Wednesday, December 30, 2015

10 Leadership Traits That Can Damage Your Business

Tony Hayward BP CEODoes it really take a few flaws to make a great entrepreneur, or are the rest of us just confused about what a perfect business person is all about? In the past I’ve written about the positive attributes of great entrepreneurs, so this time I thought I would focus on the negatives that I see often, and I challenge you to find someone that has all the positives and none of the negatives.

We’ve all heard the old adage that “nice guys finish last,” so I would quickly concede that positive and negative are relative terms, depending on the context. For example, if a customer is being particularly obnoxious or demanding, would a great entrepreneur respectfully show him the door, or accommodate his demands, with the positive goal of satisfying every customer?

The business leader with the positive traits to calmly and patiently handle tough customers, vendors, and personnel situations, balancing all the issues, I would evaluate as a great one. Yet here are a few other traits that I see in great business leaders, which don’t seem so positive for the entrepreneur, his team, customers, or investors:
  1. Multitasking to the extent of thrashing. Entrepreneurs often have a thousand things going in their mind, and switch so rapidly from one to the other that they leave many people confused, including themselves. The result is that important tasks get short shrift, and relationships suffer. Don’t let multitasking supersede focus and real listening.

  2. Demands perfection from all. Entrepreneurs who are perfectionists are never satisfied with their own work, as well as the work of others. This can cause delays and costs in the business, as well as friction and frustration in relationships with team members, partners, and customers. Steve Jobs survived this imperfection, or it made Apple famous.

  3. Strong convictions bordering on obstinate. The best leaders have strong convictions, but listen to others, and are willing to compromise when required, to move the ball forward. In business, if you refuse to compromise to meets the needs of customers, your competitors will replace you. Business is no place for stubbornness.

  4. Not a team player. Most entrepreneurs start their business because they perceive a need in the market not seen by others, and often they just don’t enjoy working with others. In time, however, every business requires a team, and giving up control becomes a constant struggle. Some entrepreneurs simply jump ship and start again.

  5. Over-confident to the point of being egotistical. Letting your ego drive decisions is not the same as confidence based on knowledge and trust. While entrepreneurs need a healthy ego for body armor, it can quickly become the negative trait of arrogance if not tempered. Many put Ted Turner and Larry Ellison in this category.

  6. Procrastination on certain challenges. Sometimes I see very smart entrepreneurs who struggle with tough issues, like hiring and firing people. They may ignore these, or hand them off to a capable business partner. The positive traits of learning, management disciplines, and timely decisions have to step forward consistently to grow a business.

  7. Paranoid reaching delusional proportions. The good trait of being alert and cautious when approaching new people and new partners can easily morph into paranoia, where the entrepreneur trusts no one, and thinks all deals are a potential plot. The best entrepreneurs believe they can find win-win relationships with partners and investors.

  8. Work-life balance and workaholic tendencies. Most entrepreneurs will admit to being a workaholic at some stage of their startup. Ultimately this dedication will be seen as a negative trait by partners, family members, and team members, and can limit your business growth. Migrate to the positive traits of delegation and organization.

  9. Often emotional and temperamental. Passion and sensitivity to people are key traits in every good entrepreneur, but in some cases, these can seem to escalate to mood changes and emotional outbursts for no reason. At this point the leader may make less rational decisions, and loses the loyalty and trust of associates and customers.

  10. Looks at the world through colored lenses. Successful entrepreneurs can easily lose sight of the real business world, once the perks of power and influence set in. Many say this happened to Tony Hayward, BP CEO, after the Gulf oil spill, and AIG executives before the Depression a few years ago. The time to worry is when you start seeing humility as a character flaw, rather than a positive trait.
Every successful business leader can probably relate to these not-so-positive traits, and in many cases, will attest that without one or more of them, their business would likely have failed. The question is whether that makes them good traits, which should be learned and nurtured by every young entrepreneur who is striving to be great. I think not. There has to be a better way.

Marty Zwilling

*** Published on IvyExec.com on 11/27/2015 ***

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Monday, December 28, 2015

The Only Thing Not to Fear Is Success Itself

business-fear-successCan you imagine an entrepreneur who is actually afraid of success? None will ever admit it openly, but I’m a strong believer that actions or lack of action speaks louder than words. In my years of advising startups, I’ve seen too many cases of seemingly irrational actions, or just freezing with that “deer in the headlights” look when it’s time to make a critical move.

I see it in the technologists who never get around to shipping their product, nominally because it isn’t finished yet. I see it in the business person who has plenty of funding, but won’t spend a dime on marketing to get the word out, just to conserve resources. After years of hard work, they always have rational excuses but really no one to blame but their own internal fears of success.

So, if your startup seems stuck in a rut these days, maybe it’s time to take a hard look at these common internal challenges, to see if you are actually the real limit to your success in business than the faltering economy or tough competitors:
  1. You need to be in control of every detail. Control freaks find it hard to survive as entrepreneurs, primarily because none of us have the time or skills to do everything that needs to be done in a business. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from advisors and to hire help (do what needs to be done) rather than just helpers (do what you tell them).

  2. You just want to be treated as another member of the team. Every successful business needs someone in charge -- the buck stops here, and hard decisions have to be made. Some entrepreneurs fear being seen as the boss, so they try to make every move a team decision often resulting in no decision or analysis paralysis. It’s time to be the leader.

  3. You don’t want to give up your current lifestyle. Some entrepreneurs unconsciously fear that the focus and dedication required for success will change their lifestyle to one they don’t enjoy or their friends won’t appreciate. In fact, one of the many challenges of a new business is to balance personal and family life and continue outside activities. Face it.

  4. You're afraid to ask for and spend other people’s money. It takes money to make money. Real startup growth usually requires an initial infusion of cash to kick-start marketing, hire staff and build inventory. Soliciting and managing outside funds is a fear that every entrepreneur has to overcome for success. The challenge is not to let it get too easy.

  5. You're unable to take enough risk due to fear of failure. There are no certainties in business, so taking a risk is required, and one or more failures is about average. Neither is life-threatening, and true friends and family will not desert you after a few setbacks. Successful entrepreneurs never give up and wear their failures as a badge of courage.

  6. You can’t possibly be smart enough to succeed in business. Maybe your parents were not supportive, or you struggled in school, so your self-confidence has never risen above a certain point. These fears can be overcome, by setting small milestones early and often and working upward. Business success requires street smarts, not book smarts.

  7. You hate stepping out of your comfort zone. Even experienced entrepreneurs often keep coming back to the same formulas and tools, which worked at some level and at some point in time. The challenge is that the business world keeps changing, and future success requires new creativity and innovation. Force yourself to step outside the box.
Successful entrepreneurs almost always start with a vision and a higher level purpose than just making money. It helps to communicate this higher purpose, to motivate you and overcome the fear of the unknown. Success does not require that you be fearless, but only that you be determined to transform fears into positive learning actions rather than negative roadblocks.

The ultimate fear to overcome is the fear of success per se. This is the most debilitating, since it usually comes from a deep-seated desire to conform and blend in. It can cause you to lose faith in your abilities and give up your vision at the slightest setback. Keep your vision and purpose at the forefront to motivate you and allow you to step beyond all your fears to the entrepreneurial success you deserve.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/18/2015 ***

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

6 Keys To Make Sure Your Product Fits Today's World

BMW_Hydrogen_7_EngineGreat technology leads to innovative solutions that are possible, but not necessarily great businesses. Rube Goldberg illustrated this principle many years ago in cartoons, but I still find inventors that are creating solutions today looking for a problem. In addition, every solution has to fit into the current political, cultural and economic environment to make it a viable business.

For example, hydrogen-fueled engines were invented over a century ago, with a continuing promise of breathing air and exhaling pure water vapor and having over 200 companies active in the hydrogen sector today. Yet, due largely to non-technology business considerations, including pricing, safety concerns and support infrastructure, there are none that most people can name.

Every entrepreneur needs to keep a priority focus on these big-picture business issues, well before he commits his resources and his future to a technology that he loves. Here are some specifics that I recommend as a startup advisor for maintaining a properly balanced perspective.
  1. Keep up on business issues as diligently as on technology issues. Most technologists pride themselves on their link to relevant technology developments, but very few apply the same discipline to business and big-picture changes. Good entrepreneurs know they have to be experts in business as well as technology.

  2. Regularly communicate with major business leaders in your domain. Business leaders are the ones who best understand the balance that must be achieved between a technology and business success. Effective communication is not a debate, but active listening and an exchange of perspectives in a personal and informal environment.

  3. Develop written business plans as detailed as product plans. Good technologists produce written product specifications, to help them personally be confident that all the technical requirements are covered. Yet their business plans rarely get more than a page or two written. Defining a good business is as complex as defining a good solution.

  4. Participate in business leadership groups outside your technology. Effective personal networking involves reaching outside your level of expertise, and interacting with people who can balance your perspective. Activities that broaden your focus to societal, environmental and economic issues will help make you a winner in business.

  5. Find a business advisor with credibility to challenge your assumptions. Sometimes it takes some humility to even ask for input, and even more to really listen to negative feedback. Most successful entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, maintain mentor relationships with key advisors that they highly respect.

  6. Focus on advancing return on investment, rather than state of the art. By prioritizing customer need and value first, you will more likely achieve the satisfaction of seeing your paradigm shift become reality. Technology opportunities require effort and money, so they should be driven by value to customers, rather than the intellectual challenge.
Finally, remember that investors fund business people before technology. They look for expertise and experience in building a business as a higher value than expertise in building a solution. An even more fundable alternative is a pair of founders, one with business credibility and the other with the relevant technology expertise. It’s a clear example of how one plus one can equal three.

Successful entrepreneurs must understand and fit into the world today, and it’s getting more complex every day. In today’s world, social and environmental values often are more important success drivers than technology. The most important technology in business may be the business intelligence and big-data tools to curate the real needs in every business segment.

In fact, most customers no longer care about and many actively fear and avoid new technology. Thus technology is best hidden under better user interfaces, and simple yet powerful solutions to their problems. Can you imagine Facebook and the iPhone being sold as paradigm shifts in technology? Yet both are new technologies that have garnered huge business opportunities.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/16/2015 ***

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Friday, December 25, 2015

It’s Time To Design Human Experiences Versus Products

Apple_Store_YonkersToday’s customers demand more than a good product; they expect a great customer experience. A few companies are leading the way, including Apple with their iPad and iPhone, offering irresistible stores with friendly experts, elegant packaging, and customer service that never ends. People love Apple’s whole customer experience, and willingly pay a premium for the product.

Much has been written about product design, but designing the total experience from the front rarely happens yet. In a new book, “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design,” Brian Solis details how to design the whole experience, rather than just the product. Solis is a globally recognized thought leader in this area, and he asserts that the experience is now the product.

Every entrepreneur needs to learn how to do this by starting with the six principles of User-Centered Design (UCD), as outlined by Solis in his book, and already adopted by key International standards organizations:
  1. Apply multidisciplinary skills and perspectives. The total experience design begins with a common vision, but then must cross the borders between product, packaging, marketing, customer support, and many other disciplines. Human-experience design always supplements technology-driven design, and environmentally sustainable design.

  2. Explicitly integrate customers, tasks, and environments. Designers must factor in people behaviors, context, preferences, as well as customer goals and aspirations. The objective is to build a sustainable relationship between the product and customer. This requires people on your team who have real-world experience, as well as design training.

  3. Insist on customer engagement and user-centered evaluation. With the advent of interactive social media, as well as high-bandwidth video tools, there is no excuse for not involving real customers, and prospects who fit the desired demographic. With these, you apply common tools, such as field research, user groups, questionnaires and interviews.

  4. Include the total user experience from shopping to support. Experience using the product is only one stage. Others include the marketing awareness and education stage, online and in-store shopping stage, setup stage, support, and upgrade considerations. While there are many models for the design process, every stage should be included.

  5. Keep users engaged throughout design and development. Don’t assume that early input is adequate. In today’s fast paced market, trends and user needs evolve. Results show that when users are engaged throughout the development process, a number of key system requirements are identified that would otherwise be entirely missed.

  6. Make user-centered design processes iterative. Early testing of conceptual models and design ideas often suggests a complete overhaul and rethinking of the design. In all cases, designs can be refined and improved by iteration. Full customer experience use cases are key because they help identify interactions between stages of design work.
Customer experience should be one of the biggest priorities in startups right now, but I still don’t see it happening. Technologists focus on building a product that works, marketing people try to build a story around the result, and support people figure out how to deal with customer feedback on shortcomings. Good customer experiences happen only by accident, rather than by design.

Most new customers are now mobile or digital first as a result of the devices and apps that shape their lives. These products with their pinch, swipe, zoom, and instant delivery have reshaped customer preferences and decision making. A great customer experience today requires an acceptance of these engagement models and building on them, rather than ignoring them.

If you are looking for a competitive advantage, creating a positive total user experience is the place to start. Too many existing companies have evolved into silos of expertise, which make user-centered design and delivery difficult, if not impossible. As an entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to take the lead, and become the world’s next super-brand. Now is the time to do it.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Are You 'Intelligent' Enough to Be an Entrepreneur?

Image via Flickr by tinto
Many people feel that they just aren’t smart enough to be an entrepreneur, yet there seems to be no convincing evidence that a high IQ is a prerequisite for this lifestyle. We all know of successful businesses started by first-time entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, and according to many sources, “street smarts” (experience) tends to trump “book smarts” (intelligence) every time.

Another perspective is that there are in fact multiple types of intelligence, and we all have strengths and weaknesses along all of these scales. It does appear that most successful entrepreneurs are those with the broadest range of interests, skills and experiences (street smarts), while a maximum depth in any given discipline is not so important.

Here are basic definitions for the eight most commonly recognized intelligences that cover the potential of most humans, prioritized by my view of applicability to the entrepreneurial role:
  1. Word-smarts (linguistic intelligence). People with a high linguistic intelligence display a high facility for word usage and languages. They are typically good at communicating ideas, reading, writing and telling stories. Good entrepreneurs need these skills to lead a team, sell ideas to customers and investors and write business plans.

  2. People-smarts (interpersonal intelligence). These attributes are the embodiment of social skills. Entrepreneurs with high social skills interact more effectively with all their constituents. They are able to sense the feelings, motivations and temperaments of others, to enlist their support and negotiate effectively. They love working with people.

  3. Self-smarts (intra-personal intelligence). Intra-personal intelligence is the capacity to understand your own strengths, weaknesses and motivations, and to capitalize on these insights in planning and strategy. Good entrepreneurs must be able to surround themselves with advisors and partners who complement their skills to find satisfaction and happiness.

  4. Number-smarts (logical-reasoning intelligence). Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to calculate, quantify and think logically. Entrepreneurs use strengths in this area to balance their passion for a specific solution and to develop the specific steps and financial resources required for building, rolling out and scaling the business to success.

  5. Nature-smarts (naturalist intelligence). This sort of environmental and cultural insight is deeply rooted in a sensitive, ethical and holistic understanding of the world and its complexities. I believe that good entrepreneurs use this to see new markets first, predict world trends and devise effective marketing campaigns and demographics for focus.

  6. Picture-smarts (spatial intelligence). Spatial intelligence is the ability to think in three dimensions and the ability to visualize with the mind's eye. Core capacities include mental imagery, spatial reasoning and an active imagination. It’s easy to see how this is important for entrepreneurs in marketing, solution design and product branding.

  7. Body-smarts (kinesthetic intelligence). This intelligence involves a sense of timing and the perfection of skills through mind-body coordination. Business entrepreneurs who are also good at invention and building innovative new products are especially strong in this area. Strengths here also lead to leadership presence and public-speaking prowess.

  8. Music-smarts (musical intelligence). Musical intelligence is the capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, timbre and tone. In addition to being key to any business directly or indirectly related to music, this skill help entrepreneurs to be better listeners, orchestrate events and develop marketing programs. Music-smart people also tend to be logical.

In addition to looking at intelligence, every aspiring entrepreneur needs to look at mindset. The mindset that works best is one that sees challenges as exciting rather than threatening, setbacks as learning opportunities and a conviction that effort and perseverance will overcome any obstacle.

If you have that mindset and even a few strengths among the multiple intelligences described above, don’t let anyone, including yourself, tell you that you aren’t smart enough to be an entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/11/2015 ***

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

6 Questions To Validate A Digital Marketing Message

Image via Flickr by socialautomotive
Most technical entrepreneurs cringe when they finally realize that marketing is still king, despite the power of technology, and they are up against competitors who have a hundred times their spending power. Luckily, the digital revolution has been a great equalizer in the marketing world, if used effectively to target the audience, engage the customer, and measure results.

Digital marketing is simply the move to the digital tools and technologies that most people depend on every day, including smartphones, search engines, tablets, video on demand, and the social media channels like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube. The cost of entry to market on these is low, and marketing leverage has very little to do with the size of your budget.

The best strategy and tactics to accomplish this digital marketing leverage are detailed in a recent book, “Taking Down Goliath,” by Kevin M. Ryan and Rob “Spider” Graham. These industry veterans have been teaching smaller companies how to compete with digital marketing for many years, and have a wealth of case studies to show it really works.

The first step is to create the perfect online marketing message. This message is defined as the knowledge or information that will be retained by customers after they are exposed to your company. The authors reiterate what I often say to business to business (B2B) entrepreneurs, it’s all about selling solutions (not technology) to real customers who have real needs and problems they want solved:
  1. How does this solution solve an existing problem? Every business faces challenges that affect their sales efforts, manufacturing efforts, human resources, and other things that keep them viable and profitable. Not only must the solution benefit the company as a whole, but there can be emotional benefits as well for employees who feel the pain.

  2. How does this solution provide a competitive advantage? Solutions that can turn a threat into an opportunity are especially enticing. In a world where the common scenario is “eat or be eaten,” being able to help companies to be better predators and less likely to be prey will be compelling.

  3. How does this solution make the customer a visionary/market leader? Part of the competitive advantage in the marketplace is being perceived by that market as a leader in some way. Every company is striving to find an identity that highlights its unique selling proposition, to stand out from the crowd as a visionary.

  4. How does this solution enable a significant value exchange? Smart companies are always looking for a return on investment. If they spend time, money, or other resources on a potential solution, then that solution should pay for itself. That’s a value exchange, as are solutions that empower employees to make better use of existing resources.

  5. How does this solution represent an exclusive opportunity? In the business world, exclusivity isn’t just a social ego boost. Companies that have access to, or can sell products and services not available to their competitors, can position themselves better in the marketplace. Like people, businesses need to be known for what sets them apart.

  6. How does this solution increase performance and productivity? Companies that are more efficient in the use of all their resources will be more profitable. Solutions that increase performance include automation tools, equipment upgrades, and new approaches to manufacturing and distribution.
For business to consumer (B2C) audiences, effective marketing messages are also about triggering strong emotional triggers that consumers rely on to make decisions about the value and benefits of the offers they receive. These include a sense of well-being, convenience, security, significance, exclusivity, positive social standing, and others.

In both business and consumer environments, with digital marketing technology, the playing field between big companies, mid-size businesses, and even startups has been leveled tremendously. The new success factor is not the size of your budget, but your skill in crafting the right message, sending it out through the right channels, and tuning the system for maximum results.

Only in this age of digital marketing could a small non-profit, with a very limited budget, reach an audience of millions per month worldwide, with their “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” marketing message last year, and achieve results exceeding $100 million. Don’t let big-budget Goliaths trample you merely by the size of their footprint.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, December 18, 2015

6 Ways To Stop Selling And Get More Customers Buying

Image via Pixabay
Making more sales quickly today is no longer about selling. It’s all about getting customers to make a buy decision. Customers are more in control of their buying decisions than ever before, with the wealth of alternatives and information available online, and interactive access to sources they trust via social media. They don’t want to be pushed into a sale, but they love to be pulled in by what is important to them.

Thus, it is critical for sales and marketing people to spend more time understanding what motivates their customer decisions today and less time pushing for a fast close. It means more focus on the customer buying process rather than the customer selling process. Here are some specifics I recommend to accomplish this.
  1. Get the view from the customer early by talking to real people. With interactive social media and customers anxious to provide input, companies no longer need expensive customer panels and market research to get a true customer perspective. It’s important to do this early and continuously, since needs and motivations change quickly.

  2. Structure your sales process based on customer buying steps. Replace your sales process steps with customer action steps. Continually drive for more specifics on the steps customers follow, such as seeking friend recommendations, scanning for good reviews and checking impact on the environment. Tune your sales process to address each of these.

  3. Make selling collaborative rather than the domain of a single sales person. With today’s online tools, let the customer see and hear from your support organization, marketing and top executives. The customer needs to feel like he is joining a team who has his back rather than negotiating a special deal. Make every sale a win-win outcome.

  4. Identify specific decision points and demographics of the buyer. Individual buyer demographics can no longer be generic titles, such as mother, owner or organization. With today’s analytics, you can -- and need -- to look deeper at each customer for culture, age, lifestyle and buyer-experience expectations. Selling to the wrong profile loses sales.

  5. Identify the key relationships behind the customer buy decision. Trusted advisor connections and personal relationships often outweigh price and feature comparisons. This is true even with corporate executives, as well as individual consumer decisions. These relationships may be from support groups, online influencers or industry experts.

  6. Forecast lead closure rates based on customer buying steps completed. Sales projections based on sales steps completed puts the focus on the wrong equation. Closing sales requires an understanding of how to get the customer to move to the next step in his buying process. Where this need is not met should be a new marketing task.
Another way to speed up the customer buying process and improve your credibility is to know your customer so well that you can effectively address potential objections before they are even raised. This includes recognizing that you have competition, and using the competitor offering to highlight your advantages. It’s never a good thing to denigrate your competition.

Also, don’t forget to follow-up with and nurture existing customers. In today’s open communication environment, every satisfied customer can bring you four to six new ones quickly with credibility already established and without any selling. In addition, the cross-selling and up-selling opportunities can be far more lucrative than a sole focus on new customer acquisition.

Overall, the key is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes, and lead them through their own buying decision process. Most customers don’t mind being led, if they are convinced that you are a leader rather than a pusher. It’s important that you listen to their needs before charging down a specific path. Nobody trusts someone who has all the answers before they know the question.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/09/2015 ***

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

5 Surprising Truths From A Crowdfunding Advocate

Boy wearing Oculus Rift via Wikipedia
As an advisor to many entrepreneurs, I still hear frequently the irrational exuberance that crowdfunding is the quick alternative for startups that are passed over by overly demanding angels or venture capital investors. In reality, crowdfunding has become a major startup funding vehicle, with an estimated contribution of $30 billion in 2015, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I just finished a new book, “A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide,” by Jamey Stegmaier, one of the biggest thought leaders on crowdfunding, and who has also run seven successful Kickstarter projects, that together have raised more than three million dollars. He starts out by outlining five reality checks for the uninitiated who are too quick to jump in with both feet:
  1. Community building has to happen before collecting cash. He points out that the word crowd precedes funding in crowdfunding. Entrepreneurs who don’t focus on what people really want and need to know, before trying to collect money, are unlikely to be successful. Startups need to build a large passionate group of fans before the campaign.

  2. It’s not easy money, so expect to work harder than you ever have. Don’t expect to run a crowdfunding campaign in your free time. Stegmaier recommends that you start by writing a regular blog, joining a few related campaigns, building a high-quality video, and completing up to a hundred additional lessons before you even launch your own project.

  3. You need a polished, tested concept, not just an idea. If you want money, rather than just feedback, you need to actually design, develop, and prove that you have something worth people’s hard-earned funds before you launch your campaign. Crowdfunding to gauge demand is not recommended, since failed campaigns don’t usually recover later.

  4. Making something awesome will cost more than you expect. Don’t assume that any money collected from a winning campaign will go into your pocket. It usually takes more than you can collect just to build and deliver the product. Startup revenues come later. Of course, if the campaign does not meet or exceed the funding objective, you get nothing.

  5. Crowdfunding is just the beginning of your business launch. Crowdfunding success does not mean business success. Many successful crowdfunding campaigns, just like many startups funded by angels and VCs, fail miserably due to normal business challenges, including inventory buildup, marketing, competition, and customer support.
Thus crowdfunding is clearly not the panacea for funding and success that many entrepreneurs envision. According to recent stats from Kickstarter, only 36 percent of projects meet their funding goal. Of roughly 170,000 unsuccessful projects, nearly 143,000 failed to reach even 20 percent of their goal. There is no substitute for validating your solution before launching your campaign.

The latest surge in expectations is just now occurring, as the SEC has finally “democratized” everyday citizens (non-accredited investors) to participate in equity crowdfunding. This means that instead of getting a memento or pre-order for a funding contribution, people can now get a portion of the business ownership, which may someday be worth millions for the next Facebook.

At this point, equity crowdfunding is still surrounded by many rules and restrictions on how much one person can invest, and what every startup must document and disclose to protect equity investors. Non-accredited investors can contribute a maximum of only 10 percent of their income, so they can’t lose it all on a single startup. We still have no experience on how well this will work.

Despite the unknowns, I’m definitely a proponent of crowdfunding, to support the upswing in the number of entrepreneurs and startups, and a new focus on entrepreneurship in every university and every community development organization. I don’t see crowdfunding replacing or crowding out angels and VCs in the near future, as there is never enough money to feed the startup beast.

The ultimate truth is that it takes about the same amount of effort and discipline to present a convincing story to investors, whether they be angels, venture capitalists, or ordinary members of the crowd. The odds of crowdfunding success are as low as the alternatives, despite what you hear about the response to Pebble Watch, and the Oculus Rift acquisition by Facebook for $2B. There are no shortcuts to success.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Don't Fall for These 6 Deadly Myths of Startups

Image via Flickr by Side Wages
Some entrepreneurs forget that they need an innovative business model along with an innovative solution to have a successful startup. Inventors alone, or business gurus alone, generally fail. It really takes a complementary pair of founders to improve the odds. That’s why I say “two heads are better than one” in a startup. Consider the original founders of Apple and Microsoft as examples.

Michael E. Gerber memorialized this concept many years ago in his classic book E-Myth, which postulates that most startups are initiated by entrepreneurs with technical skills, rather than business skills, resulting in a high failure rate. Since both skills are required in equal amounts for success, the single founder failure rate today is reported to far exceed 50 percent.

As an angel investor, I certainly see continuing evidence that this phenomenon hasn’t changed much in the past couple of decades. Technologists, in particular, who spend most of their time working in the business, rather than on it, still harbor several myths that contribute to their frequent demise:
  1. "A great technology will lead a successful business." In fact, both customers and investors often avoid the perceived high risk of innovative technology pitches. Customers don’t like new learning curves or dealing with unstable solutions. Early adopters love new technologies, but mass market customers want solutions, not technology.

  2. "If we design a great product, investors will find us." Technologists forget that investors are buying a chunk of the business, not the product. Every solution needs a business team first who knows how to market, distribute and support the product. Investors want proof of a business model and real customer revenue, as well as a product.

  3. "Business work should start only after the product is done." Business experts recommend that entrepreneurs start their marketing first to confirm that they have real customer interest and an appealing product concept. In addition, good marketing and support plans can take as long as product development. Do both in parallel to be timely.

  4. "Marketing is a necessary evil to sell weak solutions." In today’s world of information overload, everyone relies on marketing and social media to find solutions to match their needs. Even the best technical solutions often fail due to lack of good marketing. For innovative solutions, marketing is the education consumers need in lieu of experience.

  5. "Paradigm-shift solutions have no competition." The real competition to a new paradigm is the old paradigm. The first airplane faced major competition from trains and automobiles. If there is no competition, investors see no market, meaning no customers, slow growth and big marketing costs. Mention paradigm shift only with other technologists.

  6. "Free solutions are the way to build critical mass quickly." For many customers, free implies no real brand value, so loyalty is low, and support costs can still be high. Thus you need deep pockets or generous investors before advertising or alternative revenue streams can kick in. Premium pricing with exclusivity is often a better business strategy.
Every investor looks first for an entrepreneurial perspective that includes understanding how the business must work, and then how the solution does work. The required business work encompasses the long-term people and process growth associated with marketing, sales, distribution and customer support, as well as product costs, support and follow-on plans.

The best entrepreneurial perspectives go well beyond the technology and making money, into an integrated vision of the world where satisfying a customer need leads to the greater good for the environment and society. They provide a personal legacy, satisfaction and happiness. The challenge is to maintain a balanced view between inside and outside business drivers.

Social media and the Internet are great channels to test your balance and overcome the myths and biases we all carry as startup founders. I recommend more time building the right team and the best business with the best solution will evolve naturally. Finally, make sure your investor story is as strong on the business elements as it is on the solution.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/02/2015 ***

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Respect Competitors and Capitalize on Your Strengths

Running businessman. As an angel investor, I hear many entrepreneurs making negative comments about competitors or asserting they don’t have any competitors. They don’t realize that knocking competitors is assessed as a weakness and denying that you have any competition suggests there is no market for your solution. The smart approach is to find competitors to highlight your strengths.

For example, if your new software adds innovative new features and mobile access to a classic offering, you could name and degrade current vendors for their lack of support, or you could highlight your innovative additions over the current market leaders. The first approach makes you look vindictive, while the latter will tag you as a positive thought leader in the industry.

Smart investors, competitors and smart customers, will listen and watch carefully as you position your new offering. Don’t let your passion and ego overcome good business sense and common courtesy as you educate people on other alternatives in the marketplace. Here are my thoughts on the right steps to prepare for these discussions and how to capitalize on your strengths:

  1. Declare and file your innovations early as intellectual property. Taking action to file even a provisional patent shows you have the conviction and skill to execute while others have no barrier to entry. Investors invest in people who take action rather than find the excuses that patents are not defensible, cost money or may be done later.

  2. Position your solution as broadening the market, not killing a competitor. Focusing on a competitor is dangerous, since you don’t know what they plan to announce soon. Highlight one specific offering for rollout, but make it clear that this is just the first of a long line of planned solutions which will expand the market and keep you growing.

  3. Quantify your value over current market alternatives. When comparing competition, don’t use fuzzy terms such as improved usability, faster, less expensive and more productive. Investors are looking for significant (20 percent or greater) cost reductions, training savings or expense reductions. Use real case studies and customer feedback.

  4. Know every competitor but position only the top three. Every investor hates those large competitive analysis tables filled with check marks and red dots. If your space is crowded, define three groups, and name a specific in each group, such as “Company X is the best of the cloud solutions.” Dig deeper than Wikipedia for facts on key competitors.

  5. Solidify your exit strategy by picking a competitor as a comparable. The best way to support your acquisition potential for $100 million -- or going public -- is to find a competitor who has shown it can be done. Like selling your house, there is no valuation more solid than a comparable next door. Investors need a liquidity event to get their money out.

  6. Highlight opportunities for 'coopetition' and strategic partners. Pick the best of the competitors and explain how you could both win by expanding the market for both, reducing common costs or cross-referral agreements. Most large competitors no longer do new products internally and are looking to partner and invest if you don’t declare war.

  7. Define competition in the broadest sense and maximize your opportunity. Saying you have no direct competitors implies a very small market. Investors want to see you in a billion-dollar transportation opportunity rather than a tiny-future market for cars that fly. Acknowledge that the real competition may be status quo -- but focus on how you can change that.

  8. Capitalize on team experience and relevant business area strengths. Previous business successes or recognized expertise is a tremendous competitive advantage that is often overlooked. Equally important are relationships with key suppliers, distributors and potential customers. Remember that investors invest in people more than the idea.

Entrepreneurs who clearly respect their competitors and know how to capitalize on their own strengths will attract the right investors as well as the right business partners. Denigrating competitors -- or ignoring them -- is a recipe for disaster. It’s always smart to take the high road.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 12/04/2015 ***

*** Spanish translation on Bbooster.org

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

9 Principles For Countering Innovation Assassination

Robert-BrandsOne of the biggest challenges in any business, large or small, is overcoming the natural human preference for status quo, or fear of change. It means that most team members and executives alike have a natural tendency to prefer killing innovations rather than implementing them. Even customers, while they all want the next big thing, want it to happen with minimal new learning.

These fears and how every business can counter innovation assassination are explored in a new book, “Robert's Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation,” by Robert F. Brands, who brings decades of experience implementing innovation as the founder of InnovationCoach®. His goal is to teach us how to drive a culture of continuous innovation into every work environment.

Brands book is based on the implementation of nine principles of innovation originally developed by Google way back in 2008 by Marissa Mayer. I believe these principles, paraphrased here, should be adopted by every entrepreneur struggling to accomplish innovation in a startup in any market:

  1. Innovation can come from anywhere in the organization. Entrepreneurs should look for ideas from anyone, inside the organization or outside, top down or bottoms up, but the implementation responsibility is all yours. Startup leadership and survival is all about execution. That culture has to come from the top down, by your actions and messages.

  2. Focus on customer needs rather than profits. When innovations are implemented that have clear value and acceptance by customers, business success will follow. That’s the win-win equation we are all looking for. It also propagates back inside your company, via happier and more motivated employees, and far outside as societal advancements.

  3. Target factor of ten improvements, not 10 percent. Many experts feel it is easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better. It’s called radical innovation versus incremental improvement. It forces one to step away from existing assumptions and tools, and lean instead on creativity and thinking outside the box.

  4. Let new technical insights drive innovative products. For Google, this has led to self-driving cars, based on work with Google maps and artificial intelligence. Every startup technical team has unique insights, which should become new innovations. All too often, these insights are ignored by the company, and developers leave to become competitors.

  5. Ship and iterate, don’t expect instant perfection. Too many innovations get caught in analysis paralysis, and die an expensive death. No technical analysis has the power of real-time user and market feedback. Perfection is impossible in today’s rapidly changing market, and iterations are part of educating the market as well as your team.

  6. Spend twenty percent of work time on innovation. Everyone in a company should be encouraged to spend fully one-fifth of their time pursuing ideas for positive change, even if it is outside the core job or core mission of the company. This approach works best if you start with a focus on hiring change agents, and incentive programs for innovation.

  7. Set your default to sharing rather than proprietary. Information sharing and open source facilitates collaboration on a huge scale, and can bring in as many innovations as are sent out. It also increases market acceptance of innovations, by allowing concurrent work on integration, standardization, and support structures outside your company.

  8. Tolerate no negativity attached to failure. Stigmas and penalties for failing are among the largest gates to innovation. Like Thomas Edison famously said, failure is simply learning what doesn’t work. Failing well to Google means failing fast and failing cheap, all very positive attributes in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive world.

  9. Instill a mission and purpose that matters. People think harder if they really believe their innovations will impact millions of people in a positive way. Work can be more than a job when it stands for something people care about, and involves giving more than taking. Entrepreneurs are seeing huge premiums these days for giving back generously.

The Great Recession is now behind us and needs to be forgotten. There are no more excuses, no more reasons to postpone, ignore, or otherwise assassinate innovation in your organization. Whether you manage an entrepreneurial startup or a multinational conglomerate, the competitive pressures are unprecedented. Are you now unleashing your team’s full execution abilities?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Effective Collaboration is a Necessity, Not an Accessory

effective-collaborationBuilding a successful startup is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Every entrepreneur must effectively collaborate with many people, including internal team members, partners, customers, and investors. Real collaboration requires leadership and initiative from the entrepreneur in order to drive the collaborative process and make the whole team better than the sum of its parts.

A few innovative companies, including the financial advice company The Motley Fool, are so convinced that collaboration is the key to their competitive advantage that they have added the role of “chief collaboration officer,” in the person of Todd Etter. Todd tells people that his primary role is to get people around him to creatively and intelligently think together. That’s the essence of effective collaboration.

While effective collaboration is easier said than done, it’s the backbone for any startup that wants to get their product off the ground. As Ken Goldstein, former Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, said: “Products start with people… which means products start with collaboration.”

So how can growing teams not only embrace the idea of effective collaboration, a relatively abstract term, but actually use it?

For starters, it’s important to note that even the entrepreneurs who seem to have an innate ability to attract and inspire others can improve their collaboration skills. Regardless of our title or position in the company, we are all capable of learning from the experience of others. You certainly don’t have to be a natural-born leader in order to help your team find angles for collaboration.

Based on my years of advising entrepreneurs and investing, here are the three strategies that successful startups use to make effective collaboration an integral part of how they work:

Successful startups make communication a visible top priority. Nothing undermines team collaboration like poor communication. This includes written, verbal and body language. You can typically tell an unhappy, disconnected team by the way they interact and carry themselves throughout the day. All team members need to know what is expected of them on any given task, what their teammates are thinking, and what has changed since yesterday. Each individual teammate should be encouraged to be a positive role model through their actions, and discouraged from relying on the initiative of others.

As with all effective communication, episodes of conflict will surely arise. Successful startups encourage constructive conflict and view it as a way to explore alternative ways of thinking. Surrounding yourself with “yes” people, or people with no conviction, may feel good initially, but it will not produce the kind of effective collaboration necessary for a startup to succeed. You need smart people, with emotions as well as intellect, and this means that conflicts will occur as different perspectives are surfaced. Successful startups do not let conflicts turn into fights; they use conflicts to help drive consensus.

Effective collaboration also means being strong enough to employ the two basic, but oft-neglected communication skills: asking and listening. The leaders of successful startups must be strong enough to ask for feedback, listen deeply to that feedback, and then act on it. Every entrepreneur, if they are committed to improving their team and their own effectiveness, will benefit from soliciting and actively listening to team feedback.

Successful startups foster individual credibility and trustworthiness. The surest mark of a trustworthy leader is one who delivers on every personal commitment, no matter how small or seemingly trivial it may be. Their actions, day in and day out, should showcase their willingness to both listen to and work with others. Effective collaboration is maximized on teams where everyone is credible in their own realm, and everyone trusts each other, including the leader. Again, actions speak louder than words.

But successful startups also recognize that everyone on the team needs to be a decision maker. Collaboration is not an excuse for anyone to avoid making a decision, and the expert on a certain part of a project should be given the chance to lead. People who are able and willing to make sound individual decisions, can make great decisions as part of a team if they’re given the opportunity to do so. The first decision of a startup leader must be to team only with people who can make timely, good decisions.

Effective collaboration can also be built when the leader introduces advisors to make team efforts learning opportunities. Successful startups occasionally see team projects as an opportunity to bring in outside experts to mentor team members, and guide them through complex issues and unfamiliar territory. They provide liberal access to inside leaders, with the expectation that collaborative efforts will be productive both for business and for personal growth.

Successful startups build a culture where innovation and change are normal. Collaboration is wasted effort for a team when everyone knows that nothing is likely to change. An innovative team solution must be accepted with a positive attitude, and initial team instructions should always encourage creative thinking and solutions. Effective collaboration can only grow in an environment where change is exciting and expected, rather than rare and painful for all.

This type of environment can be built through encouraging and even incentivizing thinking outside the box, with a structured process. Chaos is the result of no structure, and is non-productive. Effective collaboration requires a balance of open-ended thinking within a leadership structure that drives to closure in a timely manner. Successful startups encourage each other to define parameters at the start of each project, and then measure progress along the way.

However, even a perfect environment must reward both effective collaboration wins as well as individual contributions. If a team only rewards individual achievements, collaboration, even in a team that embraces change, will be stifled. Rewards can come in a variety of forms—from appreciative words and extra days off, to paying for an employee’s travel and registration to attend a conference in their field. In my experience, a balance between team and individual drivers is the most effective approach.

While these three strategies are the backbone for successful startups, it’s important to note that they must always evolve with the times. The increase of remote teams, for example, may present new challenges to effective collaboration. Team members that do not work together daily, or barely even know each other, will require extra effort to build and maintain communication, credibility, and trustworthiness. It’s up to the leader or entrepreneur to provide the bridge, the process, and the glue to keep the team efforts productive.

Thus, a positive approach to forming any collaborative team is to capitalize on preexisting or “heritage” relationships. Research has shown that when 20 to 40 percent of the members are already well connected, the team was able to provide stronger collaboration right from the start. It’s important to leverage these existing relationships, especially when new team members come on board and need time to understand the workplace culture.

Also, bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to collaborative teams. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, famously nailed this with the “two pizza teams” rule: If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big. Throwing more people into a critical team is one of the most common productivity traps that new entrepreneurs can fall into. It can stop effective collaboration in its tracks, and in my experience individual performance levels often diminish as more people are added.

Ultimately, an effective collaboration is one that strives for a win-win-win relationship for the individuals, the team and the company. Smart individuals working together soon realize that their collective results simply could not have been achieved alone. Each individual ends up learning far more than they contribute. Likewise, winning teams spawn winning individuals. The end result is this: focusing on and investing in individual-to-team development will mean a win for the organization.

In today’s rapidly changing and highly interconnected business environment, it takes more than a lone inventive genius to build a business. Successful startups realize that incentivizing effective collaboration for the entire team is a necessity, not an accessory. Those that embrace it, will carry on. Those that don’t, won’t.

Have you done everything you can do to create this type of environment? What have you found to be the most challenging part of effective collaboration?

Marty Zwilling

*** Published on TheModernTeam on 11/05/2015 ***

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Friday, December 4, 2015

7 Traits That Define Work Productivity Superstars

business-people-productivityWhether your business is a startup or large corporation, you need at least a few superstars who can get things done, despite all the challenges and distractions in the world today. Certainly, we've all heard the excuses of those who can't or won't perform. We've heard the repeated demands on our time. Further, we've been frustrated by how long some people need to finish a task, and how few results we see from many of our team members.

That's why recognizing, hiring and retaining the most productive people is “job one” for every leader in every business. I have learned from my own years of experience in companies large and small that those people who are the smartest or have the best resume-style qualifications may not be the ones everyone counts on to get the most work done.

What non-resume qualities should a leader look for? Here are the key characteristics I prize:

  1. Focuses on completion rather than blind adherence to a defined work process. Processes should be guidelines to achieve a result; they shouldn't just be a compliance road map. People who look for process innovations, to achieve the desired results in the quickest possible time frame, get more done. The maximum value should be on getting things done, where no process has yet been defined.

  2. Knows how to read people and navigate organizational hierarchies. Working effectively with other people is the only way to get more done than any one person can accomplish. The same is true of working outside your organization, with the outside powers-that-be. Being able to work with politicians without becoming one is a trait I especially prize.

  3. Makes non-threatening decisions with humility and patience. Highly emotional reactions and outbursts are rarely productive in business environments. Instead, calm and resolute determination generates support for the task at hand, rather than distracting from it. People who get things done should be aggressive but not confrontational.

  4. Capitalizes on a powerful position title without using it as a stick. Effective leaders get more done by using their power position to ask for help, rather than assigning people to tasks. They know that listening and rewarding can often be more persuasive than giving orders with penalties for non-compliance.

  5. Builds a reservoir of goodwill without asking for anything in return. Good business and good working relationships must always be seen as unconditional, meaning not motivated by an expectation of future payback. The result will be people and organizations wanting to help you, rather than feeling an obligation to contribute.

  6. Acts within the existing culture, while working to improve it. New challenges should be seen as an incentive to be more creative, rather than an excuse to fail or pick a fight. People who get things done lead change by example, positively showing a better way within the culture. Culture change becomes voluntary, not forced.

  7. Displays 'street smarts' and real domain experience. These are the people who can quickly provide examples of how they were personally able to overcome unusual challenges and achieve results. They also are proud to relate their experience in helping other people on their team overcome hurdles and achieve common objectives.

Overall, one of the best and most visible attributes of people who get the hard work done is that they love to be challenged, and get their satisfaction from resolving problems and getting results. The down side is that they may be easily bored, and quick to look for greater challenges elsewhere if you are not attentive with your leadership and organization, or reward the wrong things.

If your team is like many described in recent surveys -- where only 13 percent of the members surveyed described themselves as fully engaged -- you can bet that the rest will lack the characteristics needed to be the superstars that I have outlined here.

It may be time for you to take a hard look at your hiring, training and motivation systems, to improve your superstar hit ratio. The success of your business depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 11/25/2015 ***

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

7 Keys To A New Business Model For Today’s Economy

billee-howard-photoSince the financial downturn of 2008, I have seen a new business model emerging which embodies a greater focus on social and environmental responsibility, and a new requirement for trust and sharing, as well as customer and community collaboration. Companies like Airbnb, Uber, Zappos, and Whole Foods are setting the example, and leading the way in profitability and purpose.

In her new book, “We-Commerce: How to Create, Collaborate, and Succeed in the Sharing Economy,” veteran marketing strategist Billee Howard calls this movement an economy centered on the power of “we” instead of “me.” She presents a roadmap to help us navigate this new business landscape, retaining the best of the old, while innovating the path to success.

In my work with many entrepreneurs and investors, I also see and support the strong movement to this new business model, which can be characterized by the following attributes she outlines:

  1. Deliver value to the greater community, as well as customers and insiders. Provide real value and give-back to the global community and employees, generating trust and loyalty, which in turn brings in more customers. The result is a win-win situation, with more profits for the business, satisfied customers, and happy employees at all levels.

  2. Develop a personal-engagement extraordinary service mentality. The days of mass production and commodity pricing as an asset are gone. The new customer generation wants to provide input, and wants to be treated as one-of-a-kind in their solution, delivery, and service. Being good in business now looks like an art, with creativity and innovation.

  3. Customers and team members must be inspired, rather than pushed. Companies that offer value beyond their product or service, for social and environmental good, are seen as leading the way forward to a shared future abundance. This results in a new loyalty inside the organization, as well as outside, building momentum and profit.

  4. Grow bigger by thinking smaller in the beginning. Start with a niche that you want to be known for, and knock it out of the ballpark by being the best. Narrowing your focus actually broadens your appeal and allows you to charge a premium because you are “the expert.” This give you the credibility to expand to other niches and grow the market.

  5. Make innovation, creativity, and artistry your core competency. This requires team members who’ve been taught to think like innovators, and a reward system that fosters creativity. It requires actively listening to customers, and a culture of change. Most of all, it requires leadership and communication from the top on purpose and shared goals.

  6. Tell your purpose story for engagement and improved recollection. Stories have been an essential driver of change and engagement throughout human history. Good stories make us think and make us feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that numbers and text on a slide with a bar graph won’t.

  7. Bridge the physical and digital worlds for your customers. Make sure all relevant customer interaction data, regardless of channel or source, is immediately available at every step of the customer’s journey. Empower all team members and customers, both in-store and online, with the right information they need in order facilitate a buy decision.

On top of the financial downturn, the business world has been forever altered by the growth of the world-wide Internet and global telecommunications. The customer and business universes are now globally and totally connected. This means that all customers see social needs and the environment as part of their own world, and expect these to be part of every business focus.

Thus, as the new sharing economy challengers continue to evolve their new business models, the traditional incumbents will be forced to change, or forced out of the marketplace. It’s time to take a reading on where you are in this spectrum. Is your company innovating a path to success, or riding an old wave into a cliff?

Marty Zwilling

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