Friday, December 30, 2016

8 Challenges To Overcome In The Growth Of Hyperlocal

foursquare-signIn this age of instant communication via the Internet, It’s ironic that I can now find out what’s going on around the world often more easily than in my own neighborhood. This opens an area of business opportunity, popularly called hyperlocal, which still seems to be underserved. Some experts have tied this market to location detection hardware (GPS), but even that is now pervasive on all smart devices.

Most people have heard of Foursquare for local nightlife and Airbnb for rooms, but other nationally recognized sources for local services are still hard to find, including social media, local news, advertising, and event calendars. There is positive room here for many new players, but if you want to be a candidate, there are some special challenges you need to consider:

  1. Advertisers won’t participate until the user population is large. I still hear often the dream of a free service to users, supported by advertising, per the Facebook model. Entrepreneurs don’t realize that Facebook spent over $100 million, before revenues from advertising turned cash positive. Business founders need deep pockets for this model.

  2. Maintaining current content is costly and time-consuming. If you don’t engage users with comprehensive and valid content the moment they enter your site, they are not likely to return. The solution is to incent local users to keep the content fresh and abundant, which requires that they see real value in the result. It has to be a win-win process.

  3. Local businesses expect proof of value, not promises. Until a new brand has national recognition or high promotion, it won’t be found or used by local customers or out of town visitors. You need metrics to show dominant penetration of the relevant customer demographic, added value over existing media, and real customer testimonials of value.

  4. You need local partners and relationships for credibility. Change, acceptance, and trust become more difficult as you get deeper into the fabric of a community. People are wary of outsiders and remote players looking for relationships. Overcoming these hesitations may require promotion events, meet and greet opportunities, and more time.

  5. You need to find common elements to scale the business. Expanding neighborhood-by-neighborhood or city-by-city is not a simple cookie-cutter process. Hyperlocal in New York City is different from hyperlocal in Kansas. Cultures and values are different, pricing norms are unique, and customer needs have to be validated in each location.

  6. Monetization may require multiple business models. Advertising and local business promotions may be adequate in some cases, but others may require a percentage of every transaction, or adding local products and services for an ecommerce model. Every business model has to meet local licensing, taxing, and reporting requirements.

  7. Local staffing and clerical requirements must be minimized. Employees are the most expensive resource for most businesses, and are difficult to acquire, train, and schedule. Look for innovative ways to automate the processes, sell remotely, and personalize the services without adding people to the equation.

  8. External investors tend to focus on products rather than services. Angel and venture capital investors look for opportunities that are highly scalable, and have already demonstrated good traction. Several of the challenges already identified suggest a greater reliance may be required on bootstrapping and organic growth.

I predict that hyperlocal services will continue to emerge and prosper, despite the challenges. Businesses that focus on the local community have long been the source of satisfaction and financial livelihood of entrepreneurs. In this new digital age with the renewed focus on relationships and shared experiences, I see a new wave of hyperlocal businesses.

In fact, hyperlocal can be the proof of concept for your business, or it can be the final destination. In either case, it’s an opportunity that doesn’t require heavy technology, a big inventory, or rocket science. Anyone can do it. Isn’t it time that you joined this age of the entrepreneur?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/13/2016 ***

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

10 Mindset Checks Before You Start A New Business

mindset-entrepreneurMaking the decision to start your own business is a major commitment, with huge implications for skills and lifestyle. Yet there is no standardized testing or certification required or available anywhere to help you decide if you are a good fit for entrepreneurship, or founding a business is right for you. An MBA or other academic credentials just don’t do it.

Therefore, the least you can do is take advantage of some of the self-assessment tools and guides around, like the classic book “The Entrepreneur Equation,” by Carol Roth, which highlights personal characteristics and skills required. Someday, I expect there will be a more formal certification required, like lawyers and accountants have to pass, to hang out their shingle.

Until that happens, I recommend that you consider the following ten mindset checks from Carol and others on your business aspirations, before you step in so deep that it’s hard to back out:

  1. Critically assess your motivation. Are you bored, wanting to be free of a boss, or eager to showcase a hot technology? These are not valid reasons to start a business. But if you're focused on solving a real problem, believe you can do it better than anyone else, and confident in wearing many hats, you have the right start-up mindset.

  2. Say hello to multiple new bosses. When you start your own business, you are no longer in control. You will likely not have the freedom you dreamed of. You will be controlled by your customers, investors, lenders – and you are personally responsible for answering to all of them, all of the time.

  3. Evaluate how well you work with others. Many people dream of opening a business as an escape from annoying coworkers and overbearing bosses. But now you have to interface with even more people, including accountants, lawyers, as well as clients and team members. You need to be comfortable with people and have sharp people skills.

  4. Add up your responsibilities. Owning a business is very much like raising a child. It’s a 24/7 job. If anything happens to the business (including a loss of income), how will it affect your family or home life? Remember, the buck always stops with you.

  5. Look at your management and industry experience. Being able to manage employees and vendors is the type of skill assumed before starting your own business. You’ll also need to know your industry inside and out. It helps to work in a similar company before you start your own.

  6. Take stock of whom you know. Business comes down to not what you know, but whom you know. Good connections are worth their weight in gold. They will get you interest from investors and lenders, and you will receive better financing, prices, terms, and conditions from business suppliers and professional services.

  7. Be honest about your relationship with money. Don’t expect your relationship with money to change just because you’ve opened a business. Opening a business requires money, as well as sound financial management. Do you panic about spending money or avoid financial risk at all costs?

  8. Assess your personality type. If you are a person who likes stability and control, or if you prefer when things go as planned, the roller-coaster ride of a new business may not be right for you. Every new business has highs and lows, and plenty of the unexpected.

  9. Examine the marketplace and your competition. To brand your business and woo investors, you'll need to understand why and how you can outshine competitors. Both good and bad competitors will influence how successful your business will be.

  10. Test your scalability. Successful businesses rely on automation and delegation. Will you be able to teach other employees to do your work? If your business relies on your brain and skills alone, you might have a successful job, but not a successful business.

Please don’t take these steps as being too negative, but do remember that the risks are high. Statistics say that the failure rate for new businesses within the first 5 years is as high as 90 percent. That should indicate that a lot of entrepreneurs get more than they bargained for. Think twice before you invest your precious time, money, and energy, and then go for it!

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 12/27/2016 ***

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Monday, December 26, 2016

7 Key Principles of Question-Based Leadership To Win

Daily_sprint_meetingToo many people in business just expect their leaders to give orders. Maybe it’s for this reason that as professionals advance in their career, they tend to start asking fewer questions and providing more answers. Smart leaders, on the other hand, learn to ask more penetrating questions, listen carefully to expert input, and empower the right people to get the best solution.

This question-based leadership approach starts with humility and a firm belief in the old adage, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.” It also requires the confidence to challenge a questionable assertion from an outspoken team member, or ask the question that everyone else seems to be dancing around.

Here are seven key principles that I recommend you follow as an aspiring business leader or entrepreneur, based on my own experience in large companies as well as startups:

  1. Proactively ask for input to hone your vision. No matter how strong your business and technology insights are, you can benefit from input at all levels of the organization, as well as outside experts and customers. This will also enable buy-in from all constituents, leading to their personal commitment in delivery. Everyone will see your vision as theirs.

  2. Ask questions to enable team members to solve problems. People feel much more accountability and conviction to succeed with their own solutions, versus a solution imposed on them by someone else. When team member solutions work well, everyone wins, while top-down decisions provide minimal satisfaction and learning for the team.

  3. Listen actively to team member input to foster mutual trust. This approach not only provides real value, but is important in building a culture of unity and collaboration. In trusted environments, failures are seen as learning experiments, rather than opportunities for punishment. Leaders who are always talking rarely learn anything new.

  4. Use questions to coach and develop team members. The best leaders focus on coaching and mentoring people on decision making, rather than giving orders. By doing this, you'll help the whole organization make better decisions, and help individuals solve problems that are holding them back, learn new skills, and advance their careers.

  5. Push decisions down the chain to the level responsible. The best leaders strive to match decision-making with the team responsible by asking the right questions. This results in better decisions, higher acclaim for the team and the leader, and it avoids the blame game. Ultimately, it creates leadership businesses as well as business leaders.

  6. Inspire and motivate others to lead, not just work in your business. Motivated team members are much more likely to delight customers and create memorable customer experiences. At the same time, inspired team members providing answers will be more productive, satisfied, and loyal to the business. It’s a win-win situation for all constituents.

  7. Build real relationships by asking questions. Quality questions provide a common ground for productive relationships with team members, rather than the shallow connection of following orders. Relationships with customers and partners are key to your own image, and the future of your business. Leaders grow through relationships.

Every executive realizes that there are not enough hours in a day to direct personally all the activities in a growing business. Some insist on continuing to make all the decisions, slowing down the business, making strategic mistakes, and injuring their health. The best learn to ask more questions, delegate more decisions, and grow a team of leaders within their organization.

By following the principles of question-based leadership, smart business leaders find more innovative ideas, more people committed to the right actions, and a business culture that can thrive in today’s rapidly changing marketplace. It’s time for all of us to ask more, listen more, learn more, and lead the way to our own success and satisfaction.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/09/2016 ***

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

5 Qualities Customers Expect In The Next Big Thing

business-next-big-thingEvery entrepreneur wishes that he could predict whether his idea could be the “next big thing,” before he spent his life savings and years of energy on it. Investors, on the other hand, typically don’t even look very hard at the product or service, but prefer to evaluate first the entrepreneur, and secondly the business plan.

I define these products and services as “solutions” (customers buy solutions to a problem), but Guy Kawasaki more generically calls them causes, meaning any new idea, company, or service. Yet we can all agree that the quality of the solution or cause is very important, and there are attributes that reduce the business risk and make it more likely a success in the marketplace.

Many people have tried to outline and refine these important attributes, including Kawasaki in his classic book “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions.” He and I agree that product ideas must be assessed against the following five key qualities:

  1. Depth. A deep product or service has a robust set of features. It means you’ve anticipated what your customers will need as they move up the power curve, For example, Google is a one-stop source for your online needs, ranging from simple search to managing your e-mail, to analyzing your Web site. The selection is incredibly deep.

  2. Intelligence. An intelligent solution solves people’s problems in smart ways. Smart solutions are the ones that look simple in retrospect, don’t require a genius with an instruction manual to use them, and the benefits are easily quantified. In the computer world, the advent of the mouse for interface control and selection was such a product.

  3. Completeness. A complete solution provides a great experience that includes service, support, and a string of enhancements. For example, the Lexus experience is more than the steel, leather, glass, and rubber. After-sales support, comfort, accessories, and brand image are as much a part of owning a Lexus as the car itself.

  4. Empowering ability. An empowering solution enables you to do old things better and to do new things you couldn’t do at all. It increases your confidence and your ability to control your life. This feeling of empowerment is the essence of why young people love their smart phones and often consider their phone an extension of themselves.

  5. Elegance. An elegant solution is not opulent, but embodies creativity and polish, and enhances the user experience. An elegant solution works with people. An inelegant solution fights people. It looks right. It feels right. It works right. And it doesn’t make more work for you. This may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

In summary, the best product or service is a full-featured one (deep) that shows you understand customer needs (intelligent), comes with support (complete), makes customers better (empowering), and is easy to use (elegant). As you create your solutions, ask yourself if they are deep, intelligent, complete, empowering and elegant.

Of course, great startup solutions need great teams to implement them. Back to my comment at the beginning that investors evaluate the people before the idea, see my article a while back for details on “Investors Look First At The Founder, Then The Idea.” The combination of these factors is why a new entrepreneur with his first idea usually has a tough road ahead.

As Guy says, “in a perfect world, you are so enchanting that your cause doesn’t matter, and your cause is so enchanting that you don’t matter.” In the real world, don’t count on either of these cases. You can best help yourself by doing the homework listening to customers and quantifying the pain points before you define a great solution. Then build a team, build a plan, build a great company, and have fun.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, December 23, 2016

8 Key Principles To Keep Up With The Speed of Change

Hyperloop_all_cutawayThings change so fast these days in business that your first priority as an entrepreneur is to stay current, by talking to customers, peers, and experts. Secondly, you must constantly communicate suggested changes to your team, implement necessary pivots, and realign all the elements of your business, including partners, investors, and vendors. No change means falling behind.

The days are gone when growing a business meant putting repeatable processes in place, settling into a groove, and simply cranking up volume. Now it’s all about how fast you recognize and adapt to market change, new competitors, and new technology. Here are eight key principles I have learned from experience as a business advisor to keep you on the right track:

  1. Regularly realign your business vision and goals. Smart entrepreneurs overtly plan every month to re-sync their vision and objectives with newly-learned market realities. This means regular updates are required to your business plan, marketing message, social media, and website content. Static content quickly becomes dead content.

  2. Start slow, build momentum, and keep accelerating. Too many entrepreneurs start fast, but lose momentum and the ability to change as the organization grows. It’s better to listen carefully, test them market, and take baby steps in the beginning. Build the ability to change into your processes, so that pivots later don’t introduce delays into your business.

  3. Pay particular attention to advisor and investor input. Investors and advisors are typically super-sensitive to market evolution, and should be seen as your early-warning system for change. Failure to react quickly often leads to funding freezes and founder replacements. Smart entrepreneurs restrain their ego and don’t react defensively to input.

  4. Foster a culture and reward system encouraging change. Incenting and rewarding new initiatives, versus penalties for stepping outside the box, will greatly facilitate your ability to keep up with change. Your team will follow what you do, not what you say, so you have to be a role model for market and customer sensitivity. Keep change positive.

  5. Never stop communicating, even when the message is clear. Every executive I know hears the same complaint from their team, “Why didn’t someone tell me about the change?” As a rule of thumb, you need to repeat every important message at least four times, in different contexts, to even dream that anyone will adopt it as their own.

  6. Be ready to reshuffle team members to expedite change. Not everyone will have the right skills or the right mindset for new initiatives. Bringing in some new blood will hasten any change, and moving people out who are resistant to change is the key to success. Initiate new strategic partnerships and investigate acquisitions versus in-house changes.

  7. Define and use market metrics to tune your plan. Businesses often settle on one social media or distribution channel based on initial testing, and never look back. These days, new channels appear almost daily, and old ones lose their luster. You need metrics to spot these changes, and regular new initiatives to test new and old alternatives.

  8. Regularly update internal process tools and technology. This means setting a culture of continuous improvement in processes, as well as products. Measure your productivity increases against current competitors, rather than against your own baseline. You may be improving by your own standards, but losing ground as new competitors move faster.

At the highest level, maintaining focus is still the most critical requirement. Keeping up with change is not just an “additive” process. Things that no longer apply or work must be deleted, or the result will be bloated, complex, and slow processes. Per the guidance of Jim Barksdale back in his FedEx days, “The main thing is to keep the Main Thing as the main thing.”

The Main Thing in every business today is to provide an experience that is so positively memorable that customers become your biggest advocates, via word-of-mouth, social media, and the multitude of review sites. If this isn’t happening for your business, you are already behind the curve for change and realignment. It’s time to pick up the pace or you may lose the race.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/06/2016 ***

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Monday, December 19, 2016

10 Recommendations For Getting Ahead In Any Business

career-success-aheadDoes it sometimes seem like people all around you are getting promoted, or leaving to start their own business, while all your hard work and experience are getting you nowhere? Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at your habits and the perceptions they convey, compared to some of the other people on your team. These people can’t all be related to the boss, or be just lucky.

Rather than focus on negatives, let me summarize key positive attributes that I look for in people to move ahead, from my own experience as a corporate executive, and many years mentoring entrepreneurs. Most of these have very little to do with super-human skills, but a lot to do with your mentality and flexibility:

  1. A willingness to tackle new and unknown challenges. We all know the dedicated professional who reliably does their job, but is always too busy or reluctant to accept new assignments, or take on a new challenge. Particularly in an innovative startup, everyone has to expect problems and change. People who are problem solvers are indispensable.

  2. An ability to proactively step in where needed, rather than waiting to be asked. Many times, extra help is temporarily needed due employee illness, order surges, or holiday coverage. Some people see these requirements and volunteer to help, while others keep a low profile, or wait to be asked. Team members who help others are usually promoted first.

  3. A skill at nurturing good relationships. Some employees avoid interactions with others, hoping to minimize their workload. Unfortunately, this also minimizes their opportunity to shine in any way that is positive to their career or for their company. Working together effectively requires extra effort in managing relationships.

  4. A positive attitude. It may be tempting or popular to join the crowd that loves to bash management, company direction, or internal processes. If you really want to change things or run your own company, initiate some positive ideas on how to improve productivity or set the culture as you would like it to be.

  5. A desire to drive (not block) future change. Innovative change is a given in successful organizations, run by successful people. Team members who are drivers for “the way it’s always been done” are not normally considered for new positions or more responsibility. They certainly would be unlikely to succeed in a new startup.

  6. A tendency to present oneself as the boss's backup. This may require a bit of extra work and initiative on your part, but definitely gives you an edge when your boss retires or is promoted. It requires that you maintain a proactive relationship with peer group managers, and will definitely give you a better perspective on business needs.

  7. A determination to complete every task. The people who never give up and overcome difficult challenges are tagged as the best of the best. It’s a skill and a mindset that will serve you well when starting your own business, as well. It’s easy but wrong to come up with excuses, or blame someone else when things go bad.

  8. A capacity for education at the next level. Too many employees are searching for that magic course that will make their existing job easy, rather than preparing for the next one. These days, the best education may be online, in business journals, or in blogs that your executives recommend. Also, build mentoring relationships at the next level.

  9. An ability to project an image appropriate for the next position. Perhaps this means dressing more professionally, or speaking more broadly about company direction. Every company spends money on their image and branding, and you should treat your personal brand accordingly. Learning how to market yourself is the key to running your own company.

  10. A prowess at picking battles strategically to keep from losing the war. No one wins every battle, so swallow your ego and turn potential negatives into positives, For example, if an executive uses your idea without giving credit, point out how great minds think alike. There is no extra credit for being a sore loser. Highlight your wins rather than your losses.

Every one of these strategies are critical to the success of you as an entrepreneur if you choose to step into that lifestyle, so start practicing early, before you quit your day job. You may decide that your current career is less risky than the alternative, and existing career satisfaction has started to meet your expectations. Either way, you win and your business wins.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/30/2016 ***

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

10 Reasons That Collaboration Is The New Imperative

business-collaborationAny entrepreneur with a vision can postulate a new business, but it takes a collaboration of many people to make it a success. Today the complexity of forces required for success include multi-disciplinary skills, competencies, and experiences in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Entrepreneurs who embrace the “lone wolf” approach usually live to regret it.

I remember the classic book, “The Collaboration Imperative,” by Ron Ricci and Carl Wiese, which makes the case very well for why collaboration matters in every business, as well as startups. Every entrepreneur should heed the following lessons on collaboration derived from the authors work on the culture, process and technology of collaboration in hundreds of companies:

  1. Consensus is the enemy of collaboration. Collaboration leaves everyone with a feeling of “win-win,” while consensus is “win-lose” or even “lose-lose.” Collaboration opens more possibilities, while consensus narrows them to a compromise.

  2. Collaboration has to start at the top. Company culture is not set by words, but by the actions of the founder. That means treating everyone with respect, and providing regular constructive feedback. Trust is required for every successful collaboration.

  3. The biggest barriers to collaboration are not technical. They are cultural and organizational in nature. Startup executives need to first build a culture and processes with communication and shared goals, rather than internal competition and bureaucracy.

  4. Collaboration cannot be deployed – it must be embraced. Executives and managers must be willing participants, modeling collaborative behavior and embracing the technology tools, not just taskmasters. All team members must be committed.

  5. Good ideas come from anywhere, so the more voices the better. These are critical in arriving at a clear idea of what is important, exploring what is possible based on constraints, and coordinating effective actions to produce successful outcomes.

  6. Collaboration enhances personal communication skills. As team members interact and play to their strengths, they learn to be authentic and genuine, which increases their effectiveness as well as their skills. They reach agreement faster and communicate more.

  7. You get out of collaboration what you put in. According to a global study of business conducted by Frost & Sullivan, the return on a collaboration investment progressively improves as better tools are deployed and a collaborative culture takes shape.

  8. Collaboration success means changing both roles and rewards. This means creating processes that allow more perspectives, but make it clear who has decision-making rights. It’s essential to provide incentives to change ingrained behavior.

  9. More interaction opens opportunities to create more value. Within any given startup environment (market, industry structure, competitors, product/service mix, etc.) opportunities exist that are often missed unless everyone is listening and communicating.

  10. The average return on collaboration is four times the initial investment. From the study referenced, measured gains ranged from three to six times. This ROI comes from cost avoidance, cost reductions, business optimization, and faster business decisions.

In today’s highly competitive and unpredictable environment, it’s not enough to do one thing better than your competitors. You need to change your organization so that it can rapidly recognize and adapt to new opportunities and new threats.

Collaboration is the new imperative. It may be the only way to accelerate innovation, improve agility, increase adaptability and cut costs all at once. But building a collaborative culture is not an easy transformation for the traditional fiercely independent entrepreneur. How long has it been since you have taken a hard look at your own startup?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, December 16, 2016

6 Key Attributes That Investors Look For In A CEO

Dr-Peter-Diamandis-XPrizeEvery business needs that ultimate leader and decision maker at the top, commonly given the title of Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Sometimes it’s the business founder, and in other cases the CEO is recruited by the founder or investors to complement the skills of the technical team. Everyone recognizes that even the best idea needs a great execution to assure success.

So what are the key attributes of the CEO you need? How does a startup founder know whether he or she has the skill and bandwidth to fill the role, or what and where to look for outside candidates? Of course, every business has unique requirements, so there is no candidate that fits all businesses, but in my experience there are a basic set of expectations which define the role:

  1. Attract, incent, and manage great people. This role is quite different from the initial challenge of conceiving and developing an innovative product. Even the best founders soon find that they can’t physically do everything required to start and grow the business. Failure to move from the “do-er” role to a “manage” role kills many promising businesses.

  2. Be the role model for effective leadership. Real leadership is much more than managing people and projects. Peter Drucker famously said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” A good CEO must do both, while all the while providing a positive model to propagate these actions through all levels of the team.

  3. Set the company culture and communicate goals and values. All team members look to the CEO as the model and driver for company culture, both internal and external. Everyone watches how employees are treated and decisions are made, and actions speak louder than words. Customers and investors listen for a consistent message.

  4. Drive the financial strategy, including checks and balances. In the beginning, the CEO is the chief fund raiser, starting with setting the strategy for organic or leveraged growth. Beyond that, he or she must balance the constant demands for more resources from marketing, development, and support. Proper delegation to a CFO makes this work.

  5. Negotiate and close key deals with partners and customers. A good CEO is always the top business development person, both strategically and tactically. They are expected to know the market and the marketing process, and build relationships with industry influencers, peer executives, community leaders, and even competitors.

  6. Always forward thinking and planning for the future. The initial stages of every new business require a focus on tactics, but long-term success requires more strategic thinking, and the ability to “see around corners.” The best CEOs focus on where the market will be tomorrow, and are willing to change and take the risks to be there first.

No one is born with all these attributes, but they can be learned from experience in similar roles in other organizations or prior businesses. Every startup founder should start networking early with peers, advisors, and industry organizations to check their fit, and build relationships with other potential candidates.

These days, in addition to networking, you should also be exploring one of the online business matchmaking sites that have sprung up in the last few years, like FounderDating, or scour LinkedIn and funding sites like ProSeeder for candidates. Putting yourself on these sites may also be beneficial to your career down the road, not matter what happens.

Finally, executive recruiters are still a reliable alternative. Unfortunately, in my experience, many startups and small businesses really can’t afford this route, considering that the fee to find a qualified CEO may be in the $50,000 range.

In all cases, it takes more than a good resume and experience to make a good CEO for your company. The chemistry, culture, and values need to match yours, and be compatible with all the key members of your team. Just as in personal relationships, these things won’t all be evident in a first meeting. Take your time, and get to know the candidate outside of work before you commit.

So start developing and practicing these disciplines on the day you create your business, as they will serve you will, whether you decide to run the company for the long-term, or whether you plan to find that CEO of your dreams. Your investors will love you, your career will prosper, and the company’s chances for success will dramatically increase. It’s the win-win outcome we all want.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/27/2016 ***

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

6 Steps To Success In Your Entrepreneurial Goals

Gregory-Cheek-goalsToo many aspiring entrepreneurs I mentor can talk at length about their innovative ideas and passions, and ask lots of good questions, but never make much progress in building a real business. In my experience, building a business is much more about getting things done than having great ideas. The challenge is to move from ideas to specific goals, to delivered solutions.

In fact, I realized a while back that the challenge is the same in every aspect of your life – moving from dreams to specific goals to accomplishments achieved. Once you learn how to make things happen in your own life, starting a business is easy. For an inspiring story full of specifics on how to achieve goals, I recommend a recent book, “Three Points of Contact,” by Gregory Q. Cheek.

He found his way to entrepreneurial and personal success, after a tough battle with cancer, by applying the same principles and strategy to his business efforts that pulled him out of a personal life-and-death health struggle. I was most impressed with the steps he outlined for turning ideas into goals into results, which I paraphrase here for aspiring entrepreneurs:

  1. Write down your goals or your dreams. Writing something down is the first step toward moving forward and making it real. Always start your goals with “I,” and put yourself as responsible for each goal. Write all goals in the future tense, be as specific as possible, and make an effort to raise each goal one level higher to set you above your competition.

  2. Establish a clear visual picture of each goal. You must be able to see it to achieve it. He recommends the following four ways to fully imprint it on your mind – visualize it as often as possible, hold that visualization as long as you can, make your goal statement crystal clear, and maintain it with a calm intensity over an extended period of time.

  3. List items to achieve the goal, and network now. Brainstorm required activities, order, and prioritize them relative to your goals. It’s time to get the help you need. Ideas can come from one person, but businesses can’t be built alone. The reality is that everyone wants to help – friends, investors, even customers, but you have to take the initiative.

  4. Set specific milestones with target dates. Grab a calendar, pick a business rollout date, and work backward setting milestones and dates for interim steps. Be as detailed and specific as you can, such that everyone involved can see and understand the path ahead. Post your milestone list in a common spot so you can renew commitment daily.

  5. Take action now on an item and cross it off. Every small action and achieving a milestone builds momentum. Momentum will drive you and the team toward completing your goal. Celebrate each success, and check off all your milestones to invigorate the team as you move forward. Don’t be afraid to pivot and add new actions as you learn.

  6. Follow up and finish something every day. Most entrepreneurs work hard, but many don’t follow up often to check for completion. They spend their time on the crisis of the day, rather than the important tasks on the goal list. They eventually lose focus or burn out before crossing the finish line. The best entrepreneurs finish something every day.

Don’t let any of the popular myths about goal setting derail your efforts – vague wishes are not goals, you don’t need goals to win, my goals are all in my mind, goal setting requires special skills, and I have no control anyway. The reality is if you are not working on your own goals, then someone else is keeping you busy on theirs. That approach is not very satisfying in the long term.

Statistics have shown that only three percent of the population have well-defined, clear written goals. This three percent with written goals will earn as much as ten times more than the ninety-seven percent without documented goals. That correlates well with my experience on how many aspiring entrepreneurs ever get beyond the idea stage, and achieve some level of success.

For entrepreneurs, ideas are not goals, and they are not businesses, without the author’s three points of contact – optimism, visualization, and action. With these, I’m confident that anyone can improve their happiness, health, and positivity, and maybe even change the world at the same time. Why not start now?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 12/13/2016 ***

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Monday, December 12, 2016

7 Keys To Teaming With The Right Mentor For Success

right-business-mentorWhy is it that only the most successful entrepreneurs, including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson, admit to having a mentor and actually use them? Starting a new business is tough, and the last thing you need is to suffer the same mistakes that have killed businesses like yours before you. Yet many entrepreneurs I know are too proud or too shy to even ask for advice.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of business mentors based on my own experience, since I have been at different times on both the contributing and receiving end of the relationship. I realize that finding a mentor and making the relationship work takes work and commitment on both sides, much like finding a good life partner.

Most successful business people, whether retired or still active, would love to share some of the wisdom they have gained from their own experience, but are not inclined to impose themselves on others. They expect you to take the initiative, to ask them, and to make it a fun and productive relationship. Here are my guidelines on how to make that happen:

  1. Identify specific issues and goals where you need mentoring. First, you need to admit that you want mentoring, and in what areas. If you don’t have any idea what you are seeking, you won’t know when you have found it. It’s tempting for technical founders to seek more depth on technical issues, when they need marketing and financial help.

  2. Be willing and able to commit time and effort to the process. Finding a mentor won’t help you if you don’t have time to listen, and are not willing to do your homework to ask the right questions. Mentors are people too, so they will quickly sense when they aren’t valued. Sessions must always remain positive and not defensive, rather than excuses.

  3. Ask for a reasonable time commitment from a mentor candidate. Even the best mentor may be of no value to you, if you can never reach them, or they never find time for you. Then make sure you never make yourself a burden by frequent calls or wasting time on trivial subjects. The best approach is regularly scheduled small blocks of time.

  4. Prepare and plan to lead each mentor session for best productivity. Don’t expect the mentor to know and drive your business. Provide the mentor with your relevant business metrics and data, if possible, before each meeting, to allow them to do prior homework as required. The most valuable insights may be for broader or future business implications.

  5. Expect a mentor to tell you what you need to hear, not be a cheerleader. The best mentors are not previous close friends or family, who may tell you only what you want to hear. Most of us need both friends and mentors, and the ability to tell the difference. Most mentors don’t have the time to be your business coach to help you with generic skills.

  6. Plan for regular communication both ways, both written and verbal. The more a mentor knows about your situation, the more directed will be their help. On the other hand, a mentor is not your direct report, or your boss. Thus don’t be handing out work assignments, or expecting the mentor to make your decisions for you.

  7. Manage the relationship to keep it positive and productive. Don’t tolerate unresponsive or negative mentor relationships, and end them quickly, just as you would with non-productive partner or employee relationships. But don’t burn any bridges, since a mentor will likely have relationships with other key business connections.

In addition to these considerations, there is always the question of mentor monetary compensation. If you can find a mentor who shares your passion for the business or cause you support, or make it a learning opportunity for them, that may be adequate compensation.

In any case, it is good form to offer something, such as a monthly stipend, expense coverage, or perhaps a one percent ownership in your startup to show your commitment. I assure you, the returns will far exceed your costs.

Don’t let your ego or time management abilities rob you of this valuable competitive advantage. Your business needs every edge to get to the next level.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 11/24/2016 ***

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

5 Business Warning Signs Signal Integrity Slippage

business-integrity-slippageMost entrepreneurs start their company with the highest of ideals, and wouldn’t dream of building one with a culture of indifference or downright unethical behavior. Yet all too many succumb to the pressures of survival, driven by demanding investors or a cutthroat competitive environment. How does a Founder recognize the warning signs, let alone know what to do about it?

Some key insights on this issue are provided for corporate environments in the classic book by David Gebler, “The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance.” I‘m convinced that the underlying points are even more relevant to entrepreneurs, with some adaptation for the realities of the startup world:

  1. A switch to survival mode. When customers don’t appear as fast as the Founder projected, and cash runs short, everyone on the team starts to worry about losing their job. Suddenly “closing the sale,” no matter what is required, takes precedence over the grand team vision of changing the world.

    When a startup team is in survival mode, they need straight talk from leaders they respect and trust. Founders are often tempted so sugarcoat information. If you want employees to stay engaged, tell them the truth, with specifics on what is required to turn things around, and the team will surprise you with their commitment.

  2. Big bad investor interference. Investors provide funding, but they also have their own set of expectations on how things should get done, with aggressive milestones. For the team in the trenches, these pressures can cause tensions to run high, and commitment to high level goals is lost. The culture changes to satisfy the investors at any cost.

    Make your investors part of the visible team at the startup, and make sure all key milestones are well understood up front. Then make sure you communicate regularly to your investors so they don’t get surprised. Investors are people too, and with regular communication, will trust people to do their job, without sacrificing integrity and ethics.

  3. Misunderstood pivots. Virtually every startup has to make real-time changes to their product, plan, or market, as they learn from initial customer interactions. Without proper communication to the team, these changes look like random shifts in direction, which negate the efforts of team members, and raise a cloud of fear and indifference.

    Entrepreneurs must resist the urge to withdraw and isolate themselves as they deal with the pressures of changes to their original plan. Instead, they need to be more transparent, and spend more time listening to the team as well as communicating the value of a pivot.

  4. Troubling talk around the water cooler. In every organization, large or small, there are people who become disillusioned or negative about the current direction or progress, usually due to personal problems. Negative people and messages are a virus that can kill your culture, and cause others to turn a blind eye to the real priorities of the business.

    Leaders need to pick up these negative messages quickly by listening and really engaging with their team, and then dealing with them with integrity. Non-productive complainers need to be moved off the team quickly, or everyone reverts to that level.

  5. Lack of communication from the top. With today’s 24/7 flood of information and social media, the team expects to be constantly updated on what’s going on at the top. When they see the information they need is missing, outdated, or flat-out wrong, frustration is inevitable, and this will eat away at your culture.

    Make sure your team knows how decisions are being made, as well as what they are. Be transparent, set goals, and then tell internal and external stakeholders where you are in meeting those goals. Invite employees to join in and contribute to this process.

So commitment, integrity, and transparency are the catalysts that every startup team expects from their leaders to maintain a healthy culture, strong values, and superior results. When a good startup starts to experience slippage on any of these catalysts, the team can slip rapidly into disengagement, rationalization, and self-deception. Have you checked the signs in your organizations lately?

Marty Zwilling

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    Friday, December 9, 2016

    5 Ways To Make Everyone On Your Team A Marketer

    HA0509-058“If we build it, they will come.” I heard it again yesterday from a technical entrepreneur who should know better than to believe the old “Field of Dreams” sports fantasy movie theme in today’s Internet information overload environment. These days, building a new business is all about visibility and marketing, no matter how great or innovative a solution you bring to the table.

    In fact, having one marketing guru on the team alone won’t get you very far. You need to make sure that everyone on the team, from the clerical assistant to the chief financial officer, knows your vision and product, and doesn’t hesitate to actively engage and be an effective proponent with anyone who might be of value to the business.

    I just saw a good summary of how to motivate and train your team to accomplish this in a new book, “The Business of Creativity: How to Build the Right Team for Success,” by Keith Granet. The author’s focus is the world of architecture and design, but I’m convinced that the principles and strategy outlined are equally important to every new business or entrepreneurial effort:

    1. Instill pride. This is a positive culture created by an atmosphere of trust and confidence in the solution, as well as other members of the team. People are proud to represent their business when they feel that they have a voice and a recognized contribution to the effort. The best way to do this is to share and celebrate small wins, together and often.

    2. Empower engagement. The best startups give everyone business cards and encourage team members to talk about the business with anyone who should be interested. That means rewarding feedback from outside, both good and bad, rather than being closed. It also helps to create office events for family members and local community groups.

    3. Encourage networking. Team members need time, and your support, to attend conferences and professional organizations to stay in touch with colleagues and peers. They need incentives to investigate market trends and competitive actions, as well as continuous communication of the bigger picture of the business and current objectives.

    4. Give credit. It doesn’t take a huge marketing budget to provide public recognition in team meetings for individual initiatives that can benefit the company. These might include anyone bringing in a new customer, representing the company in a good social cause, or participating in a video or social media campaign on their own time.

    5. Reward success. The best executives make it clear by example that all team members who help the business expand will be compensated, by awards, special bonuses, or career advancement. Team members who see others rewarded for their “marketing” efforts will be motivated to consider what they can do to share the wealth.

    This approach, with you leading the effort, and everyone empowered to advance the visibility and message of the business, also has the great advantage of minimizing the size of the dedicated internal team for marketing and public relations. A single marketing coordinator can accelerate your efforts by being the coach and mentoring key members of the team on soft marketing.

    If you have a diverse team, the value is even greater, since each member can use their contacts and perspective to spread the word effectively, and attract the attention you need for success. The common focus on marketing across the varied interests of your team also has the potential of improving peer communication, comradery, and improving working relationships.

    The most effective teams, through sharing and common interests, develop leaders at all levels. The most senior leaders then become coaches and mentors, rather than the source of all decisions. The emergent leaders are not hesitant to take charge when they see business growth opportunities, thus multiplying your visibility and impact.

    Thus, even if the value of your solution is universally obvious in your field of dreams, don’t count on customer initiatives to find it amongst the thousands of alternatives fighting for visibility on the Internet. Mobilize the total power of your team to not only build the product, but also build the market.

    Marty Zwilling

    *** First published on Huffington Post on 12/07/2016 ***

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    Monday, December 5, 2016

    7 Ways To Think Outside the Box To Grow Your Business

    thinking-outside-the-boxToo many entrepreneurs put their best creative thinking into the startup idea, and believe that the business implementation simply requires following tried and true business practices. In my experience as a startup advisor, nothing could be further from the truth. To win, you need to think outside the box to deliver a better customer experience, business model, and new positioning.

    It isn’t something that comes naturally to most business people. They are trained in school, and by many experts, that running a business requires logical workflows and analytical thinking. It takes extra effort and focus on some special techniques, including the following, to get the edge you need over your competitors in customer attraction and retention:

    1. Set order-of-magnitude goals. If your goals can’t be achieved by conventional thinking, your brain and the people around you will more likely revert to out-of-the box ideas. Successful entrepreneurs call these paradigm shifts or disruptive technologies, where new solutions cause unanticipated opportunities.

    2. Challenge your team to focus first on quantity of ideas, not quality. This is the essence of brainstorming and ideation. Ideas from the edge often don’t look good at first glance, but need time to evolve into full-blown creative solutions. Even bad ideas often have a nugget of potential that can be transformed into one of your best alternatives.

    3. Offer incentives or competition. There is nothing like friendly competition or an attractive reward to bring out a new base of un-edited ideas. This approach works best if you make it a quick effort. There is a good possibility that one of these will evolve to be the gem you need to grow your business.

    4. Search for recognizable patterns in disconnected domains. Out of the box thinkers get new ideas by comparing unrelated subjects, such as customers and investors. I find that startups rarely think of customers as investors, even though major customers might see ROI as a positive reason to invest in future growth, and chose to pay for equity.

    5. Explore contradictory approaches. This forces you to change the way you look at alternatives, and suddenly the alternatives you look at change. For example, the old assumption that lower prices will drive volumes, may give way to higher prices and exclusivity implying more value to discerning customers.

    6. Change the way you talk, and your thinking will follow suit. When you make a conscious effort to focus on the positives rather than the negatives, your creative mindset will push the positive limits, rather than get stuck on worst case scenarios. Almost all alternatives have pluses as well as risks, so push the limits on the positive side.

    7. Challenge the outer limits of alternatives. With the pace of change today, it makes more sense to plan for obsoleting a product line with a new alternative well before profits go to zero. “New” companies, like Uber, can build billion dollar valuations, and start acquiring older companies seen as much larger.

    It’s important that you apply these initiatives to all elements of your business, rather than just on new products to sell. If your imagination is primarily technical by nature, then you need to complement your efforts by attracting partners with more imagination in marketing, sales, finance, and operations. A successful business is a combination of creative ideas in all these disciplines.

    You can’t “will” a certain number of creative ideas, but you can certainly measure how many have been implemented in your business recently, and measure what worked and what didn’t work. If you can’t name some new ones in the works right now, your business, or your career, is likely falling behind the competition. Start thinking outside the box.

    Marty Zwilling

    *** First published on Inc.com on 11/17/2016 ***

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    Saturday, December 3, 2016

    7 Keys To Making Staff Meetings An Asset vs Expense

    Staff_meetingBy Ernst Gemassmer, Chairman, Startup Professionals

    Most of us view weekly staff meetings today with a degree of trepidation and frustration. Many have suggested that it is time re-engineer this process, or eliminate the meetings entirely.

    In an old survey on staff meeting obstacles conducted by GroupSystems, I found the following not-so-surprising statistics for the average 50 minute staff meeting:

    • Much time wasted on inefficient process – over 30% of the total time
    • No meeting minutes or decisions recorded – 59% of the cases
    • Nothing usable gained from meeting – 68% of respondents

    These kind of statistics are often used to suggest that staff meetings be eliminated, but I don’t agree. I would assert that these meetings are necessary to run a company of any size, and are not a necessary evil. The alternative is chaos, or autocratic leadership.

    The opposite of chaos is some type of democratic leadership, which requires regular meetings of all teams at every level, on a regular basis. In my experience, these can be very productive for all concerned. But the following basic principles are followed:

    1. Communicate the time, purpose and process. Executive staff meeting. The CEO who sanctions the meeting must set expectations clearly. People need to know what they are expected of provide and communicate, what they will hear, and when to be there.

    2. Schedule in advance, and stick to the schedule. Schedule meetings at least every other week throughout the calendar or business year. Start on time, even if everyone is not present. Demonstrate respect for the people who show up on time by beginning promptly. Individuals that come late can 'catch-up' later.

    3. Don’t delegate and don’t derail your own meeting. Except in an emergency, you should show up on time, conduct your own meetings personally, or cancel the meeting. There is nothing so frustrating or ineffective as a meeting run by a surrogate, used for personal tirades, or dragged off track by a vocal member.

    4. Everyone has a voice, with a moderator for action items. I recommend a fixed agenda segment where each attendee distributes and discusses a one page written report. The report is to follow a specific format including progress, problems, and plans. Each subsequent meeting picks up incomplete items. Action items are logged by the leader or scribe.

    5. If decisions are required, close the loop on each one. A group decision does not require a total group consensus, but it does require a process that is agreed, understood, and followed by all. How many meetings have you left where no one knows what was decided, or worse yet, everyone has his own view of the outcome?

    6. Moderate the discussion and the filter agenda items. Staff meetings are definitely not the place to discuss individual performance (handing out praise is fine), or spending time on specific projects that relate only to a few individuals. It is the place to communicate goals for the following period, and acknowledge accomplishments for the past period.

    7. Hold them consistently across every division/functional department. The CEO should encourage each of his direct reports to conduct staff meetings in their own divisions or functional areas.

    It may well take you several weeks to reinvent your staff meetings along the lines recommended above. However, you will quickly note that the team will cooperate more than before, and will more likely surface critical issues, determine alternatives, and avoid surprises.

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    Friday, December 2, 2016

    9 Transaction Models Shape Your Customer Experience

    stewart-oconnellFocus is everything in a business, whether it be a new startup or a large enterprise. In my role as a business advisor, I often see well-meaning entrepreneurs try to be everything to everyone, which results in many things done poorly, and few totally delighted customers. People are confused by multiple messages, and employees are frustrated trying to personalize customer experiences.

    These days, the whole business experience is often more important than the product. If the shopping process, delivery, and support experiences are not designed-in and delivered consistently, no after-the-fact effort or product feature can compensate for the lack of it.

    The specifics and need for an overall service experience design were driven home to me in a new book, “Woo, Wow, and Win,” by Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell. The authors provide details and multiple examples of how imagining, creating, and rethinking the execution of every aspect of the transaction not only better satisfies customers, but advances your strategic goals.

    Most experts agree that there are at least nine generic types of customer experiences commonly in use by successful businesses today. As a place to start, I recommend that you model your business after one of the following archetypes, understanding the pros and cons, rather than defining a new one with a large inherent learning curve:

    1. The aggregator – one-stop shop. Popular examples of this type include Amazon for buying, eBay for selling, and Craigslist for anything. Aggregators delight customers by offering a vast array of products or services under the same experience. Success requires a lean and powerful back office, and a quick recovery when things go wrong.

    2. The bargain - we will not be undersold. Many entrepreneurs start out down this path, with dreams of being the next Walmart, Costco, or Dollar General. The challenges include lean margins, with little room for personalization on mass offerings. The biggest danger is to think that nothing matters except price, in an age where service is king.

    3. The classic – top of the line, just the best. Brands such as Mercedes, Brooks Brothers, and Yale University confer prestige and power to their customers, and imply excellence. Yet they have to be careful not to chase fads, without ever falling behind the times. Paying top dollar is part of this customer experience, so the audience is limited.

    4. The old shoe - we are your local; you are our regular. There are few market positions more powerful than being a familiar, comfortable, hometown business. Very few of these are able to go national or global and still retain the warmth and intimacy of their expected customer experience. Change is hard in this model, and the human element is key.

    5. The safe choice – you cannot go wrong with us. Safe choices are frequently old brands, like traditional banks and department stores, but even technology companies like IBM can fit this mold if they design themselves appropriately. With this model, the urge to evolve is tricky, since change scares people, and can easily distract company focus.

    6. The solution integrator – we put complex things together. Well-recognized users of this model include Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Oracle. These companies walk the fine line between selling discrete services and products. Productizing can easily destroy the magic of the service, putting them in the same customer experience as solution sellers.

    7. The specialist – no one is better at what we do. You can find specialists in almost every industry, focused on a particular type of service. Their challenge is to make their excellence visible to customers, and design a customer experience that delights users. Focus is their strength, and they must avoid the temptation of mass-market for growth.

    8. The trendsetter – we are sleek and hip. Trendsetters, like Uber, turn their first-mover advantage into a business model, enticing others to play their game. They are cool, and they foster engagement, not distance. Yet sometimes, they can get too far out in front of customers, and lose the market. Experience design has to change as the market evolves.

    9. The utility – we are a public trust. Many of these are regulated, and risk becoming bureaucratic. It’s tough to design and maintain a positive customer experience, since customers often cannot choose their utilities. Yet, over time, if they take their customers for granted, they can be pushed out or superseded by other solutions.

    In any case, your challenge is deciding how you are going to market, and designing every aspect of your customer experience. The model selected will drive what offerings you make, and what expectations you set. Just as importantly, it identifies the customers you seek to delight, and the customers you expect to happily look elsewhere without becoming your nemesis.

    Service design and delivery can only be successfully done proactively, and it has to start with what you want to promise as the seller, rather than trying to accede to everything a customer asks. Is your company as focused on designing the customer experience as they are on the product or service offered? Your long-term survival and success depends on it.

    Marty Zwilling

    *** First published on Huffington Post on 11/30/2016 ***

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