Friday, March 31, 2017

Resilience is the Only Sustainable Edge in Business

resilience-bouncing-backIf you haven’t had a setback in business, you are probably risk averse and doomed to mediocrity. The business leaders who create real technology paradigm shifts, or have changed the world of commerce, don’t advertise their failures, but they still feel them. Yet they have been able to learn from their mistakes and bounce back stronger for the next challenge. They show resilience.

Ask Bill Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen about their first business, Traf-O-Data. They tried to make traffic signals intelligent way back in the early ‘70s, but found out that it takes more than technology to change government bureaucracies. They bounced back by creating Microsoft, and embracing marketing to change businesses and consumer use of computers.

More recently, most people think of Mark Zuckerberg as the creator of social media, but few remember his earlier efforts at creating video games, a music player, and Facemash, the last being his idea of a great dating app. But he never gave up, pivoted his efforts to social media, renamed it to Facebook, and struggled for five more years before generating a positive cash flow.

As an advisor to entrepreneurs, I often preach the need for resilience, but I’m not sure how to recognize it before-hand. I’m also not sure what to tell aspiring entrepreneurs to practice or learn, to improve their ability with this attribute. Based on my own experience, here are seven key elements of resilience that I look for:

  1. A willingness to accept responsibility for whatever happens. People who look for someone or some external event to blame for every setback are not likely to be resilient. It’s always easy to blame the economy, investors, or the team for a failure, but blame doesn’t lead to learning. I look for people who see problems as opportunities, rather than setbacks.

  2. Surrounding yourself with people who are positive and supportive. Team members who are always negative and making excuses for lack of support drag down any business, as well as your own resilience. The best business partners have strengths that complement yours, and they are smarter than you in their domain. They bring you solutions, not just problems.

  3. You look at failures as milestones on the road to success. Thomas Edison was the classic example, when he characterized his 10,000 failures to find a working lightbulb filament as experiments to identify all the ways that won’t work. Resilient business people are energized by the learning opportunity, rather than discouraged by every setback.

  4. Demonstrated self-confidence, but not arrogance. I look for the pragmatic self-confidence that any setback is temporary and can be overcome, rather than a fear of failure or fear of taking a risk or making a decision. Too much ego often causes a blind high self-worth view that most call arrogance. Resilience requires humility, in concert with perseverance.

  5. Not reluctant to ask for help, feedback, and support. Resilient entrepreneurs know what they don’t know, and are not afraid to reach out for guidance from their team, close advisors, and industry experts. I always recommend that a startup founder enlist an advisory board of three to five members, and I find that people who resist this help are not very resilient.

  6. Embrace the need to constantly innovate and change. If your agenda is so fixed in your head that you are not listening to the winds of change in the market, resilience is not yet your strong suit. The best entrepreneurs know they don’t have all the answers, and today’s answers may be wrong tomorrow. Change is the only constant in today’s world of business.

  7. Demonstrate a priority on their own health and family balance. You won’t be resilient if you ignore your own health, both physically and mentally. Every entrepreneur needs to allocate some time away from business for exercise, sleep, and healthy eating. Mentally, you need outside activities and events keep you balanced and aware of the real world.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, resilience in business is just as often needed for dealing with difficult business partners, customers, and office politics, as well as in dealing with business setbacks and failures. All the more reason to focus on the right attributes and habits as you contemplate stepping into your own business.

Thus, if your dream is to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, remember that a large dose of resilience will be required by you, and everyone around you. There is no room for excuses, a pity party, or a sense of luck running against you. Are you ready to enjoy the challenge of the journey, as well as the success of reaching the destination?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/14/2017 ***

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

8 Ways to Unleash A Team’s Maximum Productive Power

team-productive-powerMost business leaders today realize that smart management of scarce resources is the key to competitive success. That’s why they manage money so carefully. Yet the truth is that a more scarce resource is really the time, talent, and energy of your team. Leaders who are able to optimize these find multipliers of 20 percent up to nine times the average productivity.

Like most investors in startups, I rank the credentials of the team well above the value of an idea in deciding where to put my money. Many venture firms go even further, by insisting on investing their own key players in an interesting startup, before they commit any funds. But how to grow these difference-makers has always been a bit more nebulous to me than how to make money.

Thankfully, I just saw some great insights on this subject, in a new book, “Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power,” by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, partners at Bain & Company and frequent Harvard Business Review contributors. I’ve paraphrased a few of their key points here that I support and often recommend:

  1. Invest team member time as carefully as you invest money. Time investment standards fall directly on the CEO. Start by ruthlessly setting and sticking to priorities, controlling meeting length, and promoting more efficient protocols for e-communication. As a role model, what you practice is more important than what you preach.

  2. Reduce organizational drag on every team member. Organizational silos, limited spans of control, and too many layers of management can dramatically reduce the productivity of even your best people. Simplify the structure and reorganize regularly to eliminate groups not adding value, and to minimize the interactions between groups.

  3. Determine where key people can make a difference. Place difference makers only in business-critical roles. Most often, these roles revolve around a company’s major assets, including intellectual property, leading brands, key production assets, and unique routes to market. Don’t allow key people to be pushed down and lost in the organization.

  4. Find better ways to identify and nurture difference makers. Every organization needs a talent pipeline that holds leaders at all levels accountable for identifying and developing internal difference makers, and nurturing networks of external talent. This starts with instilling the discipline to build a robust, focused set of objectives for every team member.

  5. Help make the difference makers even more effective. This means revisiting your human relations (HR) practices and procedures – training, promotion, job assignments, and compensation, with difference makers in mind. It also means setting up a personalized coaching and mentoring system, and accelerated rotations for top talent.

  6. Build a culture guided by principles, not rules. In today’s dynamic markets, it’s virtually impossible to enact and update rules with sufficient frequency. Use your high-level principles to establish behavioral frameworks to guide ways of working, rather than a scorecard enforced by culture vigilantes. This also builds trust, and fosters risk-taking.

  7. Balance organizational needs with high employee autonomy. Allowing autonomy fosters accountability for results. The first step is to communicate a strategy and purpose that provides a context for employees’ action. That must be followed with measurable objectives, consistent measurements, feedback systems, and smart activity monitoring.

  8. Develop leaders who deliver results and inspire. Inspirational leaders are the ones with the greatest connection to customers and mission, a large set of relevant strengths, and active engagement with team members. The most productive and inspiring leaders demonstrate an ownership mindset, and build real relationships with difference makers.

How effectively you manage the time, talent, and energy of your team dictates how well you can respond to today’s key business challenges, which include shorter business cycles, and growing productivity as the business grows (rather than watching it decline). More capital can be found from constituents, but difference-making employees must be grown and nurtured. Only you can do that.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/09/2017 ***

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Monday, March 27, 2017

6 Ways To Attract A Flock Of Angels To Your Venture

flock-of-angelsFundraising is brutal. Actually, according to Paul Graham of Y-Combinator fame, “Raising money is the second hardest part of starting a startup. The hardest part is making something people want.” More startups may fail for that reason, but a close second is the difficulty of raising money.

A while back, I outlined “10 Tried-And-True Strategies For Funding New Ventures” for startups, listing angel investors as alternative six. I still get a lot of questions on these mysterious and often invisible investors, so here is another attempt to bring them out of the ether.

By definition, an angel investor is not an “institutional investor.” Venture capitalists (VCs) are paid to invest other people’s money, and measured on the rate of return they get. Angels are typically high net worth individuals who are investing their own money, for a wide range of motives.

So “good” angels are ones with motives that are consistent with what you bring to the table. This means they usually invest in people who have the right “chemistry”, and areas of business they already know. They tend to work locally, so they can “touch and feel” their investments.

Angel investors also tend to limit the size of individual investments to $250K or less. If you need more, you need VCs or a flock of angels. So how do you find those good angels?

  1. Use personal networking. The best angels you will find are the ones who know you personally, or know a member of your team or advisory board. If a potential investor gets to know you BEFORE you are asking for money, your credibility and investment probability will be improved by an order of magnitude.

  2. Entice angels to play along. Of course, angels are really mortals. They want to make a difference. Asking an angel to work with your company in an advisory role is a great way to establish a relationship that may lead to a cash investment. If you impress the angel, it will likely make her at least an archangel (advocate) when it comes to funding.

  3. Court local angel groups. Since angel investors most often focus only in their own geographic area, it’s most effective to court the local group, or even make a guest appearance with an archangel. If you can earn an archangel's confidence, he or she will invite you to pitch the group, and you'll have an edge in the voting.

  4. Mine national databases. If you are still alone, submit your application to the leading online website national databases of angel investors, Gust (USA) and National Angel Capital Association (Canada). These sites have arrangements with hundreds of local groups and individual investors that you might otherwise have missed.

  5. Remember angels beget angels. That means that once you get the first one, he or she becomes your best advocate for finding more. Investment angels don’t like to travel alone, so they will bring in others if they can (it’s called share the risk).

  6. Don’t forget passive angels. These are angel investors who are private, meaning they don’t go to meetings, but will invest if someone they trust brings them an attractive opportunity. Find the right investment advisor, or member of your advisory board, and the “match-making” will happen.

Remember that angels have a culture all their own, and it pays to understand how to deal positively with them after you find one. There are some books out there to help, like the one I published a while back with Joe Bockerstette “Attracting an Angel - How to get Money from Business Angels and Why Most Entrepreneurs Don't”, and an old standby “The Art of The Start”, by Guy Kawasaki.

Even if you follow this recipe, you are likely to find that fundraising is a brutal challenge. But if it results in a good angel or two watching over your startup, you will definitely be one step closer to heaven.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, March 24, 2017

7 Ways to Use Data and Analytics for Strategic Change

analytics-strategicMore than ever, businesses need to take full advantage of automation, data, and analytics to run their business more productively and competitively. Yet, in my role as a small business advisor, I still see many founders and executives who see data and analytics primarily as a measurement device on current results, rather than using it to evolve the business strategy and direction.

Certainly it’s important to optimize current operations, but in this age of rapidly changing demands and competitors, it’s more important change quickly as the market changes. I was reminded of the critical need to change, and how, in a new book, “The Caterpillar's Edge: Evolve, Evolve Again, and Thrive in Business,” by Sid Mohasseb, former head of KPMG’s Strategic Innovation Practice.

Mohasseb details a set of insight boosters to channel your change decisions, and using data and analytics differently are among the key ones:

  1. Commit that data and analytics will drive strategic decisions. View and leverage data as an asset for future decisions, not just a measure of past actions. The first step is to get the data and analysis to all the right people. Strategic decision makers need to see the data, in addition to marketing and sales. Ask for analysis rather than reams of data.

  2. Always remember it’s about the problem, not the solution. Don’t start with finding what you want – having a specific end in mind assumes you have knowledge of the future. Recognize that the problem and needs will shift. Let the data and the analytics suggest the questions you need to ask, not the answers. It’s the begin point, not the end.

  3. Control your urges to solve first and justify with data later. To gain new insight, always look to disprove yourself. Allow your conventional assumptions to be challenged. We all have the human tendency to read data as supporting our own biases. Be sure to get multiple views of insights and implications from advisors that you trust.

  4. Avoid getting only a filtered view of the world. Too much reliance on automated filtering may result in missing key issues and rehashing the problems framed up in the past. Sometimes a look at the raw numbers, in addition to trend reports, will trigger a new question, and lead to insights otherwise overlooked. Seek a variety of analysis tools.

  5. Keep up on the details, but don’t miss the big picture. Using big data and analytics is a balancing act – some people get bogged down in the details, and ignore the bigger messages, while others miss short-term corrections that can make a big difference. Make sure you have team members covering both domains, to balance your decision input.

  6. You are the business scientist, to balance data scientists. You can delegate the technology infrastructure issues and decisions to the CTO or CIO, and data gathering and cleansing matters to the new chief data officers, but don’t delegate your business strategy role. Your tech guys may know how to read data, but you must read the market.

  7. You don’t need to be exhaustive in capturing all signals first. Start now to recognize and evaluate signals and changes from a growth, risk, and efficiency perspective. Be acutely aware of the value exchange dynamics between stakeholders, and sensitive to the urgency of reading changes before competitors, rather than following the crowd.

As important as it is to add insight boosters, you also need to change any addictions you have to traditional planning processes, fixed budgets, and reliance on ultra-optimistic revenue projections. Your team needs to know that it is safe to experiment, and failure is not a toxic result. Use data to unleash and reward the power in your team for imagination, action, and innovation.

As author Mohasseb indicates, you have to be able to evolve your business as quickly and smoothly as a caterpillar evolves into a butterfly, so that you can soar with the wind. Don’t be one of the many small businesses I see that crawls along at a snail’s pace, and ultimately gets stepped on by the competition. Keep your eye on the data and the analytics.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/07/2017 ***

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Friday, March 17, 2017

6 Keys to Becoming an Influencer for More Business

influencer-business-growthThe most powerful way to grow your business and your career these days is to become a visible influencer in your domain. People follow influencers on social media to find what they buy, who they vote for, and which social causes they support. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to be an influencer, but you do have to understand and practice some key techniques.

In this age of total and instant communication via Internet videos and smartphones, everyone assumes that if they don’t know you, you are hiding something, or perhaps don’t even exist. They flocked to businesses like Apple, when influencer Steve Jobs was at the helm, and anxiously await the next moves from visible entrepreneurs, including Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

Personalities in business are the influencers these days, rather than brand names and symbols. You are your own brand, and the brand for your business. Thus it behooves you to do everything you can to be perceived as an influencer. I found a good summary of these attributes in a recent book, “The Old School Advantage,” by an expert on interpersonal communication, J. N. Whiddon.

The keys to being an influencer are time-honored and not new, but they have assumed a new importance in this age of instant communication. Based on my current role as a mentor to entrepreneurs, I will paraphrase and recommend Whiddon’s top techniques in business terms:

  1. Build an image of likability and rapport. We all relish working with and buying from people we can relate to on a personal level. In today’s customer context, you can foster rapport by dressing like them, making every effort to look attractive, offering compliments, and listening intensely. Customers need to believe that you are one of them.

  2. Highlight your interest in helping and giving back. Entrepreneurs who are clearly willing to give as well as take in business become influencers because people feel the urge to reciprocate. Going out of your way to help a customer or help a good cause pays big dividends these days. Don’t be seen as a business taking without giving back.

  3. Establish yourself as an authority in your domain. In the past, authority came from a position title or uniform. Today in business, authority is a function of visibility, leadership roles in related functions, and what is said about you online by authoritative publications and people you know. You can also establish authority by writing and public speaking.

  4. Show your ability to build customer consensus. Influencers in business are entrepreneurs who are willing to engage with customers, and get them fully aligned with the business. Actively participating in social media is the place to start, including blogging and positively responding to customer feedback, to build a growing crowd of followers.

  5. Demonstrate your commitments and consistency. As an example, early businesses that were willing to publish their commitment to “customer satisfaction or your money back” became influencers. Now customers look for more. Be creative in demonstrating your strengths consistently, and your influencer perception will rise.

  6. Highlight elements of your exclusivity and scarcity. Facebook initially capitalized on exclusivity by allowing only Harvard students to join their social network. When services are unique, difficult to obtain, or available for a limited time, their value increases, and your influencer level goes up. Scarcity is one of the best justifications for higher prices.

The net effect is that influencers can rely more heavily on the less expensive “pull” marketing, rather than traditional “push” marketing. With pull marketing, the idea is that your influence and presence draws customers to your solutions. Customers don’t even see this as advertising, and actually become strong advocates who pull in their friends, further magnifying your influence.

Certainly the steps to becoming an influencer take effort and involve risk. The power to persuade and influence others also carries a great responsibility. If you don’t wield your influence wisely, you will hurt others and hurt yourself. Yet staying invisible and taking no risks in business today is a certain recipe for failure. Are you doing all you can to influence your own growth and success?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/02/2017 ***

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

6 Keys To Hiring The Best Team For Your New Business

Adam-Robinson-The-Best-Team-WinsStartup investors tell me they invest in a new venture with a higher caliber of people, rather than the product or service, and I agree. In my role as a business advisor, I see successful businesses most often emerging from great teams rather than great products. Yet I find the people building teams are usually product experts, often with no experience in team building.

Of course, it’s no surprise that most entrepreneurs don’t have a background in hiring teams, and don’t have a budget for training or human resource consultants. But these days with all the resources on the Internet and elsewhere, there is no excuse for not keeping up on the latest insights, best practices, and technology in the area of hiring, motivating, and training.

For example, I just finished a new book, “The Best Team Wins: Build Your Business Through Predictive Hiring,” by Adam Robinson, CEO and cofounder of Hireology, which details the how and why of hiring your most valuable assets today. He comments that in spite of the digital revolution, the hiring process hasn’t changed from its low priority, last minute, subjective roots.

In fact, his analysis of current statistics and many case studies leads both of us to recommend a focus on a set of key hiring principles that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but don’t seem to get followed very often these days by new companies, or even the more mature ones:

  1. Look for a cultural fit before a skill match. In the past, very little consideration has been given to finding people who share your purpose and values for the business. But today, in this era of relationships, people who fit your culture have proven to be much more engaged and productive than others who are more skilled, but feel like outsiders.

    Some of the companies with the best team cultures, including Zappos, even go so far as to offer new employees $2,000 to quit after the first week on the job if they don’t feel a fit with the team assigned. It’s a small cost to prevent a long-term loss.

  2. Give priority to attitude over experience. New businesses need people who have a passion for getting things done with limited resources, enjoy problem solving, and relish constant change. Often times, candidates with more years of experience are frustrated and unproductive in these environments, and are looking for structure and consistency.

    At Twitter, for example, even though everyone gets great perks, including meals, yoga classes, and unlimited vacations for some, employees can’t stop talking about how they love working with other motivated people, where no one leaves until the work gets done.

  3. Be patient when filling open positions. Not planning ahead, and only hiring people in the crisis of an open position is a recipe for creating dysfunctional teams. Having no one is better than someone who needs constant attention, or is working against you. Define a disciplined process, take the time to find multiple candidates, and do proper reviews.

  4. Get interactive in candidate interviews. Some entrepreneurs approach hiring as a test of their selling ability, while others wait for the candidate to sell them. The best approach is to ask open-ended questions, really listen to the answers, and then follow-up for depth. Have multiple team members do their own two-way interviews, and compare notes.

  5. Avoid surprises through proactive homework. Team managers in a hurry to hire often skip references, assuming they won’t get the real story anyway. In truth, much can be inferred from what is not said, and the tone of former managers. Doing multiple calls will reinforce your qualms or eliminate them. Recovery from a surprise bad hire is expensive.

    Another type of surprise is the perfect candidate who walks away at the last minute. This can be avoided by asking about extenuating circumstances before you extend them an offer, such as spousal objections or other pending job offers. Asking will give you the chance to address these considerations, and avoid disappointment and drama.

  6. Do your onboarding with conviction. Integration of a new employee into their team is the right time to communicate the culture and direction of the business, and let them know what is expected of them. The proper training and support right up front is key to retention, the right attitude, and their ability to be influential in driving your business.

Building and managing a great team doesn’t stop when your last position is filled. Keeping the team motivated and happy over time is just as hard. Even happy people expect to be promoted, and do move on to other opportunities, so you have to plan for replacements as well as new business. Is your business able to grow and adapt as fast as the market changes these days?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 03/13/2017 ***

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Friday, March 10, 2017

6 Ways to Kill Bad Habits One Small Step At A Time

kill-bad-habitsEvery entrepreneur I know has a few bad habits they intended to overcome a long time ago, such as micromanaging, or failure to get enough rest and relaxation. As a result, both their business and their personal lives continue to suffer. Wouldn’t you like to know how to make that big step to get past your procrastination and get to your maximum potential once and for all?

Well, the experts are now convinced that the solution is not to try for a big step at all, but to take many baby steps instead. I just finished a new book, “The Leading Brain,” by Friederike Fabritius, and Hans Hagemann, with the science behind this. Fabritius is a neuropsychologist, Hagemann is a leadership expert, and both speak from extensive experience in the world of business.

They point out that establishing good habits and getting rid of bad ones involves the same basic skills; goal setting and motivation, getting started, and staying on track. Most smart entrepreneurs and business owners I know have no trouble with goal setting and motivation, but because they are overwhelmed with the many business priorities, they never get around to fixing themselves.

That’s where starting small comes in. The way our brains are wired, making a tiny step doesn’t raise all the fears of failure or trigger procrastination, and many small steps increases confidence, and makes the desired end seem enticingly near. This is why a continuous improvement strategy works more effectively in business than the “big bang” theory for moving your business forward.

In my role as a mentor to entrepreneurs, I often recommend attacking bad habits and efforts to improve using the six basic strategies outlined by the authors. I have paraphrased them here, with my own specifics on business realities, all with the emphasis placed on “small.”

  1. Ask small questions. If your habit change goal of a two-week vacation away from the office seems too large or risky, simply ask yourself, “What is one small step I can take toward reaching that goal?” You could start by slipping out an hour early for a school event, or take a half-day every week, until you feel comfortable with a longer absence.

  2. Think small thoughts. Now that you have answered your question, it’s time to visualize yourself acting on it. If you isolate a task that makes you uncomfortable, like doing employee performance reviews, and then gradually visualize yourself writing a few notes on their results, over time your mind’s attitude toward the dreaded task will be reshaped.

  3. Take small actions. Thus small questions and small thoughts ultimately lead to small actions. While writing a business plan always seems like a huge task to be done on another day, if you break it into small steps, and commit to assigning each segment to the right person, you may be amazed at how much content you get in a short period.

  4. Solve small problems. Be honest with yourself about small habits you have which may irritate your direct reports, coworkers, or customers. Strive to do so without punishing yourself. This new awareness alone will reduce the probability that you will repeat the same mistakes. If you find a common issue, that provides further incentive to improve.

  5. Give small rewards. We now know that most of our bad habits were originally triggered by the expectation of some sort of reward. For example, smokers looking for stress relief or relaxation. Thus you need to look for a healthier small reward, like a trip to the gym, to relieve stress. Small rewards can often be a greater source of motivation than large ones.

  6. Identify small moments. The little satisfactions can sometimes mean a lot. Use the positive feedback from a satisfied customer to make sure you do the follow-up with every key customer. The smile on the face of your team when they see you on the floor, rather than hiding in your office, will incent you to break that habit of being inaccessible.

In all cases, if you want to make a change that lasts, good intentions are not enough. You need to attach your new routine to a trigger. Frowns rather than smiles should trigger action, rather than anger and stress. Eliminate those bad habits, one at a time, and start some good ones the same way. Soon you will be achieving a new peak level of performance, and enjoying it more. It worked for me.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/22/2017 ***

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

7 Keys To Hard Hitting Social Media Use For Business

social-media-for-businessIf you are an entrepreneur today, and not using social media to promote your business, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. But, contrary to what most people preach, it isn’t entirely free. Most social media outlets don’t require a subscription charge, but they certainly require an investment to be hard hitting – in people, in technology, your reputation, and your time.

There are hundreds of consultants out there who will take your money for guidance in this area, but I recommend that you start with some free resources on the Internet, or one of the many recent books on this topic. In a classic one I read a while back, “How to Make Money with Social Media” by Jamie Turner and Reshma Shah, Ph.D., hits all the right points from my perspective:

  1. Lead with a strong relevant first impression. As with many startup activities, you only have one chance for a great first impression. You can jump into social media with a poor brand definition, poorly focused content, unrealistic expectations of customer service, or be killed by malware or viruses. Check your brand definition against the clarity of this one from Xerox for office software.

  2. Assess social media relevance to your product or service. If your business is industrial B2B products, social media may be low on your list. Spend your time and money on other platforms. If you are selling to consumers, especially younger ones, your business won’t survive without an effective social media presence.

  3. Attract key stakeholders with sensitivity. For some customers and many investors, a heavy focus on social networks and viral marketing may be a negative, rather than a positive. A balance of conventional and social communication and marketing is always advised.

  4. Pick the right platform for your business. Within each of the platform categories defined above, there is a right one and a wrong one for your audience. For example, LinkedIn is attuned to business professionals, Facebook is dominated by the social and upwardly mobile crowd. If you are selling a B2B printing platform from Xerox, posting on LinkedIn would likely be the best choice.

  5. Use strong communication and writing skills. Heavy texting experience is not a qualification for communicating via social media. In additional to strong journalistic writing and storytelling, you need business acumen, strategic thinking and planning, and the ability to do the right research. These days, video production is also a useful skill.

  6. Make social media an integrated part of an overall strategy. An integrated marketing strategy starts with an overall brand management strategy, delivered through online and offline communications, promotions, and customer engagement vehicles. For example, if your world is printers, your blogging messages better match your print advertising message.

  7. Find the right tools to analyze the ROI. Return-On-Investment metrics are not new, but the tools are different. Get familiar with current social media tools, such as Google Analytics, SproutSocial, and HootSuite analytics. Over time, put together the data you need to measure your progress on a weekly/monthly/yearly basis.

The key social media platforms today include communications (Wordpress blogs, Twitter), collaboration (Wikipedia, StumbleUpon), and multimedia (YouTube, Flickr). In looking ahead, don’t forget the mobile platforms (iPhone, Android), and location-based services (Foursquare, ShopKick).

As with any resource or tool, you need to optimize your social media costs against a targeted return. That means first setting a strategy and plan for what you want to achieve, then executing the plan efficiently, and measuring results. It’s not free, but it’s an investment that you can’t afford not to make.

Marty Zwilling

*** Published by Xerox Small Business Solutions on 03/06/2017 ***

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Monday, March 6, 2017

How You Should Start a Business Before the Bubble

soap-bubble-businessIn the entrepreneur world, most of the energy I see is focused on the current opportunity bubbles, now including anything mobile, the new sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb), or yet another social media app (Snapchat, WhatsApp). Too few entrepreneurs are searching for the next bubble, so too many funding requests I see as an investor are yet another “me too” solution, with low odds.

So if you are looking to get some extra attention, and potentially capitalize on your own new bubble of opportunity, the first step is to check out where the bubbles are today. In addition, I always recommend the following strategies for critically evaluating every startup opportunity:

  1. Let Google warn you about entering a crowded space. Don’t trust your conviction that your idea has never been done before. If you do an Internet search with a couple of keywords and find ten or more existing competitors, I recommend that you look for a more unique idea. Subtle differences don’t usually attract investors or customers.

  2. Resist the urge to integrate multiple existing products. Intuitively, it may seem that combining multiple apps that you like into one would increase your opportunity, but it actually reduces it. Many customers will not want to pay for all, or will be confused by the additional options. The savings in a combined product must be dramatic to be attractive.

  3. Passion is necessary but not sufficient to start a business. Just because you love the idea, don’t assume that everyone else will feel the same. There is no substitute for market research and independent verification that a large opportunity exists. Even early positive feedback from early adopters may be misleading relative to the volume market.

  4. If it sounds like an easy deal, there is probably a catch. Bubbles of success created by others outside your domain of expertise or experience always look enticingly easy. The problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Every industry has a set of unwritten rules for success, so smart entrepreneurs always “stick with their knitting.”

  5. Put the reins on overconfidence and large egos. Change is always hard, so adoption rates for new solutions almost always come in below optimistic estimates. Revolutionary ideas that require customer paradigm shifts require extra time for adoption, and larger budgets for education. Don’t let your ego keep you from seeking advisor and expert input.

  6. Beware of high valuations with low revenue and profit. Existing bubbles are often characterized by high excitement and high valuations, without the requisite intrinsic value or cash flow. These usually crash before you can get there, or don’t necessarily extend to new players entering the same space. All businesses have to earn money for longevity.

  7. Isolate nice-to-have from painful-problem solutions. Everyone may love your idea on how to find the best entertainment in town, but how many are willing to pay real money for your phone app? Even good social causes need to bring in revenue and profit to continue their worthy efforts. Make sure you can quantify the value of your solution.

  8. Cheap money causes more problems than it fixes. Opportunity bubbles sometimes entice investors or your rich uncle to give you more money that you really need. As a result, entrepreneurs often spend unwisely, or chase a bad idea way too far without measuring results. Manage cash flow with an iron hand, on your first dollar or your last.

I do believe we are entering a new era of opportunity for entrepreneurs. The current rate of technology change, as well as customer cultural change, is unprecedented. There are new investment vehicles, like crowdfunding, which gives everyone a chance to own a piece of a new opportunity. So you don’t need to ride an old bubble to success. Now is the time to float your own.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/17/2017 ***

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

8 Reasons To Initiate A Startup In A Sluggish Economy

entrepreneur-plan-workAccording to CNN Money, the economy is still very sluggish, with only 1.6 percent growth in 2016. Yet if you wait for an economy bubble before starting your new business, you will be making a comparable mistake to the people who thought during the dot-com bubble "all I have to do is a startup, and I'll be rich." In reality, what matters more is who you are, not when you do it.

Like Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator, said a long time ago, I see startups succeed or fail every day based primarily on the qualities of the founders. The economy has some effect, but as a predictor of success it’s a rounding error compared to the founders. If you're worried about threats to the survival of your company, don't look for them in the news. Look in the mirror.

Here are some pragmatic reasons from Paul and others to highlight why you might not want to wait for the next business bubble before taking the leap:

  1. Alternatives are not as tempting. If your alternative is no job security, and low pay, why not work for yourself and build your startup? You'll be investing your time and energy into something with more potential upside in future. If you're talented and have always toyed with the idea of a startup, financially it makes sense to do it now.

  2. More available talent. It's hard to hire good people because they already have a job. But in a lesser economy that's not true -- companies have exploded and laid-off everyone, even the stars. Check your business network for a great co-founder or a great designer.

  3. Low cost infrastructure. Notice the empty offices that are wasting away as you drive down the street? Make them an offer. Need less expensive advertising? Ad revenue is still down as companies right-size marketing budgets. Negotiate, or use social networks, which are virtually free.

  4. Competitors are vulnerable. They have higher overhead, long-standing bills, yearly advertising contracts and high office leases signed years ago. Their prices are high and hard to lower. They're eating cash. You have none of these pains; you're sipping cash with no overhead and lots of time to devote to coddling new customers.

  5. Technology progresses. So for any given idea, the payoff for acting fast in a struggling economy will be higher than for waiting. Technology trains leave the station at regular intervals. If everyone else is cowering in a corner, you may have a whole car to yourself.

  6. Markets don't "reduce headcount." As a startup, you have more control over your customer base. You’re probably not going to lose your customers all at once, even though they may drop off individually if they can no longer afford you.

  7. Some business opportunities go up when the economy is down. While inventory liquidation is not an especially pleasant business, it's an example of one that generally does well during economic downturns. An aging population whose health is declining is going to purchase healthcare products and services—struggling economy or not.

  8. Investors are still looking for good startups. Everyone knows you're supposed to buy when times are bad and sell when times are good. A few investors actually think that way, so be there. You're an investor too. As a founder, you're buying stock with work.

The way to start in a sluggish economy is to do exactly what you should do anyway: manage cash as tightly as possible. If you don’t quit, the most likely cause of death in a startup is running out of money. So the cheaper your company is to operate, the harder it is to kill. And fortunately it has gotten very cheap to run a startup.

The most popular day for starting a new company is the same as starting a new diet: Tomorrow. So take the leap today, not tomorrow. If you don’t get started now, the odds are you'll never start. If you are an entrepreneur at heart, don’t be doomed to a life of trudging through jobs, depending on someone else for salary and bonuses and health care and retirement, a life's work without ownership or upside.

Besides, bubbles are hard to recognize until they burst. We may well be in one right now, but we won’t know until it’s too late. So either way, now is the right to pursue your entrepreneurial passion.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, March 3, 2017

5 Key Steps In Being A Role Model For Accountability

role-model-for-accountabilityIt’s easy to say to people on your team that they must be accountable for their actions, but it’s not so easy to tell them how to do it. It’s even harder to give them the mindset of wanting to be accountable. In fact, many business leaders forget that they are the role model for accountability, and don’t audit their own actions to make sure that they always practice what they preach.

I just finished a new book, “The Difference: When Good Enough Isn't Enough,” by Subir Chowdhury, which shines a bright light on both these issues. Chowdhury is one of the world’s leading management consultants, and he argues that accountability is only one part of a real caring culture that must be built and maintained to achieve a sustainable competitive difference.

The other key parts of a caring culture include nurturing employees and leaders who are straightforward, thoughtful, and resolute in their approach to the business. All my years of experience in business resonate with that assessment, and allow entrepreneurs to explain to team members what accountability means, and what steps are required to get there:

  1. Willing to proclaim that something needs to be done. We all know of examples where employees and managers see the same problem occur over and over again, but never raise a flag indicating that something can and should be done. A mindset of caring about the business and other workers is required to motivate this first step in accountability.

  2. Accept personal responsibility for tackling an issue. People without a caring mindset are quick to point the finger at someone else, or defer totally by saying “It’s not my job.” Leaders must send the message, and show by example, that delivering quality solutions to customers is everyone’s business. People working on problems must be rewarded.

  3. Make positive choices or decisions to act. Making positive choices is difficult with leaders or organizations that tolerate inertia or too much negativity. The right to make choices is one of the most important freedoms we have, so you won’t get accountability from employees that don’t feel they have the mission and training to make decisions.

  4. Think deeply about the consequences of each choice. It is easy to make a poor choice if you are not thinking about the consequences of that choice. Are you working to get a problem off your back or only serving your ego? Is what you are about to do the best long-term solution for the customer, or merely an expedient? Think before you act.

  5. Set high expectations for yourself and your team. When you set your own sights high, you cannot help but inspire others. When you inspire others, you make it easy to become more accountable yourself. Inspired team members will then set their own target higher, and that momentum will lead to better customer experiences and business success.

To make a real difference in your business, you need to be the role model for accountability, as well as nurturing these additional facets of a caring mindset across your whole business:

  • Culture of direct and open communication and respect. Your team’s ability to be straightforward and honest suffers when they are afraid, egos dominate, or people don’t trust that they will be treated fairly. Too often, leaders hide business realities and personal mistakes, but expect everyone else to understand and do the right thing.

  • Culture of individual empathy and thoughtful listening. Real listening involves not just hearing what others say, but trying to put yourself in their shoes, to fully understand the message. For managers, this requires getting out from behind your desk, going to the factory floor, meeting with customers, and being accessible at any time to your team.

  • Culture of passion, determination, and perseverance. This is a mindset that every problem can be resolved, and every situation can be improved. It requires humility and a willingness to change and adapt, even an acceptance that continuous improvement is the norm. People in this culture don’t ever settle for less than their personal best.

Thus you can see that accountability isn’t easy. It can’t be accomplished by edict, but it can be taught by example, by leaders who practice the principles they want their team to follow, and leaders who build a mindset of caring throughout the organization. How long has it been since you have taken a look in the mirror at yourself and your organization in this respect?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 02/24/2017 ***

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

10 Ways For Business Leaders to Improve Their Skills

business-leaders-skillsBeing a successful business leader requires continuous improvement in your leadership skills, as well as your products and processes. If you don’t focus on it, you can expect to be one of the 25 percent of CEO turnovers that occur every year from firing or forced retirement, as reported by a recent Harvard study. Business leadership requirements change just like market requirements.

Fortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, people can change themselves, and leadership is a learned skill, rather than a birthright. Business leadership is generally agreed by experts to be a set of behaviors that maximize relationships and market focus in a complex and rapidly evolving world. It’s not about a position, emotional domination, raw intelligence, or testosterone.

In a new book analyzing the behaviors of current business leaders, “Personality at Work: The Drivers and Derailers of Leadership,” by Ron Warren, PhD, he details sixteen ways that existing and aspiring leaders can improve their effectiveness. Warren should know, as the developer of leadership assessment, as taught by Harvard and Yale, and used by many businesses today.

To highlight the right behaviors, I have picked here ten of my personal favorites from the author’s list, based on my own experience as an executive and advisor to entrepreneurs over the years:

  1. More inquiry, and less advocacy of your own ideas. People who are consistently top leaders ask more questions to better understand and explore alternative ideas, rather than promote their own. They ask follow-up questions to express interest and dig even deeper to better understand others’ thinking. This is a personality of empathy for others.

  2. Listen with 100 percent focused attention. Assertive, aggressive leaders naturally focus on persuading others to buy in to their thinking. Better leaders have a personality of being very curious and listening carefully to opposing views. Thinking independently, without really hearing input, is not effective in our quickly and ever-changing environment.

  3. Consistently focus on the “we,” not “me.” Even the most disengaged employee is alert to how leaders refer to me, my team, my people rather than us, we, our team. Words are important. Leaders need the trust and loyalty from their team, before they will get the feedback, commitment, and delivery needed to keep up with market change.

  4. Always be accountable for your own behavior. Leaders routinely expect others to stretch to do the work, but may not appear to apply the same stretch rule to their own behaviors. Team members carefully monitor and interpret what leaders say and do, so appearance is reality. Never reframe faults as virtues, just because of who you are.

  5. Get curious, not furious, when others disagree. Great leaders are not afraid to show emotion to make a point, but refrain from using it as a defense. Focus on learning the “what” and “why” of different points of view, and avoid any hint of interrogation in the questioning. You will learn much more by listening than by reacting with emotion.

  6. Hone an intelligent facilitator personality. Rather than driving a personally focused agenda, the best leader personality is to extract contributions from every qualified team member, especially ones who may be introverts or lack recognized status by others. Only at the end of the discussion does the leader step back into a contribute-and-decide role.

  7. Move from leading tasks to managing relationships. Some leaders are so focused on work, goals, and activities that they lose their personality for driving relationships and processes. This requires providing encouragement, support, and communicating that your job is to help make their work great. Coach others on how to get to the next level.

  8. Watch carefully the words you use. For a person in a leadership position, there is no trivial comment. An unvarnished, off-the-cuff remark by an aggressive leader can cause turmoil in others. Negative emotional behaviors trigger fight-or-flight responses and hostile environments, where predatory behaviors elicit prey reactions.

  9. Non-verbal communications speak louder than words. Negative emotions are literally hardwired into facial expressions: fear, anger, disgust, contempt – and these are easily read by team members. Avoid crossed arms, steely stares, eye rolls, and dismissive gestures. Practice the positive body language of eye contact, open stances, and smiling.

  10. 10. Lean back, and show appreciation and gratitude. Some leaders become so addicted to work that they are all about more work, all the time. They have trouble disengaging from business and celebrating the small successes of others, as well as their own. They need to work on a personality of being positive, present, and available all the time.

Thus leadership longevity, like business longevity, requires continuous effort and evolution as your company matures, and the market changes. Your behavior and personality as a leader can always be improved, no matter how much experience you have. It’s time for all us to start today, by listening to some trusted voices, to make the adjustments necessary for long-term survival.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 02/14/2017 ***

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