Friday, April 28, 2017

7 Key Steps From a Million Dollar Idea To a Business

million-dollar-ideaBased on my own experience as a startup investor, and feedback from like-minded friends, we all get pitches for at least ten startup ideas for every one new business plan. New business founders need to remember that investors fund business implementations, not ideas. In fact, investors will tell you that ideas are worth nothing, outside the context of a real team with a real plan.

In fact, you can find websites on the Internet offering thousands of new business ideas, including “Cool Business Ideas,” “Ideas Watch,” and “Business Opportunities.” Amazon offers a multitude of books with free ideas, such as “Small Business Ideas,” and “Business Ideas: 100 Starting Points to Make Money.” In addition, we all have friends who harbor a few million-dollar ideas.

What we are all looking for are proposals that clearly have bridged the gap between an idea in the clouds and an implementable and financially attractive plan, put together by a skilled and committed team. If you follow these recommended steps before approaching investors, you may indeed convince someone that your million dollar idea could lead to a billion dollar business:

  1. Gather some market sizing data from industry experts. Just because you and your friends are convinced that everyone will love your solution, that doesn’t mean there is a market. Of course, there are no guarantees, but if can find an independent sizing of the market opportunity, your job of convincing customers, and investors, will be much easier.

  2. Show evidence that your solution will create a viable business. Not all ideas have cost-effective solutions, or customers able and willing to pay real money. Thus you need to build a working prototype, and project total costs, a winning business model, and real growth opportunity. A good social cause doesn’t always imply a viable business.

  3. Test your assumptions in the target marketplace. With interactive social media and blogging, you have every opportunity to test and tune your idea before spending any real money. Sell your solution before you build it (that’s what crowd funding is all about). If you can’t build any momentum at this level, funding is unlikely to make a difference.

  4. Draft a short pitch for customers, and one for investors. Contrary to popular opinion, these are not the same. The first is for people who might buy your product, and the second is for people who might buy a chunk of your business. The first is good preparation for a customer website, while the second is a prelude to a full business plan.

  5. Formalize a company entity, website, and social media presence. With these, your idea is visibly and legally transformed into a business. For investors, these are required to prove execution ability, and for you they are evidence of business value and a new brand. I recommend you start with a Limited Liability Corp (LLC) and a winning name.

  6. Stake your territory with some intellectual property. Just like an idea has no value in the abstract, your solution has minimal value generically until you put a fence around it as a barrier to entry. Nothing defines innovation, uniqueness, and commitment ability like a patent, trade secret, or a trademark. Investors pay a premium for this execution evidence.

  7. Assemble key team members with the right skills and experience. Most investors agree that the right technology makes a product, but the right people make the business. An individual can have a good idea, but it takes a team to build a good business. The team needs to show marketing as well as financial skills, and the ability to communicate.

Remember, you only get one chance for a great first impression, with investors as well as customers. Both look for real evidence that you have something far past the idea stage, before they will consider contributing their hard-earned money. In addition, even you won’t know what you really have, or not, until you complete the key steps outlined above.

It’s a lot less painful to iterate at this level, until you get it right, before you ask for other people’s money or use all of your own to scale up. For all these reasons, I recommend that you limit your idea discussions to friends and potential customers on social media, and wait until you have a viable solution before broadcasting your funding needs to the investment community.

The only sure-fire approach to selling a million-dollar idea is to first build and sell a billion dollar business. Then every investor I know will line up to buy the idea without question.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/13/2017 ***

*** Estonian translation provided by Karolin Lohmus ***

*** Macedonian translation provided by Katerina Nestiv ***

*** Russian translation provided by Angelina Baeva ***

*** Spanish translation provided by Laura Mancini ***

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Could You Be A Business Coach, Or Do You Need One?

business-coachingWe all know some peers in business who could use some coaching to unleash their potential and optimize performance, but would you know how to do the job if they asked you for help? Most people find it easier and quicker to just do the work themselves, than to guide someone else through the mindset and process needed. The result is frustration and dissatisfaction all around.

In reality, even the best performers and leaders need some coaching from time to time, and everyone has the potential to be a coach, so it behooves all of us to learn how to do it right. In an effort to help myself, I read a new book on this topic, “The Master Coach,” by Gregg Thompson. As an expert on this subject, he has provided coach training for many Fortune 100 companies.

His approach, which I espouse, is first that every company needs to make coaching an integral part of their company culture at all levels, rather than rely on occasional outside consultants to come in and fix problems. The reality is that every professional in every organization at every level needs to understand what coaching means, and how to live and build a coaching culture:

  1. Nurture the spirit of sharing in every team member. People who make great coaches, as well as the best performers, are ones who are willing to liberally share their time, attention, and energy with others on the team. Self-centered members need coaching.

  2. Partner with people who see the best in everyone. Coaches need the ability to look past the shortcomings of others to focus on their positive qualities, even if deeply hidden. Team members who are most often negative or critical of others drag everyone down.

  3. Select team members who have high self-esteem. The best team members feel good enough about themselves to not use the coaching relationship to feed their ego. Healthy self-esteem rests on the principles of integrity, authenticity, and self-reliance.

  4. Only add team members that are emotionally mature. People who are the most productive, and also make good coaches, are keenly self-aware, understand how to manage their emotions, and are able to create sustainable relationships with others.

  5. Look for people who are interpersonally courageous. These team members will boldly confront peers and those they coach, and seek truth in all conversations. People who are hesitant to engage or disagree, need coaching to bring out their potential.

  6. Coaches need uncommon empathy and compassion. They need to understand the struggle and pain that often accompanies personal learning and change, most notably from personal experience. Those who refuse to change rarely relate well with others.

  7. Life-long learners make great coaches. These have voracious appetites for new knowledge and self-development, and can inspire other team members to look outside the box for new levels of performance and satisfaction. Inspiration is the best teacher.

  8. Team members need flexibility and resilience. In the rapidly changing world of business today, everyone needs to be strong enough to bend. Both coaches and your business need to weather the setbacks and conflicts inherent to progress and success.

  9. Don’t allow judgmental voices to stymie progress. Good coaches and business leaders have an accepting nature, and overcome their human tendency to be judgmental. They speak from the heart, but rely on data and results in making decisions and strategy.

  10. Favor people with a perpetually optimistic bias. Coaches can only help if they have the power to make people see a tomorrow that is better than today. Businesses can only succeed if they can make customers see a win-win situation by working together.

Once coaching is a part of your company culture, it’s not so hard to accept coaching from your peers, or for managers and executives to ask for coaching from people at other levels in the organization.

Only then will people see that coaching ability or being coached is not about credentials, job titles, or what you do, but is more about who you are. Are you the person today that you would want as a coach?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/11/2017 ***

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Monday, April 17, 2017

How Future-Proof is Your Company (and Your Career)?

technology-future-proofWhen you are growing a business, it’s hard to find time to focus on anything but the crises of today. Yet if you don’t spend some resources preparing for the changes in the marketplace we already know about, there may be no tomorrow for your business. In my years of mentoring and advising business leaders, I find that real planning for the future always gets the short shrift.

Of course, nobody really knows all of what tomorrow will bring, in terms of globalization, digital technology, or demographic shifts, but most experts agree that certain elements are already obvious, and things must be done today to get your business ready in time. I found some key ones in a new book, “The Future-Proof Workplace,” by Linda Sharkey, PhD, and Morag Barrett.

These authors, who both have extensive credentials as executive coaches with top tier business leaders around the world, detail six factors of change that every business needs to address today to keep ahead of the wave. I believe these factors are key to the future success of every new startup, as well as every mature company:

  1. Leadership must be values-based and people focused. The command and control leadership of the past is proving to be too inflexible, devoid of values, and not empathic to people issues – customers, employees, and partners. Check your leadership style today, and expedite the transition to one of engagement, collaboration, and adaptability.

  2. Company culture drives decision making and process. Business culture now means much more than uniformity and conformity. It now means shared values and true empowerment, which is the new key to employee productivity and profitability. A healthy culture, with living values, is essential today for growth, adaptability, and innovation

  3. Organizing principles must include social impact. Yesterday’s principles were good verbiage about profit and shareholder value, but ignored in day-to-day operation. Today, a compelling and impactful purpose, around which teams can get excited, is key. Team members want to contribute to the greater good and have pride in everything they do.

  4. Relationships in all directions are critical to success. Historically, organizations played down the role of work-based personal relationships. Google was one of the first to learn that good relationships created high-performing teams. Due to social media and the Internet, these relationships now need to extend to customers, partners, and suppliers.

  5. Diversity and inclusion bring more value than ever. Most companies never realize how much damage can be done by human unconscious bias. Only by embracing inclusion and creating a truly level playing field for all, is a company able to connect and adapt to all the diversity in today’s global marketplace, and keep up with the changes.

  6. Data technology facilitates more fact-based decisions. Technology is now much more than speeding communication and automating work processes. Technology allows forward-looking predictions of outcomes, and critical decision-making assistance through artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), medical diagnostics, and data analytics.

It’s not enough to merely talk about these changes. Every company needs to track their progress and measure results – establish metrics to understand how much and how effectively their workplaces are being transformed and compete. From a career standpoint, leaders and employees need to assess their own progress to “future-proof” their career.

It is evident that the pace of change is not slowing down, and will continue to accelerate into the future. This means that both you and your company need to be more agile, more open and willing to learn, and rethink your focus on the future versus the present. Sometimes you have to make waves today to balance and survive the waves already starting to crash around you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/04/2017 ***

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Monday, April 10, 2017

8 Keys To Moving An Idea From A Product To A Business

Puppets-Bill-Gates-Steve-BallmerMany aspiring entrepreneurs are jealous of inventors, thinking that new inventions are the key to new ventures. In my experience advising startups, I have found that the invention is usually the easy part, and the hard part is turning the invention into a business. It takes a special kind of person to turn an idea into a business, with strengths often opposite those of an inventor.

In my view, that’s why “two heads are better than one” in starting a business – one with the passion and skill to create an innovative solution, and the other with a business savvy, customer focus, and the ability to build and lead a team. If you think you are one of those rare few who can wear both hats, check your fit against the following requirements:

  1. Perseverance in business trumps solution excellence. Even the businesses you might think of as overnight successes, including Facebook and Google, took six years or more to get there. Too many inventors I know spend their six years or more perfecting the product, and give up in desperation if the business doesn’t then take off overnight.

  2. Don’t expect the world will find you due to your invention. Good business people are pragmatists. They realize how hard it is to even get anyone’s attention in the world of the Internet today, with over 100,000 new businesses starting every day worldwide. They keep their priority on communication, marketing, and an innovative business model.

  3. Building a business is a team effort. You may be able to invent a product alone, but a business requires partnerships, multiple disciplines, and loyal customers. Nothing about a business is rocket science. It requires relationships, trial and error, and constant change to keep up with economic challenges, culture evolution, and new competitors.

  4. You need a tough skin and resilience to survive and prosper. Inventors and creative people often have large egos, and hate to fail or be criticized. On the business side, you can’t learn and pivot without feedback, both positive and negative, from customers and stakeholders. The best entrepreneurs wear their failures like badges of courage.

  5. Selling yourself is more important than selling your solution. Businesses are driven by your team, investors, partners, and most of all, customers. They all need to see you as a trusted associate who shares the same values, more than an expert who can dream up solutions. As a new business, you are the brand before you have a product.

  6. Repeatable processes or required to scale a business. No matter how innovative your invention, it won’t sustain a business unless it can be built and sold in volume by ordinary people in multiple environments. Inventors don’t always appreciate documented processes, quality controls, and metrics. The business has to evolve as it scales.

  7. Ability to accept responsibility for factors outside your control. It’s easy to blame product setbacks or the economy, lack of investors, team failures, or customer apathy, but blame doesn’t fix anything. Good business people learn from every setback and find strength and satisfaction from overcoming or dodging challenges they didn’t create.

  8. Enjoy the journey as well as the destination. If your vision as an inventor is that glorious product, or the gold at the end of the rainbow, it may be short-lived or a long time coming. Building a business is a long-term process of “making meaning,” helping people one-by-one, and overcoming obstacles that you never dreamed of when you started.

There is no doubt that an invention is a good start in business, but it’s only the beginning. If you define invention success as a large constituency using the solution, or large financial returns, that requires a sustainable business. In your new venture, make sure you have with all the right attributes. That usually means surrounding yourself with the right people, rather than trying to stuff it all into one head.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/27/2017 ***

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Friday, April 7, 2017

5 Steps On The Success Path For Every Small Business

success-small-businessEntrepreneurs always work hard to create an innovative product or service, but often count on standard seller marketing for sales. But the reality is that sellers are no longer in charge of the customer buying process. Reports suggest that 90% of today’s shoppers skip marketing pitches, to research online before they buy, and over 50% check user reviews before making a decision.

The Internet and smartphones have changed everything. Kristin Zhivago, in her classic book “Roadmap to Revenue,” makes the point that the selling system is broken, since sellers no longer sell the way customers are buying. Here is my rendition of how her roadmap can keep you on the right track, like Xerox Data Solutions, with a “customer-centric” approach rather than a “company-centric” approach:

  1. Find out what customers want and how they want to buy it. The best way to do this is with real customer interviews. Customers will tell you things when being interviewed, such as their need to improve operational workflow, which they will never tell you while you are selling to them. She recommends phone interviews by you, by appointment, with structured questions, and you document results.

  2. Debate and adjust your offering to better match what customers want. Distribute an Executive Summary and Recommendations report, as well as transcripts of your interviews, to all the key players in your company. Schedule and run the necessary sessions to update strategic product offerings, processes, and marketing programs.

  3. Align your business model to how your customers want to buy. Don’t start from how you want to sell. Start with a new understanding of real customer solutions needs, their search process in finding you (referral, website, social media), and most desired payment model, like one-time payment versus subscription, or lease versus purchase.

  4. Integrate the customer buying process into your support operation. Decide which parts can be automated, people resources required, and professional support services required. All of these processes should be documented, and should explicitly include the customer buying process and perceptions as the base. Their perception is your reality.

  5. Build and deploy a revenue growth action plan. This is your rollout of the new product offerings, business model updates, and process changes to map to the new understanding of the customer buying process. Include planned measurements and metrics. Start where the customer wants you to be and work backwards.

As you start making the shift to customer-centric, if your team doesn’t “get it,” then you haven’t communicated effectively. Communicating change is always hard, so pay careful attention to the central message, repetition opportunities, and “walking the talk.” People are quick to make things up to fill a vacuum, and rumors or myths die hard.

Make sure your own motivation is strong, and don’t let anyone view these efforts as a one-time push. It has to be managed and sold internally as a culture change, requiring everyone’s help. Experience has shown that the best way to change a process is to set up the new way of doing things, then flip the switch (flip method), rather than making incremental changes (drip method).

Every business needs to take advantage of the new tools and technologies which can assist you in making this shift in strategy and measuring effectiveness. These range from basic search engine optimization (SEO) tracking, like Google Analytics, to a new generation of marketing platforms, like HubSpot.

There are multiple benefits to both you and your customer. The customers will get what they want, when they want it, and you will see more revenue, greater brand loyalty, real relationships, and a competitive edge. That sounds to me like the recipe for business success that every entrepreneur and investor is looking for.

Marty Zwilling

*** Published by Xerox Small Business Solutions on 04/06/2017 ***

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

7 New Business Realities Challenging Every Business

group-internationalEven small business have a global reach these days, thanks to the Internet. Thus every entrepreneur and business owner needs to see their market in that context, understanding the global forces that will impact them sooner or later. This impact can be positive, as a huge untapped opportunity, or negative as a global competitor invades your local space.

According to Small Business Trends, over half of the existing small businesses in the US already have international customers. I can assure you that percentages of foreign companies looking here is even higher. It’s more than competing with giants like Amazon and Alibaba, your business in downtown mid-America can easily be crushed by a similar company on the Internet in Europe.

In this fast-paced world economy, it’s time for every entrepreneur to pay attention every day to some key forces in the world, outside of their own business, which can present huge challenges, as well as huge opportunities. These include the following:

  1. New generation gaps and demographics emerge. The needs of Millennials (Gen Y) and the new Gen Z are changing the needs as well as the culture. Luxury goods can easily flow into or out of emerging nations, changing cost factors as well as demand. Every business, small or large, needs to focus on agility and their ability to innovate.

  2. Technological innovations disrupt stable markets. I was just recently reading about the emergence of passenger drones for people commuting in China. This has the potential for disrupting every auto-related business anywhere in the world. This kind of disruption used to happen only a few times per century, but now it is commonplace

  3. Customer and employee power trumps stakeholders. In the new world economy, the power is shifting in many parts of the world from shareholders and owners to customers and employees. New business models may be required, new team benefits considered, and a new focus on customer relationships implemented. Use two-way communication.

  4. World economic and political connections evolve. No nation or local business is an island. Today’s hyper connected people through social media, and linked economies through global finance cause even tiny country woes to ripple quickly through businesses around the world. These ripples can be opportunities or catastrophes for any business.

  5. Sustainability and environments become critical. Global warming and renewable resource considerations are major opportunities for new business, or forces which can kill your existing business. Going green is not an automatic qualification for funding and growth, but a focus or sharing of your profits can easily be a competitive advantage.

  6. Cultural movements and a societal focus emerges. Eliminating poverty, improving education, and financial literacy are issues that can no longer be separated from business. Culture changes can increase or decrease demand for existing products and services quickly. Interact on social media to sense trend impacts on your business early.

  7. Translation and localization become highly valuable. We now more often see “reverse innovation,” where customers in developing countries adopt new technologies first. Examples include smart card adoption where there were no credit cards, and cell phone coverage emerging before land lines. Translation costs go down every day.

To address any or all of these on a timely basis, you need a team that is flexible, innovative, and resilient. Such a team can best be built from the start – it’s hard to retrofit the required culture into a company staffed by people are not looking to change, and remember how things have always been done. The team has to really believe in listening to the customer, and responding quickly.

Smart business leaders accept these challenges as the new facts of life, and are energized by the potential, rather than overwhelmed by the implications. They envision their business as part of the global stage, even if their focus is only on a niche business. How familiar are you with the global implications around your business, and how ready is your team to playing on that stage?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/21/2017 ***

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