Monday, May 25, 2020

6 Strategies For Startup Exit That Investors Accept

startup-exit-strategyThe last thing a new entrepreneur wants to think about for a new startup is how it will end. Yet one of the first things a potential equity investor asks about is your exit strategy. The answer you give can make or break your ability to get an investment, so you need to have the right answer ready before anyone asks. Here are three important reasons for the question:

  • Good investment paybacks normally require an exit event. Equity investments are not loans, so there is no loan payback period or interest payments. Equity is stock, but private company stock has no market value until the company goes public or is sold or merged with another company. These events may take three to five years at a minimum.
  • Startups with no exit planned will minimize investor returns. If the entrepreneur plans to grow the company into a family business, or keep it private, they will either never be interested in buying out investors, or will certainly not be motivated to provide the 10x return that investors are looking for. Investors hesitate to invest under these conditions.
  • Most entrepreneurs like the startup role, but not the big-company role. Investors know that the fun of a startup turns into managing production processes, sales processes, and personnel in a few years. You probably will do that job poorly, unless you plan your exit early, to move on to your next startup role, to do that better the next time.

Of course, if you are able to bootstrap your startup, and don’t anticipate the need for outside investors, you can technically ignore the first two points. Even still, in the context of all three points, I recommend that you evaluate the most common exit alternatives and considerations, and integrate the right one into your startup strategy and plan:

  1. M&A - merger or acquisition by another company. This should be perceived as a win-win event, where your startup is bought or merged into a larger peer or competitor, allowing both you and investors to cash out. The resulting entity will gain complementary skills, economies of scale, new customer sets, and hopefully a larger growth opportunity.
  1. IPO – public company initial public stock offering. According to National Venture Capital Association statistics, only 16% of venture-backed startups recently used this alternative, due to high liability concerns, demanding shareholders, and high costs. Most experts don’t recommend this approach as your default strategy anymore.
  1. Find a private equity firm or friendly individual. This alternative differs from an M&A, since the result is still your original single company. Yet it is an opportunity for you and your investors to cash out. The buyer has the challenge of scaling the business, and managing all the operational growth requirements. You can kick-off your next startup.
  1. Position the company as a cash cow to fund spinoffs. If you can convince investors that your startup will generate a solid revenue stream, and the market won’t go away any time soon, they may see an opportunity for an ever larger return. You can maintain ownership, and even find someone you trust to run it for you, as you focus on spinoffs.
  1. Liquidate the assets, cash out investors, and keep the rest. This is not a recommended strategy, since business shutdowns are usually seen as distressed situations, meaning the value of hard assets will be highly discounted. Less tangible assets like the brand name, business relationships, and even your reputation may be lost or damaged.
  1. No exit. If your startup strategy is to be a lifestyle company, or a family business that will grow organically and never go public, then no-exit is a valid exit strategy. This alternative is often paired with a personal no-exit strategy. If you expect investors to help your startup scale, it probably won’t happen, as discussed in the first points of this article.

While exit discussions may somehow seem negative, an exit strategy should always be seen as positive. It’s a plan to develop the best opportunity for you, your startup, and your investors, and capitalize on it, rather than a plan to get out of a bad situation. Think of it as a succession plan, to keep growing what you have started. It may be the end of your startup phase, but it should be the beginning of a more mature and stable business.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

How To Reinvent Yourself As A Business Startup Today

Marcela Sapone, CEO & Co-Founder at Hello Alfred talks to DOL employees and outside attendees as they gathered in the Great Hall in the DOL Building fora panel on “Positive Choices in the Digital Sector: Building Good Jobs Principles into Emerging Platforms” "Future of Work."The era of stable lifetime jobs for business professionals within a single company are gone. Companies are rightsized quickly now as markets change rapidly, and business professionals are quick to jump to new opportunities for growth and survival, with no ties to special benefits or pension plans. Thus smart business professionals are rapidly becoming the new entrepreneurs.

As a mentor to startups, I see more startups that are really an individual professional, marketing themselves as a consultant or freelancer in this new gig economy. This is a positive in uncoupling them from a dependency on a single company or boss, but the downside is that they have to suddenly manage all facets of a business, including finances, strategy, and savings for the future.

Of course, entrepreneurs delivering services have existed for some time, including business consultant, independent contractor, and freelancer titles. But these titles are not descriptive of specific roles or skills, and have always had marginal credibility in the business community. I suggest that new entrepreneurs lead with their “professional” title, which suggests their focus and specialized skill, and can be applied to almost any role. Here are some examples:

  • Marketing Professional. Every company and startups needs marketing experts, who are skilled and knowledgeable in the development of marketing programs, content creation, lead generation, and the utilization of social media. This world changes rapidly, and needs a professional with experience in digital and conventional media to keep up.
  • Software Development Professional. Even big companies I know find it hard to keep their in-house programmers up to speed on the latest technologies, including mobile devices, the latest Web technologies, and multi-tenant applications in the Cloud. More and more are scouring LinkedIn for specialists willing to do short-term relationships.
  • Staffing Professional. Staffing requirements come and go in every company, big or small. One of the harsh realities for most product entrepreneurs is that they have deal with hiring and firing as their company grows, and they have no experience or idea where to start. For existing trained professionals, it’s an opportunity to become an entrepreneur.
  • Administrative Professional. Long ago, these were called secretaries, often starting in the typing pool, with the best aligning themselves with an advancing executive, leading to a long career. Now the new breed of these is a self-managed entrepreneur, working remotely, with real expertise on the administrative tools and ways of business today.
  • Sales Professional. The best sales people in any company are highly focused, and self-motivated by the commissions they can earn by closing a few big deals. They know how to capitalize on social media, viral marketing, events, and the new tools of the trade. They are always ready to move on to the next big opportunity as markets change.

I’m sure you can think of a dozen more examples today. Tomorrow you may be looking for a Personal Finance Professional, Health-Care Professional, or even a Startup Professional. We are becoming a society of entrepreneurs. Even the education system is starting to recognize this, with entrepreneurial courses and majors springing up in every university across the world.

Thus you don’t need to invent an innovative product or technology to be a real entrepreneur. The cost of entry as a services professional is at an all-time low, with powerful free tools to create your own website, cheap incorporation of yourself as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) via the Internet, and community colleges offering courses for anyone in the new technologies.

The challenge is that not everyone is ready and willing to take on the responsibility for their own skills, lifestyle management, and financial stability. Many of these new entrepreneurs come to me looking for an angel investor or crowdfunding, which will never happen. Investors don’t fund entrepreneurs offering services, since these don’t scale, don’t have large margins, and need just a customer contract to start.

So if you have some resources, some skills, and some confidence in yourself, maybe it’s time for you to jump on the entrepreneurial bandwagon. There is no longer any excuse for a professional businessperson to be stuck in a position they don’t enjoy and can’t control. The entrepreneur lifestyle is much more satisfying, and has unlimited potential.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

7 Reasons To Avoid Stealth Mode For Your New Venture

secret-lipsIt’s still popular these days for startup founders to operate in stealth mode, meaning no details about the idea or progress are shared with anyone until the big reveal and rollout. The common reason given is that this prevents any competitor from stealing their idea and beating them to market. In my view, this paranoid approach costs them much more than the risk of being open.

I’m not suggesting that a startup should ever disclose patent details to others before filing, but I can’t imagine why a startup would not seek visibility and feedback for their idea and solution while they could still make changes with minimal cost. Pivots and corrections are inevitable for startups in this age of rapid change, and the earlier you make them, the quicker you get to success.

Being open is the new business culture around the world. Entrepreneurs talk to customers and competitors talk to each other about the new trends and technologies they see. Coopetition is the new mantra for growing your business faster. Here are seven key reasons that being open is better for your startup than trying to fly under the radar:

  1. Visibility generates interest. You can’t get any word-of-mouth or media activity by hiding. Before you finalize the product is the best time to talk about it and see if you can get some buzz started. This will do more for your first mover advantage than more time in the lab. Most people agree that even negative media attention is better than none.
  1. Evaluate customer response prior to development. It’s never too early to get real feedback from the people who count. No matter how passionate and certain you are that your idea is perfect, the reality is that you will likely need to pivot at least once. Why not make the change before you have wasted significant time and money?
  1. Get competitors to surface early. You may be convinced that no competitors exist, which is very unlikely. If there really are no competitors, then there is likely no market opportunity, or you haven’t looked yet. If your position is so tentative that knowledge of your idea puts you in jeopardy, you need to know it sooner, rather than later.
  1. Demonstrate a minimum viable product (MVP). Surface your prototype, get customer feedback, make corrections, and iterate until you get it right. Startups in stealth mode often have a false sense of security that they can take extra time to do the job right the first time. Customer feedback is required to get it right, and hidden time is wasted time.
  1. Meet investors before asking for money. The time to build investor relationships is before you need the investment. It gives you credibility to mention your idea in general terms, without immediately asking for money. This can help you get in the door when you are ready, and asking questions early will give you insights on investor priorities.
  1. Pivots can be done gracefully at this point. Customer credibility actually improves when they see you making changes based on their input, and the cost of correcting mistakes early is lower. Operating in stealth mode for an extended period tends to convince entrepreneurs to believe their own biases, and visibly fight the need to change.
  1. Optimize your web history and presence. Stealth mode normally means no time for search engine optimization prior to product launch, not to mention relevant blogging activity, and link building. This means your whole startup effort will appear as very early stage for investors, and will likely not be adequately tuned for customers.

On the other hand, stealth mode does make sense for large companies, like Apple and IBM, who will likely be sued for pre-announcing a future product, since other companies have used this ploy in the past to freeze the market and lock out new competitors. Of course, even startups can get into serious trouble by talking about products and direction with no intent or ability to deliver.

I also realize that there are a limited set of startups, facing particularly entrenched and unscrupulous competitors, where early stealth mode is necessary. With most other classes of startups today, including smartphone apps, web services, and social media applications, early customer feedback is critical, and time to market is of the essence, so secrecy is more of an excuse than an advantage. Who are you fooling by not allowing your startup to be found?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, May 22, 2020

8 Questions You Should Ask Before You Join A Startup

questions-before-joining-a-startupEvery startup founder loves to prompt for questions from investors and potential key team members about their vision, and the huge opportunity that can be had with their disruptive technology. Yet if you are on the other side of the table, there are some other key questions that you need to ask, which will tell you more about the real success prospects for this business.

Enthusiastic startup founders may try to deflect or minimize these questions in true media-training style, so you need to be patient, calm, and persistent to get the whole story. From my perspective as an investor, I recommend that every founder needs to know the answers to these questions, be open and honest in answering them thoughtfully, and without making excuses:

  1. What is the current runway and burn rate? These terms quantify how fast money is being spent, and how long the business can survive before another round of investments is required. Early stage burn rates over $50K per month, or a runway of less than six months may indicate an inefficient or desperate startup. Think twice before you jump in.
  1. How complex is the capitalization table? The allocation of shares among the founders, and the number and size of outside investments, will tells volumes about the health, stability, and management of the business. Most founders like to talk about their many months or years of sweat-equity, but cash invested is a stronger commitment.
  1. When did this effort really start, including pivots? If the company has been around for more than a couple of years, and still has no product or revenue flow, there better be a good explanation. One more key employee or one more investor will probably not turn the situation around. History gaps and founder turnover may indicate a long road ahead.
  1. Does everyone on the team have a clear role and mutual respect? You won’t get this answer directly from the founder, so ask to talk to other key team members to make sure everyone is carrying their weight, and communicates effectively. Some conflict and differing perspective is healthy, but too many titles or close relatives should be suspect.
  1. Any outside advisors or board members available for discussion? Every startup should have at least a couple of outside advisors who are not major investors or family members, anxious to talk to new investors and key new hires. These should be people with complementary skills to the founders as well as industry expertise or connections.
  1. Is there a real customer willing to give a testimonial? Don’t be sidetracked by potential customers in the middle of a free trial, or friends of the founder. If it’s too early for customers, make sure you understand exactly when the product ships, how detailed is the rollout and promotion plan, and how many times these plans have changed.
  1. Are any lawsuits and challenges to intellectual property pending? Before you invest your life savings, or bet your career on this startup, you need to know how much of a barrier to entry the brand and patents are projected to be. If you have questions or concerns, now is the time to seek legal advice, not after the fact.
  1. How much and when can I reasonably expect a payback? Since nine out of ten startups fail completely, serious investors look for a 10X return on their investment within five years. Look for examples of similar companies and revenue multiples achieved from acquirers. Calculate employee stock option values and vesting times, as well as salary.

These questions are the key ones in every due diligence effort, always done by accredited investors, but almost never done by key employees and new partners. Ironically, startup investors are normally in less personal jeopardy than early startup employees. Smart investors know that many startup investments will fail, while employees always plan on million dollar payouts.

In any case, in addition to the grand vision and the chance to change the world, I recommend that it’s worth your while to calmly and assertively get some good answers to some hard questions from a passionate startup founder before you sign your life away.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

10 Traits Demonstrate Entrepreneur Character Strength

shark-tank-cellhelmet-pitchAs I was watching the investor show, Shark Tank, on TV the other night, I was struck by how quickly and how extensively the sharks focused on the background and character of the entrepreneurs, compared to time spent evaluating their products. I realized it was consistent with my own view as a former angel investor, that investors invest in you, more than your solution.

For example, if you as an entrepreneur come across as arrogant or too casual, many people you need to deal with in business, including investors, suppliers, and customers, will run the other way. The attributes you need to demonstrate in every meeting, and live on a daily basis, are ones illustrating your “strength of character.” These can be honed over time, and can’t be easily faked.

Based on my own years of experience in big business, startups, and the investor community, here are the key habits and traits that each of us needs to continually improve to be perceived by peers and others as leaders and innovators in business here and consistently around the world:

  1. Be aggressive in aspirations but prudent in execution. I want to see entrepreneurs who have a focus on the future, but the strength and perseverance to build realistic and well-laid plans, for follow through daily. This means you set goals, milestones, and metrics, and are able to provide financial projections to support funding requirements.
  1. Demonstrate social intelligence and concern. Today’s world of business is highly driven by social issues and environmental concerns. Entrepreneurs with a strength in social intelligence are better able to use these to their advantage, in selecting the right solutions, the right market segments, and implementing effective marketing strategies.
  1. Listens well, and seeks out critical feedback from others. If you are an entrepreneur with this trait, I believe you will seek and positively respond to feedback from three critical groups: peers, customers, and experts. I find that self-focused entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are more likely to resort to denial when faced with negative feedback.
  1. Always proclaim and deliver a positive attitude. The reality of my business experience is that people who are consistently more negative and pessimistic tend to make their views limit their results. If you demonstrate a positive attitude, I’m more easily convinced that you can make your business commitments, and your solution a success.
  1. Conversant with a variety of perspectives and concepts. This trait, sometimes called mental complexity, will convince others that you likely understand the relevant issues, are willing to challenge your own ideas, and will be quicker to adapt them to encompass new information, experiences, and meaning. Change is the only constant in business today.
  1. Takes ownership of personal strengths and weaknesses. Investors look for entrepreneurs with a high level of self-determination, who continually seek more competence in their chosen domain. We all have weaknesses, but we can all learn and improve our effectiveness. Denial and over-confidence are not good traits to exhibit.
  1. Not afraid to share personal life experiences. Everyone has a story. You can make it inspirational and supportive, or you can hide behind a veil of anonymity. Other people in business judge your character by how major events and influences have shaped your personal development, and will likely impact your response to new situations.
  1. Recognize natural leaders and seeks help from them. Great entrepreneurs have sought help from natural helpers since childhood, including parents, teachers, and business influencers. I believe this will make you feel more accepted, respected, and affirmed, and allow you to pass that feeling on to key players in your business career.
  1. Shares views and learns from a personal mentor. Entrepreneur leaders recognize and seek three types of mentoring – career mentoring for the longer term, peer mentoring for tactical guidance, and life mentoring for quality of life balancing. Even successful entrepreneurs, included Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, learn from each other as mentors.
  1. Visibly demonstrate the highest integrity. Integrity is generally defined as the act of behaving honorably, even when no one is watching. People with high integrity follow moral and ethical principles in all aspects of their business life, including decision making, and working with others. Investors ask about you, not your product, to test your integrity.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, or any other business professional, the strength of your character, as perceived by others, is of major importance to your growth and success. Don’t let the desire to find shortcuts, or egotistical tendencies, keep you from continuously improving and developing your character. Your return for showing good character in business is well worth it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/06/2020 ***

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Monday, May 18, 2020

8 Ways To Get Your Business Going Without Investors

germ-plant-seedling-liveIf you really want to start a business your way without a boss or professional investor hovering over you, then just fund it yourself or through friends and family, and grow it organically. It’s more possible to bootstrap today than a few years ago, as the cost of entry continues to go down. According to Investopedia, over 90 percent of successful businesses currently start this way.

With one of the many new tools, and a dose of sweat equity, you can create a website for almost nothing -- and you are on your way to success with ecommerce, your latest invention or personal services. It’s equally easy to go online and incorporate your new entity, register some intellectual property and have some fun with social media for marketing and interacting with customers.

The key to successful bootstrapping is to master the do-it-yourself approach, defer compensation or barter services whenever possible and become a frugal minimalist in all things requiring a cash outlay. Here are the key principles I recommend as an advisor to many entrepreneurs:

  1. Start your business in your own home. With the advent of the Internet, the size and address of your office is irrelevant. Most new teams are geographically dispersed these days anyway, so paying rent for an office should be differed to later stages when revenue is plentiful. You will be in good company with the many legends who used this approach.

  1. Barter services for access to required resources. Don’t rationalize a big investment in basic equipment with long-term requirements thinking. Look for a part-time job in a local or family business to provide access to things you will need only occasionally, such as a high-speed printer, video equipment or product assembly tools and storage.

  1. Learn to be a generalist rather than a specialist. With the unlimited access to “how-to” videos and detailed instructions on the Internet, you shouldn’t need to hire experts for most things. Likewise, too many volunteers and interns will only increase your workload and rework costs. Use your networking to get advice, but all jobs can be do-it-yourself.

  1. Operate small, but show a big-company image. You don’t need a large building and staff to be visible and heard worldwide. Use multiple social-media channels, blogging, email and voicemail to build the same image and responsiveness as larger competitors. Keep expenses down, but keep customer visibility and sensitivity as a top priority.

  1. Practice living on a shoestring budget. Most successful entrepreneurs take only a very minimum salary during the formative business years and reinvest all profits back into the business for organic growth. Defer your desire for expensive perks and vacations until later when you have time for them. You can have fun without spending big money.

  1. Favor profitability over revenue and user growth. Adding free users or customers to increase valuation makes sense for a venture-backed startup looking to go public, but will kill bootstrapping. Self-sustainability, independence, and real fun requires paying customers, profitability and an early cash-flow-positive business plan.

  1. Use your equity for key executives and business partners. Bootstrapping doesn’t mean that you don’t share equity. You can use it best to entice new team members and partners, giving you more horsepower and commitment for the long run. Investors seeking equity for cash typically want more control and cash-return quickly.

  1. Don’t assume you must plan for exponential growth. Investors have spread the word that you can’t get “hockey-stick” growth without a large cash infusion. In fact, you don’t need exponential growth to give you a good return and be declared successful. You may not be acquired for 10-times revenue, but quick exits and public offerings are no fun.

In summary, bootstrapping means living within your means, watching costs carefully, finding alternatives to cash for building the team and expanding the business infrastructure. Bootstrapping does require a full confidence in your own passion to make decisions and change the world with no investors to lean on or blame. But isn’t that why you signed up to be an entrepreneur in the first place?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

10 Popular Business Strategies That Most Often Fail

high-risk-of-failureEvery entrepreneur I know has their favorite excuse for a previous failure – an investor backed out, the economy took a downturn, or a supplier delivered bad quality. These things outside your control do happen, but based on my years of experience as a startup advisor and angel investor, I still see too many strategies leading to failure that are inside the entrepreneur decision realm.

I certainly agree that starting a business is fraught with risk, and none of us get it all right the first time. It’s important to learn from your own mistakes, but it’s even smarter to learn from someone else’s mistakes, without paying their high price in time lost, cost, and pain. In that spirit, I offer my perspective on ten common startup failure sources that rarely get admitted by entrepreneurs:

  1. Choose to skip the written business plan. I believe the old adage that you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to write it down. A business plan is for you first, not investors. The discipline of writing down your plan is the best way to make sure you understand how to transform your idea into a business, and how to communicate it.
  1. Offer free solutions to bring in more customers. Don’t get caught in the myth that you shouldn’t worry about monetization until after you have a large customer base. Viral marketing costs real money, and your support staff and hosting systems cost even more. Even non-profits need a profitable business model to offset staff and operating costs.
  1. Assume passion level defines business opportunity. There is no substitute for market research to confirm that your passion matches a real need in the market. Not every great idea is a viable business. Social causes are great, but your ability to sustain your value contribution is directly linked to your ability to find paying customers.
  1. Practice dreaming more than doing. Dreamers come up with ideas, and do-ers come up with businesses. Building a successful business is all about execution. Don’t try to build a business unless you are comfortable with risk, uncertainty, responsibility, and hard decisions. Dreams may motivate your team, but customers expect real solutions.
  1. Convinced that many existing players means room for ‘me-too.’ Jumping into a crowded space is a great way to get lost quickly. Your chances of success are much greater if you target an under-served niche, or bring a new quantum leap in value over existing competitors. ‘Easier-to-use’ and other fuzzy terms won’t get any attention.
  1. Bypasses intellectual property as not worth the cost. ‘First-to-market’ is not a sustainable competitive advantage for startups, since sleeping giants do wake up when they see traction, and they can smash newcomers quickly. Patents and trademarks are very valuable in attracting investors for scaling, as well as future premium buyouts.
  1. Thinks boundless energy is equal to experience. The real secrets of any business domain are not intuitively obvious, nor available in books. Many entrepreneurs tackle a completely unknown business domain, because the solution looks obvious, and they plan to work very hard. Usually it pays to work in an industry for a while, before you try to fix it.
  1. Willing to start today and find resources later. Cash is always hard to find, but in many cases it’s even harder to find access to needed distribution channels, government contract expertise, or the special skills required to deliver your solution. Entrepreneurs need to spend time working on the business, as well as in the business.
  1. Finish the product before marketing begins. It’s never too early to start marketing, since it usually takes as long to build marketing momentum as it does to build a product. No startup can afford to do these serially. In today’s information age, it takes time and money to make your solution visible. Marketing should start before product development.
  1. Just give up and start over when tired and frustrated. In my experience, most startup success back-stories include an entrepreneur that simply would not give up, despite seemingly impossible odds. Most great entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, overcame multiple setbacks before they built their legacy of success.

None of these issues involve rocket science or MBAs. The best entrepreneurs just temper their passion with reality checks and street smarts, derived from their advisors and learning from their peers. It’s good to avoid making the same mistake twice, but it’s even more important to avoid making the same mistake as others before you, and expecting a better outcome. Even the best excuses don’t lead to success.

Marty Zwilling

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