Friday, September 23, 2016

Reflections Of A Retired Senior Manager

By Ernst Gemassmer, Chairman, Startup Professionals

I am a retired executive with ample time to reflect on my personal and business life. My career, in several companies, included management consulting, different positions in many functional areas, heading up international operations and eventually leading to several positions as interim CEO. I have worked in the US, Germany and Holland in addition to travelling the world extensively either developing, managing or turning around different businesses.

As I reflect on my life and career, I would like to elaborate on several aspects, to provide insight and possible guidance to rising young managers and entrepreneurs. Hopefully the reader will benefit from my experiences and avoid hidden pitfalls.

During my entire career I was laser-focused on climbing up the executive ladder, resolving complex issues and meeting ever increasing personal and business targets.

  • Don’t forget your wife and kids. We all work in order to establish and support a family. It is not beneficial to bring your work home with you, since your spouse and partner may not understand or follow the complexities of your work. Above all, remember and celebrate special occasions.
  • Don’t forget your school colleagues. Having attended a number of different high schools and colleges I had the opportunity to meet, get to know and develop friendships with many different and unique individuals. This was a very enriching experience.

    For a number of years I kept in touch with old colleagues and visited them whenever I had a chance. However, my increasingly busy professional life left little or no time to continue these relationships.

    I should have made the time to cultivate these relationships, it would have further enlightened me and broadened my horizons.

  • Don’t forget your friends. Living in different cities, continents and countries, I met numerous neighbors and developed friendships with them. It requires real work and dedication to stay in touch. They (or you) may need your (their) understanding, support and guidance.

    I should have done a better job in staying in touch. Dedicate at least a portion of your time to your old friends. Your company may fail, but your friendships can and should continue.

  • Don’t forget your colleagues. In my various roles I met and worked with many different people. Changing from one industry to another caused me to lose touch with many of these colleagues

    It is well worth the effort to stay in touch and thereby keep up friendships, professional relationship. This will enable you to know what is going on in different companies, technologies and countries.

  • Don’t forget your mentors. During my career I had the pleasure of working with several mentors. They provided unbiased guidance and critique where I needed it most. Over time, changing industries and locations I lost touch with most of my mentors.

    Take the time to keep in touch with those who helped you navigating your career. They deserve it and will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

  • Don’t forget to take care of yourself and have fun. Global travels, challenging work and family are real challenges to getting enough exercise and eating sensibly.

    Make time for workouts and closely monitor your eating and drinking habits. Use your limited free time to do what you enjoy and are passionate about. Your body and your mind will reward these efforts.

  • Keep on learning and follow changes in technology, industry and society. I have seen fundamental and revolutionary changes in technology, our industrial structures and society. There are numerous examples of companies which have disappeared, managers and entrepreneurs who have failed and traditional practices which have fundamentally altered.

    Therefore, even if it seems challenging, keep on learning and stretch your limits from time to time.

Overall I have had a successful life as well as a varied and rewarding career. I have no regrets, but could have paid more attention to the critical elements mentioned above. Hopefully my comments will cause you to reflect on and guide your personal and business career. Good luck and good health.



Monday, September 19, 2016

How To Stretch Your Comfort Zone For Business Success

comfort-zoneAs an entrepreneur looking for an idea, it makes sense to explore problem areas within your knowledge comfort zone, but when you are building a business with the solution, you have to stretch your comfort zone to keep up with the market and stay ahead of competitors. I haven’t found a successful and satisfying venture yet that was a comfortable and easy win.

The idea is the only easy part. The hard part is the business execution. For example, the concept of an online platform for social networking is a simple one, and has been attempted by thousands of entrepreneurs past and present. In fact, I still hear startup idea variations on social networking more often than any other, yet most people can only name a couple that have really worked.

The challenge is to isolate the actions that maximize your chances of a successful execution. I’m convinced that it’s not all luck, amount of money to spend, or super intelligence that makes the difference. Business is not rocket science, and success comes from pursuing a basic set of action steps well past your comfort zone – with innovations and perseverance that exceed competitors.

These actions steps include the following:

  1. Solidify a positive “can-do” mindset. The mindset I’m looking for is one that sees the business challenge as exciting rather than threatening, setbacks as learning opportunities and a conviction that effort and perseverance will overcome any obstacle. In addition, I look for do-it-yourself confidence that minimizes any dependence on outside help.

  2. Document and commit to specific goals. Building a specific business requires a roadmap or business plan, much like programmers needs specifications to keep them on track. Entrepreneurs who have no formalized goals often spend years in a random walk, without realizing they have no way of knowing if they are about to achieve their dream.

  3. Gather resources and skills for the journey ahead. The idea to run a marathon pales in comparison to the difficulty of the actual event. Smart entrepreneurs prepare for their business marathon by building a support team around them, honing their skills, and assembling resources in anticipation of stretching their comfort zone beyond past limits.

  4. Stop talking and start executing. Action trumps thinking and talking, especially when you are blazing new paths. I hear entrepreneurs who talk about their plans for years, but never get around to starting. You can’t learn much while you are talking. Your best learning will come from mistakes and pivots, so don’t fear those possibilities.

  5. Focus your efforts and prioritize tasks. Focus means starting with a single problem and solution, rather than broadening your solution to solve everyone’s problem. Lack of focus only confuses customers and dilutes your scarce time and resources. Practice the Pareto Principle, where 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of the tasks you see.

  6. Define and use metrics to measure your progress. You can’t make a correction if you don’t know you are off the path, and you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. If your comfort zone is relying on gut reactions, it’s time to stretch your understanding of what constitutes customer acquisition cost, margins, pipeline closure rates, and sales ROI.

  7. Celebrate small successes with the team. Affirming and rewarding team members for every step forward creates momentum, excitement, and loyalty. Constant team communication and accentuating the positive may be outside your comfort zone as a technologist building a product, but these are key drivers to business success.

  8. Validate and scale your business model to success. Technical entrepreneurs are usually more comfortable continuing to perfect their product, than validating a minimum viable product (MVP). They also tend to focus on developing additional features, rather than scaling the business to capitalize on the first. Grow the business, not the solution.

Creativity and innovation in building the business are just as important as in building the solution. Yet too many entrepreneurs approach business building as a standardized process that can be learned from textbooks, or outsourced to professionals. If you are not stretching your comfort zone to learn and practice the business principles outlined here, even your best new idea will likely never get to the finish line.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Forbes on 09/13/2016 ***



Friday, September 9, 2016

Entrepreneurs With A Great Idea Need A Great Partner

Wozniak-and-Jobs-1976It only takes one person come up with a great startup idea, but in my experience as an investor, it’s a rare entrepreneur who has all the skills and resources to build a business as well as a solution. Yet I meet inventors and startup founders every week who balk at the thought of sharing the founder position. In my view, it’s a key reason that 90 percent of startups fail to launch.

It’s fine for one to be the visible head of the company, but if you look at recent great successes of recent times, almost always there is a partner behind the scenes who was key to making the right things happen. For example, Apple was initially built by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, PayPal by Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, and Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg and four roommates.

Sometimes it’s just serendipity that brings the right players together, but more often it takes real effort, just like finding that perfect life relationship partner. I don’t have any magic formula for making it happen, but I do recommend eight key steps which definitely will improve your results:
  1. Look for people with complimentary skills and experiences. It may seem like a perfect match to find someone who thinks like you, but these don’t broaden your perspective and generally lead to disagreement on details. Inventors and engineers need business people, and creative types need a logical perspective to balance their dreams.

  2. Consider relocating to a more startup-friendly environment. Face reality. If you are having trouble finding partners and team members near you, you will likely also struggle to find investors and advisors. It’s easier to move before you have big local investments and people dependencies. Now is the time to set priorities on lifestyle and act on them.

  3. Expand your scope beyond friends and family. The best way to start is business networking through local groups and online forums. It’s always valuable to build relationships with other startup founders, as well as startup advisors and investors. Make an honest list of what skills and experience you really need to build the strongest team.

  4. Do online research on crowdfunding and partner dating sites. The challenge is to find people with your interests, but complimentary skills. Remote partners and teams are very common today, so don’t be afraid to contact others, including competitors. Examples of co-founder dating sites include Build It With Me, CoFoundersLab, and Founder2be.

  5. Look into other business areas and other cultures. Often times, the help you need is outside your familiar domain, and more into marketing, distribution, or manufacturing. It may be outside your country, in a different culture or environment. Many entrepreneurs outside the U.S. would love to partner with someone here, and bring much to the table.

  6. Don’t underestimate the value of experience and connections. Every first-time entrepreneur should find a co-founder who has built a startup before. Beyond that, connections to investors, suppliers, distributors, and major potential customers are almost always more valuable that technical or business organization skills.

  7. Test potential partner compatibility outside of the office. Startup co-founder relationships have to survive severe stress, disagreements, and changes in direction. Take your time in getting to know a potential partner on a personal and emotional level, as well as a business and technical level. Co-founder implies a long-term relationship.

  8. Negotiate and document task assignments and titles. Although you may have a clear view of your co-founder responsibilities, it probably doesn’t match your partner’s view. A simple partner agreement, signed by both parties and updated every six months, will prevent future breakdowns and lawsuits that have destroyed many promising startups.
Finding the right partner or partners is one of the most challenging, yet critical, tasks of a new entrepreneur. Don’t let your ego, procrastination, or greed get in the way of getting your startup of to the strongest possible start. Make it the beginning of a satisfying lifestyle and many startups together, rather than a frustrating and disappointing end to your dream.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Forbes on 09/02/2016 ***


Monday, September 5, 2016

Smart Entrepreneurs Build Startups Without Investors

Garrett_Camp_UberIn my experience as an advisor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I often encounter the myth that an initial startup requires investors. The reality is that over 80 percent of new businesses will never attract venture capital or Angel funding, according to experts, and there are many good reasons for skipping that painful and distracting process. Outside funding is not a startup entitlement.

The media tends to highlight experienced entrepreneurs who succeed with early new venture funding, like Uber’s Garrett Camp, but fail to point out the more common bootstrapping successes. Notable examples include Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Richard Branson, who took no early outside money, and waited for confirmed initial success to go public or scale the business.

Here are some key advantages I see in starting a new business through bootstrapping, without outside investors:

  1. The business is all yours, and you are really the boss. Many aspiring entrepreneurs jump ship from corporate environments, complaining that they want to be their own boss, only to find that investors are more demanding bosses than the ones they left. You don’t have to fight for your equity, and no one can slow you down in decision making.

  2. A limited budget makes for a better business plan. Entrepreneurs who don’t have someone else’s cash for outsourcing come up with the more innovative and creative approaches to get things done. Flaws in a business plan are often masked by money, but ultimately will kill any startup. You need to see them quickly, and pivot as required.

  3. Startups need to stay nimble and adapt to change. After you have honed and given your investor pitch a hundred times, your mind and your investors are hard to change. Every startup I know has pivoted at least once, so learning from your mistakes should be a positive experience, rather than a painful error that will cost you credibility.

  4. Keep your focus on customers rather than investors. Even the best investors will dramatically increase your workload, with daily communication, agreement expectations, and business overhead. They normally expect a C-corporation versus a far-simpler Limited Liability Corporation, office space, and staffing efforts to fill key roles quickly.

  5. Don’t quit your day job until the revenue is flowing. Investors expect nothing less than a full-time commitment, even in the early stages when the business model has not yet been proven. Investor money burns quickly, and can leave your family with no startup and no means of support. For aspiring entrepreneurs, a fallback plan is always good.

  6. Keep later critical financing needs viable. Every round of investing makes the next more expensive and less likely. The most critical need for financing will come as you scale initial success, when you need money to cover new inventory, delayed receivables, and location expansion. Don’t let early funding increase risk and dilute your potential.

  7. Spread your equity internally to build the team. Bootstrapping doesn’t mean that you don’t share equity. You can use it best to entice outstanding team members and partners, building a level of commitment you don’t get with salaries alone. You can also use it acquire or merge with other companies for exponential growth.

  8. Keep your exit strategy options open as you learn. Investors want their money back, with sizable gains and no hassle, in three to five years. Thus they will insist on a sale or public offering at every opportunity, which will likely force you out. Your dream of changing the world may take longer, or be the legacy you want to stay with.

These days, it is possible to bootstrap almost any type of business, if you are willing to think creatively about deferred paybacks to developers, advances on royalties, equipment financing, and bartering of services. It’s also possible to extend your own investment capabilities with lines of credit, receivables factoring, and simply moving slower through organic growth.

Smart entrepreneurs understand that changing the world is not a mad dash to the finish line, but a long journey, with many twists and turns along the way. You will be more likely to get to your destination if you set out, your way, to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Forbes on 08/31/2016 ***



Friday, September 2, 2016

8 Attributes That Still Make Superstars In Business

Hyperloop_diagram_based_on_design_by_Elon_MuskSuperstars in business are the ones who get things done, not the ones who work the most hours or are always busy. Whether it be in a startup or a large enterprise, everyone can name those few individuals who stand out as unstoppable, and always seem to be in the forefront of results. Yet if you think about it, it’s not always clear how they do it, or what it takes to be like them.

For example, in the entrepreneur world there are people like Elon Musk, who has demonstrated not only innovative ideas, but also impressive results in SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and Hyperloop. In the enterprise environment, Jack Welch led GE through 600 acquisitions in emerging markets, to a market value of $280 billion. We all know examples on a smaller scale in every organization.

As an advisor and mentor to entrepreneurs, I have seen beginners who quickly accelerate their proficiency and adopt the mindset, skills, rules, and emotional principles to become superstars. Thus I’m convinced that you don’t have to be born with the right stuff in your DNA, but you do have to learn to follow and practice a basic set of principles, including the following:

  1. Measure yourself and others on results. Having more dreams, ideas, meetings, and tasks may be a necessary, but not sufficient base to be a superstar. These actions have to be translated into results, and completed in a superlative and timely manner. In all business organizations, superstars are recognized as the ones who get things done.

  2. Hone intuition and experiences into decision rules. The power to think in real time and move quickly to results is often referred to as “street-smarts,” “rules of thumb,” or “gut reactions.” These accelerate your productivity, but must be continually updated from positive experiences, prior failures, and active listening. Superstars never stop learning.

  3. Strive to simplify complex situations. Every major breakthrough in technology and business looks simple after the fact. Superstars are not intimidated by technical acronyms and complex processes, and they strive to reduce the complexity to the underlying principle. This allows more thorough understanding of the path to results.

  4. Focus on urgent priorities more than emergencies. Everyone has the challenge of proactively prioritizing their time, or being randomly whiplashed by the crisis of the moment. Superstars tend to think ahead, make overt decisions on how and where to apply their efforts, and never make excuses like “I’m too busy” while generating results.

  5. Use root cause analysis to avoid working on symptoms. Many team members work hard and spend company resources to mollify unhappy customers, but most never really tackle the underlying problem of product quality, missing process, or distribution failure. Superstars are relentless in finding and motivating the best people to fix the root problem.

  6. Build a support network but do your homework before using it. Superstars are not afraid to seek guidance from experts or people with more experience. Yet they respect this valuable resource so much that they never use it lightly, always doing their own research first. The result is a quick network response when asked, and both sides win.

  7. Vanquish the fear of failure and procrastination that delays action. It takes courage and conviction to overcome new business challenges. Passion for the business, and recognition that change is good is the best way to conquer fear. One of the best antidotes to procrastination is setting up a personal reward system for results, not tasks.

  8. Recognize that no risk or action means no gain. In business, taking no risk or action is a recipe for failure, as a person, and as a company. Superstars weigh the differing risks of different alternatives, make a smart decision, and proceed to action. Taking smart risks leads to better productivity and better results sooner.

In my experience, the required attributes do not include any advanced academic credentials or super intelligence. To be a superstar, an entrepreneur or business professional has to have a high level of personal confidence, a good work ethic, and get high satisfaction from new learning and achieving results. What’s holding you back from being a superstar in your business?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Forbes on 08/27/2016 ***