you want, understand which items you are willing to concede, and know when you are willing to walk away. When determining your walk-away position, you need to understand your best alternative to agreement, and have a Plan-B (bootstrapping, competing investor, or more time).

Another key preparation is to get to know the investors you will be dealing with. Do your homework on the Internet and through contacts to find out their strengths, weaknesses, biases, curiosities, and insecurities, Knowledge is power, and that can be used for leverage.

On the other hand, when negotiating a financing for your company, you should never present your term sheet first. Always wait for the investor to play his hand. Next, make sure you listen more than you talk. You can’t lose a deal point if you don’t open your mouth. Finally, don’t lose sight of the deal as a whole, by being forced to a decision linearly on each point in isolation.

If you are the least experienced person around the negotiating table, it’s time to hire a great lawyer to help balance things out. Remember, your lawyer is a reflection of you, so check their reputation and style, as well as their win-loss record. The financing is only the beginning of a critical relationship, and a small part at that. Don’t work so hard at winning the battle that you lose the war.

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, March 16, 2019

10 Key Principles To Drive Customer Decisions Today

Today’s customers are overloaded and overwhelmed by too much information, so making a decision is a challenge. You may think this is only important to your marketing and sales people, but in reality it doesn’t matter how great your product or technology might be, you won’t succeed if you don’t understand your target customer decision process. Every aspect of your business must be about sales.

In my role as an advisor to startups, I often have to remind entrepreneurs to think more like sales people from day one, in finding a real problem to solve and designing the solution. Even the best technology won’t sell itself. Everyone on your team needs a regular update on the latest insights for sales people, like the classic book, “Heart and Sell,” by sales training expert Shari Levitin.

Levitin outlines ten universal truths about selling, and the customer decision process, which every business needs to address in their product, business model, and their whole customer experience. Just think of your whole business as the sales engine, rather than just the sales reps:
  1. Success requires continuous learning and improvement. No matter how certain you are that your solution perfectly matches customer needs, you will be wrong. Success requires a willingness to take responsibility for shortcomings, better understand customer needs, and the ability to quickly learn and adapt. This is the growth equation for a startup.

  2. Emotions drive customer decision-making. Your ability as a business to uncover and capitalize on customers emotional motivators will dictate your success. That’s why Steve Jobs spent as much time on “insanely great design” as technology, and marketed to customer emotions. The lowest price is not always the real customer motivator.

  3. Every growth business must have a repeatable process. Just like good sales people have a repeatable process they follow, every startup has to overcome the chaos of a new business, put structure in place, document their processes, and focus on scaling up the engine. Everyone on the team must adopt the same culture and recipe for success.

  4. Resilience is the life skill of a business. Setbacks are inevitable, but good businesses and good sales people always bounce back. Both should assume that “no” never means “never.” A good entrepreneur actually gets stronger as he or she learns from each growth failure, and responds ever more effectively to customer needs and expectations.

  5. Business brand trust begins with customer empathy. Empathy is about being fully engaged with your customers, through interactive social media, and taking the time to listen to real customers face-to-face. You have to demonstrate common ground and shared values with your customers over the entire customer experience.

  6. Integrity matters in all aspects of a business. A business has to demonstrate integrity, reliability, and competency, just like a good sales team member. Integrity means doing what you say you’re going to do as a business, being responsive to changing needs, and making the right kind of promises to your target customer segment.

  7. Grow by helping customers rather than pushing a message. If you ask customers how you can help, you will uncover what matters most. This is more effective in directing their thinking and actions than selling technology. Well-crafted questions pull in customers. Good questions create change. Great questions can change the world.

  8. Emotional commitment precedes economic commitment. Don’t try to create a sense of urgency by appealing to greed. Your business and your team need to understand and demonstrate how your product connects precisely to what motivates your customer. These days, that includes a memorable total experience and testimonials from friends.

  9. Removing customer resistance takes persistence. All customers are prone to raising objections, because change is hard, there are many competitors, and decisions take time to make. As a new business trying to grow, you need to be able to isolate the toughest customer objections, and adapt your solution or business model to eliminate them.

  10. Looking for wrongs never makes you right. Every entrepreneur struggling with business growth has the urge to blame it on a lack of funding, an economic downturn, or unfair competitor. Instead, look for what has worked, and what you haven’t yet tried with your customers, to get it right. Focus on the real purpose that customers seek.
Businesses that think and act as a whole like their best sales people will build what their customers want and need, making everyone’s job a lot easier, and the customers a lot happier. That’s a recipe for business success that I recommend to every entrepreneur and professional.

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, March 15, 2019

5 Keys To Boosting The Performance Of A Business Team

Team-Performance-EvaluationIt takes an effective team to attract and serve a community in business these days. With real-time online reviews and feedback via the Internet, and instant relationships via social media, a voice from the top that is inconsistent with what is heard from the firing line defines a dysfunctional and noncompetitive company for today’s customer. Thus team makeup is the critical success factor.

A few companies seem to be leading the way in building and maintaining ultra-effective teams, sometimes called extreme teams. These include companies across multiple industry spectrums, notably NetFlix in entertainment, AirBnB in hospitality, and Whole Foods for groceries. I see the commonalities detailed well in the classic book, “Extreme Teams,” by Robert Bruce Shaw.

Shaw is a consultant specializing in team performance, and he brings real experience building and working with extreme teams in companies like the ones mentioned above. In my many years of experience in business, and recent work as a mentor to entrepreneurs, I have seen the business world change, and can relate well to his five success practices paraphrased here:

  1. Build the team from people with a shared obsession. The most effective teams are built from people with a strong sense of values and commitment, starting at the top of the company. Team members need to view their work as a calling, much more than a job, and embrace a higher purpose that shapes their collective thinking and behavior.

  2. When selecting members, value fit over experience. Companies with the best teams seek out candidates with the right mix of personal motives, values, and temperament to be a true team player. Cultural fit matters more than job history or functional skills. Those that have these traits are incented to join, and those who don’t are often paid to leave.

  3. Incent them to focus and always look to the future. Extreme teams are tightly aligned around the company’s top few priorities, while remaining open to new ideas. For team members, the ongoing challenge is figuring out what not to do. These teams are motivated to develop approaches to creatively explore new opportunities for growth.

  4. Let them deal with people performance, as well as results. Teams today need a culture of being simultaneously tough in driving for measurable results, and direct in support of individuals who best create an environment of collaboration, trust, and loyalty. Teams must openly deal with their own weaknesses and take action on underperformers.

  5. Embrace healthy conflict to avoid the comfort of stagnation. Members push themselves and each other to speak up, question the status quo, take bold risks, and confront hard truths. They recognize the value of being uncomfortable as a way to push thinking outside the box, and as a wakeup call when something is not working.

I recognize this is a revolution in the way most companies and employees work today, viewing work as a set of tasks with no passion, new members selected primarily on past experience and functional skills, and viewing conflict as something to be avoided or a sign of failure. They value harmony among members, and measure success as a function of the number of priorities concurrently managed.

Building and managing teams along the new lines outlined is not easy, and that’s why it’s a real competitive advantage when you do it. It takes a new kind of management team with a strong belief that a company can thrive with a larger purpose, total customer experience is critical to success, and the new generation of workers needs a new culture of passion and relationships.

As hard as it is to build extreme teams from the beginning, it’s much more difficult to turn around a failing or stagnant team. In fact, many would say that it’s impossible, without first replacing the top leaders and key team members in an existing organization. Thus, if you are a business leader who intends to survive and thrive in the long-term, it’s time to start today by checking the culture of your teams.

Your career and your company’s future depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

10 Business Plan Tips Too Many Entrepreneurs Forget

pencil-business-plan-writingIf you want people to invest in your idea, then my best advice is first write a business plan, and keep it simple. Don't confuse your business plan with a doctoral thesis or the back of a napkin. Keep the wording and formatting straightforward, and keep the plan short. For minimum content, see my original article “These 10 Key Elements Make a Business Plan Fundable.”

The overriding principle is that your business plan must be easy to read. This means writing at the level of an average newspaper story (about eighth-grade level). Understand that people will skim your plan, and even try to read it while talking on the phone or going through their e-mail.

But don't confuse simple wording and formats with simple thinking. You're keeping it simple so you can get your point across quickly and effectively to team members and investors. With that in mind, here are some specifics that bear repeating, updated from a classic article on simple plans by Tim Berry:

  1. Keep the plan short. You can cover everything you need to convey in 20 pages of text. If necessary, create a separate white paper for other details and reports. The one-page Oprah plan is a good executive summary, but it’s not enough to get the investment.

  2. Polish the overall look and feel. Aside from the wording, you also want the physical look of your text to be inviting. Stick to two fonts in a standard text editor, like Microsoft Word. The fonts you use should be common sans-serif fonts, such as Arial, Tahoma or Verdana, 10 to 12 points.

  3. Don't use long complicated sentences. Short sentences are the best, because they read faster, and reader comprehension is higher in all audiences.

  4. Avoid buzzwords, jargon and acronyms. You may know that NIH means "not invented here" and KISS stands for "keep it simple, stupid," but don't assume anybody else does.

  5. Simple straightforward language. Stick with the simpler words and phrases, like "use" instead of "utilize" and "then" instead of "at that point in time."

  6. Bullet points are good. They help organize and prioritize multiple elements of a concept or plan. But avoid cryptic bullet points. Flesh them out with brief explanations where explanations are needed. Unexplained bullet points usually result in questions.

  7. Don’t overwhelm the plan with too many graphics and flashy colors. Pictures and diagrams can effectively illustrate a point, but too many come across as clutter.

  8. Use page breaks to separate sections. Also to separate charts from text and to highlight tables. When in doubt, go to the next page. Nobody worries about having to turn to the next page.

  9. Use white space liberally, spell-checker, and proofread. Include one-inch margins all around. Always use your spell-checker. Then proofread your text carefully to be sure you're not using a properly spelled incorrect word.

  10. Include table of contents. No investor likes searching every page for key data, like executive credentials, or exit strategy. Most word processors these days can automatically generate a table of contents from your section headings. Use it.

Investors hear from too many entrepreneurs that envision a great business opportunity, but don’t have any written business plan at all. They think they can talk their way to a deal. It won’t work. On the other end of this spectrum are entrepreneurs who present long product specifications with a few financials at the end. This is a failing strategy as well.

If you're not the type who can connect with people based on a simple message, told succinctly, then hire someone who can. In fact, simplicity and readability is one of the most effective strategies for selling even the most complex proposal. A business plan that is easily understood and looks professional is already half sold. Simple is not stupid.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, March 11, 2019

How To Focus On Relationships To Maximize Your Brand

Loyalty_One_logoBrands are people first. Customers are people too, so customers tend to take their relationship with a brand personally. Thus it’s not a surprise that people love their favorite smartphone brand, cringe when you mention their cable company, or even hate the mention of a particular bank.

Startups, as well as every existing business, need to realize that this brand perception is becoming more and more driven by their relationships with customers, as well as feedback from other customer brand relationships, made visible on social media and Internet websites like Yelp and Foursquare. Proving the new model today are sites like Patagonia and Zappos.

According to Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske, in their classic book “The Human Brand,” humans are very perceptive, from early survival evolution, and make quick judgments about other people’s intents toward them (warmth), and the capability of carrying out intents (competence). Thus your brand (people) needs to project both warmth and competence, for loyalty today.

But how do you know if your brand is projecting warmth and competence to your customers? Here are some key signals, outlined by Malone and Fiske, which I believe every startup founder and business leader should evaluate in their own business to see if their brand is positive:

  1. The loyalty test. For loyal customers, a business has to first demonstrate genuine warmth, concern, and commitment. Selling to loyal customers is 3 to 10 times cheaper than acquiring new customers. Go beyond loyalty expectations, and you can turn loyal customers into passionate advocates who actively recommend your company to others.

  2. The principle of worthy intentions. This principle is a relationship building strategy that involves attracting and keeping customers by consistently putting their best interests ahead of those of your company or brand. Competence alone won’t ensure loyalty. Only the emotional connections of worthy intentions has the power to change minds.

  3. The price of progress. Faceless commerce these days leads to a focus on discounts. Discounts are viewed as less-than-worthy intentions, and do not buy loyal customers. Every website must offer more than one-way commerce and discounts. It must also offer interactive relationships, and warmth and competence, through worthy intentions.

  4. Take us to your leader. Customers today have a primal desire to judge brands by the people behind the brand, most notably the CEO. Customers look for transformational rather than transactional leaders, who inspire employees to exert the extra effort on customers’ behalf. Leaders need to come out from behind their curtain.

  5. Show your true colors. Mistakes and crises are a golden loyalty opportunity. We are apt to forgive when we feel empathy for an offending partner. Customers watch and judge whether people or profits come first. A brand spokesperson can show worthy intentions, or can deflect blame and take a narrower more self-serving view.

Today’s business market exists in the renaissance of relationships. Perception is reality, and businesses can no longer hide behind their brand. Transactions move faster and mistakes happen faster, with customers able to watch for warmth and competence, or no worthy intentions. Here are key imperatives, sanctioned by Malone, Fisk, and myself, to keep you on the right track:

  • Become more self-aware. On-going self-awareness is a crucial competency of every brand and every business leader. Don’t be afraid to ask customers the direct questions – do you see us as warm and trustworthy, as well as competent and capable? Then listen with an open mind and genuine interest, and be willing and able to change.
  • Embrace significant change. Change is now the norm, so no change over a period of time is actually moving backward. Companies and brands must shift from a mentality of control, defensiveness, and unresponsiveness to one that is more open to understanding how they are perceived, and to adopt change as a good thing, rather than a problem.
  • Fundamentally shift priorities. Lasting change requires a sincere examination and adjustment of the goals and priorities that have led companies astray in the first place. Sustained success in the future will require companies to dramatically shift their emphasis from short-term shareholder value to shared value for multiple stakeholders.

Overall, your customers now have near-instantaneous power to hold companies and brands accountable for their words and actions. That power will continue to grow in the years ahead. Is your brand ready to flourish in that environment, or highly at-risk for any slight misstep?

Marty Zwilling

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