Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How to Relate Your Technology to Business Values

Presenting your startup vision as a founder to a potential investor, or presenting an idea as an employee to an executive, requires that you effectively communicate, or “translate”, the value proposition into terms that the receiver can fully understand and appreciate. If you fail, it’s your loss, not theirs, no matter what the reason.

For example, if your investor has been a senior business leader, like Steve Forbes here, you need to transform your message so that it addresses the issues that senior business leaders have experienced as priorities. For the business leaders I know, these priorities almost always include the following:

  • Business agility. How can my company keep up with the ever increasing rate of change in technology, core business strategies, and culture trends? Implicit in agility is increased productivity on change initiatives. This applies to startups as well as big companies.

  • Data security. In today’s world of distributed data, global reach, and powerful incursion technologies, how do I protect my data and my customers’ data? Executives need more data accessible to their team everywhere, but at what cost?

  • User privacy. Customers are bombarded from all angles today for information to improve their user experience, yet they need to protect highly personal things. How does your proposition address highly targeted advertising without a privacy backlash?

  • Risk reduction. Especially in this world of constant litigation and hackers, how can I as an executive manage the risk to my personal future, as well as the future of my company? How can I control a highly distributed technical operation, which changes every day?

  • Return on investment. How do I measure the return on my development and marketing investments? These business leaders get demands from all organizations for more, more, more, with little ability to quantify payback.

  • Integration. Too many applications out there today are “silos,” built outside the existing organization without an overall architecture, or even a maintenance plan. How do I integrate these to maximize my return?

Your message better hit one or more of these priorities dead on, if you hope to get some traction. Too often what an executive hears is a pitch on some grand new technology that they can’t even understand, or certainly can’t see as directly applicable to their priorities. Remember they have heard similar technology stories for the last twenty years, usually expensive, with poor results

Consider this real example I heard a while back from some MBA students – “Let me introduce our newest tool, which we developed from ‘mashup’ technology, made popular by Facebook and online apps.” This entry line, as well as a long presentation which followed, was missing not only the translation to receiver priorities, but also assumed that the executive had the same background and view of the world as the presenters.

This is called the generation gap. These young technologists didn’t consider that most executives today are a few years older, and would probably translate ‘mashup’ to mean some version of a train wreck. And the mention of Facebook would raise some vague fears of their granddaughter being accosted through the Internet. You won’t close the deal with that pitch.

Obviously, if you are communicating to peers, or any other generational group, the rules change. But the message is the same - if you want to win, then the onus is on you to communicate the value of your argument in terms the other party understands.

Some entrepreneurs, perhaps because of their sense of entitlement, sometimes arrogantly assume the other party should shoulder most of the responsibility for any translation required. If you had one chance to present to Steve Forbes, how would you present your new technology to prevent your own mashup?

Marty Zwilling



Monday, September 17, 2012

10 Ways to Enhance Your Team Collaboration Skills

It takes a great entrepreneur with a great vision to start a business, but it takes a collaboration of many people to make it a success. That’s where leadership comes in as a key ingredient, to drive the collaborative process to make the whole team better than the sum of the parts.

I remember a book from a while back by Amilya Antonetti, titled “The Recipe: A Fable for Leaders and Teams” which illustrates the key concepts with stories and specific guidance on how to develop your natural leadership style. It all starts with how to be the leader in your own life, but then extends to learning the following skills she outlines for building a great collaborative team:

  1. Build and maintain trust. Trust is a key element we all need to set aside vulnerability, but it is hard to build, and easy to lose. It is not built on words, but through actions and evidence. Only when it works can a team raise and address the necessary issues to win.

  2. Expect conflict to reach consensus. A conflict and a fight are not the same thing. Conflicts are normal and required factual push backs in business, whereas fights are emotional, often personal, disagreements which do not lead forward to consensus.

  3. Embrace change. Change is the only constant in business, so make it your competitive advantage. Initiate change rather than react to it, and give clear instructions to help the team understand why the change is necessary, and how it will make the situation better.

  4. Improve your self awareness. Too often how we see ourselves is different from how we truly are, and how we are perceived by others. If you are unclear on what you want and need from others, you will rarely find it, and can’t lead others to help.

  5. Establish a level of analysis, structure, and control. The challenge is to strike the right balance. With none, things fall into chaos, but too much can have the effect of stifling innovation, flowing forward movement, and even hampering growth.

  6. Make decisions. In general, any decision is better than no decision. Usually a blended approach is the best, between independent decisions, and collaborative decisions factoring in the best team input. Picking great team members is a required first decision.

  7. Foster continuous communication. Communication is the glue that forms the bond between leaders and teams, and holds great teams together. Actions are stronger than words as the true evidence of the message we deliver. Credibility is a required base.

  8. Build championship teams. Winning teams evolve only from the right players, the right attitude, and the right coach. There has to be a cohesiveness and common focus on shared values and a commitment to reaching their shared and personal goals.

  9. Provide recognition and rewards. These drive human behavior, and human behavior drives results. Recognition validates people, their purpose, and their life. Intangible rewards can have an even greater impact than tangible ones, but they must be relevant.

  10. Create learning experiences. We all have a desire to learn and grow, or we and the team become bored and lethargic. The best learning opportunities are experience and sharing with focus on three styles: see and read, hear and repeat, and touch and feel.

In today’s fast-moving digital business age, we face an entirely new environment for innovation and collaboration. The days of the lone genius quietly toiling away, or the autocratic leader are gone.

So use these tips to develop your collaborative leadership skills and learn to build high performance teams. When the team is working well together, it can feel like magic, and the results will match your feelings. Amilya and I have both been there.

Marty Zwilling



Tuesday, September 11, 2012

For a Startup, Two Heads are Always Better Than One

If you are a first-time entrepreneur, I recommend that you team with a co-founder with experiences, connections, and a skill set that complements, but doesn’t duplicate yours. Even experienced entrepreneurs need a partner to back up each other and improve fundability. The question is how to find that elusive perfect-fit partner.

First, I will admit there is no magic formula here, just like in real life when trying to find a relationship partner. But from my own experience, and input from others, there are useful approaches that will improve your odds of success:

  1. Define the ideal partner. The most important step is deciding exactly what skills and experience you need to best complement yours. Start with your own judgment, but don’t hesitate to ask for advice from a seasoned investor. Ideal partners here should not include your best friend or a family member.

  2. Start the search with business networking. Actively participate in local business groups and events, like The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) and entrepreneur forums. Join entrepreneur groups online, like Linkedin “On Startups”, Facebook for Business, and use Twitter to find people with like-minded interests.

  3. Join online “dating” sites for business partners. Believe it or not, there are online websites that are dedicated to just this challenge. Examples include PartnerUp, StartupAgents, and Cofoundr. Don’t forget the wealth of business blogs frequented by entrepreneurs and investors, where you make your interests known.

  4. Use local university connections. Call some professors and students at your local university to see if they know any entrepreneurial students, alums, or professors who might be interested in jointly creating a real company.

  5. Look for diversity in outside activities. Major universities, like Stanford and MIT, are flush with smart people from all cultures, many of whom would bring a whole new energy and creativity to your startup. Certain activities seem to attract the right kind of independent thinkers, like rock climbing and ultimate Frisbee.

  6. Talk to people at work. If you have worked with someone at another company for a couple of years, and realized that your work ethic, goals, and personalities are similar, that person may be a good match. Watch out for non-compete clauses, and conflicts of interest with the current employer.

  7. Move to the right geography. If you live in the middle of nowhere, your chances of finding the right co-founder for your new high-tech startup are poor. Maybe it’s time to consider relocating to one of the hubs for startups, like Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle, or Austin. As soon as you find the partner, these are the places to find funding as well.

  8. Get to know potential partners before committing. Take your time. Meet personally with potential candidates in both formal and informal environments to check for a match in chemistry as well as interests. Ask every question you can think of, and don’t let emotions get the best of you. Co-founder is a long-term relationship.

  9. Agree on role assignments early. The last thing you need after all this work is partners stepping on your toes. Make sure you all agree on what you know, what you are good at, and what responsibilities are assigned to each. Get this in writing as a standard pre-nuptial.

  10. Hire a lawyer. Especially when dealing with co-founders that haven’t worked together before, meet with a lawyer with all the partners present and tell him what type of company you are starting, who is contributing what, and other relevant information. Get it written down. Later will be too late.

As most founders come to learn, finding the right business partner or co-founder is among the most difficult, yet most important things that new entrepreneurs need to do. Once they find a great partner, most of the ones I know stay with that partner through multiple startups. Of course, if you’re the next Google, you may only need one.

Marty Zwilling



Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Entrepreneurs Can Be The Key To Global Connectivity

Entrepreneurs are always looking for “the next big thing,” when maybe in fact it’s a lot of little things that are only recognized after the fact as components of a big evolution or revolution. In my view, the Internet “connectivity anywhere” has already spawned several of these, but the global change has only begun.

Emily Nagle Green, in her book from a while back “ANYWHERE,” argues effectively that the future of the world and business is ubiquitous connectivity, the total interconnection of people, ideas, and products through a global digital network. Every person will have access to virtually anything in the world from virtually anywhere he or she happens to be at the moment. Key vehicles already include wireless for communication, and RFID for product location.

The implications for startups in this context are huge. On the hardware side we need better technology to provide a common digital network around the world, better broadband to satisfy the demand, and wireless ubiquity for connecting people, devices, and businesses. The needs for new software and services are just as pervasive.

So how do entrepreneurs train to lead the Anywhere Revolution, rather than be dragged along by its wave? Here are some principles I have adapted from Emily’s work:

  1. Be eternally curious. You need to be an eager investigator, avoiding the temptation to write things off before you’ve opened your eyes to all the possibilities they offer. Don’t let yourself be talked out of powerful ideas. Develop a keen sense of customer appetites, as well as current solution strengths and weaknesses.

  2. Be a ubiquitous connector. Some people are naturally “connectors,” using their links with others to create or promote opportunities between them. The Internet dramatically reduces the cost of being a connector. In fact, now we can all be connectors, and should be.

  3. Be an analytic thinker. Already today, your skills in searching for information and then synthesizing that information, looking for patterns, and interpreting it, can be more valuable than the actual information you’ve amassed in your experience as a person and as an employee.

Entrepreneurs should be asking themselves for every consumer and business product, how can we add “anywhere” connectivity to this item? This is called the connectivity diffusion.

  • If you can enhance the user’s experience with sending, or getting, real-time information, you should.
  • If you can add value to the product with connectivity – perhaps contributing to the cost, too, and thus defraying the price of the product for the customer – you should.
  • If you can extend the life of the product in the customer’s hands by providing service or updating it with new features, you should.
  • If you can partner with a firm that can do any of these things to bring your service or message to more “surfaces” in the customer’s life, you should.

Also, put your marketing hat on and realize the wealth of new potential opportunities to create more awareness and consideration of your product or service in the future of ubiquitous connectivity. Whether it’s coupons, or advertisements on the mobile, the connected device with geo-location that’s always in a pocket or purse is literally a whole new world for marketers.

As an entrepreneur, don’t apologize for your self-interest and profit motivation. Be an optimistic adopter of connectivity. Be a connectivity evangelist and embrace the connectivity future that is opening before you. That’s a win-win for everyone anywhere.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, September 3, 2012

The Unwritten Secrets for Choosing a Startup Mentor

Every first-time entrepreneur, or even an experienced founder stepping into a new business area, needs a mentor. Nothing you have ever done raises so many questions, or has the potential to be so fulfilling, or so risky, as starting a new business for the first time. A mentor is a confidant who has been there and done that, and is willing to guide your steps.

In case you think mentors are only for “wimps,” you should know that most great entrepreneurs are quick to give credit to their mentors. Bill Gates always revered the early guidance he received from Dr. Ed Roberts, creator of the Altair 8800. Later, the great Warren Buffet became his mentor on many corporate matters.

In a reverse fashion, most of the recognized business gurus always found time to be a mentor. For a fortunate, surprisingly large club of CEOs, the late Peter F. Drucker was the single most lucid, eloquent, and encouraging force in their lives. With experts like this willing to help for free, why should you be the one to go it alone?

The best mentor candidates are the most experienced professionals you admire, and from whom you can learn, to accelerate your progress and avoid the deep potholes in the road ahead. Martin Yate, in his recent book “Knock 'em Dead - Secrets and Strategies for Success in an Uncertain World” succinctly outlines the key criteria for choosing mentors:

  • Mentoring is not a group activity. Mentors are not like lovers. You can have more than one at a time. But my advice is to start with one, or certainly no more than one in an area of expertise. It could make sense to have a business mentor, as well as a technology mentor, but a committee of your friends won’t work.

  • The best mentors are older than you. Although age and wisdom don’t always go together, it is better to find a mentor older than you, because they will have skills you don’t and the wisdom of greater experience. You need both.
  • Let the relationship develop naturally, over time. Mentor relationships, like any other human relationship, don’t happen overnight, and need to be nurtured on a person-to-person basis, rather than remotely or anonymously. The best mentors will even introduce you to their support network, which can multiply the value.
  • The mentor should not have a direct reporting relationship with the protégé. The protégé should be able to feel free to speak about issues which may be plaguing him without fear of repercussions from a major board member, investor or boss.

  • The mentor must be committed to being a mentor. Mentoring is an incredibly important responsibility. If the mentor does not want this responsibility, he will view the time spent mentoring as a nuisance. Being committed means being available, listening well, and able to keep confidences.
  • Find someone who will tell it straight. Telling it straight means having direct discussions that are constructive, respectful, and specific. Both sides need the courage to stop if the relationship isn’t working. Life is too short to waste their time or yours. In this context, it’s also important to find someone who matches your values.

Remember that a good mentor doesn’t relieve you of any responsibility in running your business. Be aggressive and take charge of your own decisions. Don’t expect the mentor to do the work for you, or even the research required to get a job done. In other words, don’t abuse the mentor, by asking them to be your boss, or respond to every thought that pops into your head.

In business as in life, the smartest people are the ones who know they don’t know it all. But smart people learn quickly. Not far down the road, you will be ready to mentor entrepreneurs who are where you were only a year or two ago. You then become a contributor to business leadership in the same way your mentor was to you. That’s value squared.

Marty Zwilling